Hidden Gem: Moss

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Polyarc’s 2018 adventure remains one of PS VR’s most compelling experiences. Seemingly undervalued by the masses, it is worthy of retrospective discussion.

Simply put, Moss is wonderful. Calling it a ‘hidden gem’ might be a stretch (its copious awards nominations through 2019 say otherwise) but outside of high release-window sales, the game’s influence has undeniably dwindled. This makes sense as a single-player experience, of course, as it is in their nature to come and go. But with PSNProfiles reporting not even 10,000 registered players of the title (of five million PS VR owners), it seems a shame that more did not invest in the virtual-reality gem.

Moss centres on Quill, who has the fate of a kingdom thrust into her tiny mouse hands when she is “chosen” by the player and guided to defeat a great, terrorising beast. Evidently, the game repackages narrative elements that are common for its genre, but it does so well — there’s a sense of authenticity in the storytelling that makes it easy to invest. The player can’t help but be swept up in its fantastical drama, aided by shimmering, award-winning music and sound design as well as the very nature of virtual-reality; it isn’t difficult to feel a part of the world, and the passionate and deliberate narrative is one contributor in a sea of immersive attributes. Its developers, clearly, are highly in-tune with the project.

Indeed, the game is also very gorgeous. The lush environments of the title’s forest fantasy world are stunningly realised, and a treat for the eyes. I love the tableaus that Polyarc provides, from quaint wooden villages to towering mountainscapes to crumbling castle architecture — all of it is wonderful to look at, infected by the developer’s clear passion for the game’s world. The use of lighting is also excellent, aiding the hypnotic audio to provide clearly definable (visually and otherwise) environments throughout the experience. Each new setting feels, in a way, like its own set-piece, and, for a fantasy-inspired romp, this works wonders for its sense of identity as well as for player discovery. The final moments are, easily, some of the prettiest and most viscerally engaging instances of gameplay I’ve experienced in the last few years, thanks to the devs’ utterly capable utilisation of the user’s apparatus. The title works to convince of the hardware’s viability as something that could offer boundary-pushing experiences rather than gimmicky bursts of fun — in this sense, Sony’s exclusive securing of Moss was either very clever or very serendipitous. Regardless, it is highly engaging.

The gameplay itself is mostly pretty good; Quill feels slick to control, and the base combat is surprisingly pleasing. The environmental puzzle sections which make up a bulk of the affair are also compelling and smart, and give the player an enjoyable amount of agency over the protagonist’s surroundings to poke, prod and influence world components in a hands-on way. The puzzles themselves contribute greatly to the sense of adventure that permeates through Moss’s many facets so effectively, too, even if the good-in-concept enemy-control idea gets mechanically janky in certain, less visually straightforward environments. In general, there’s a great tonal sense of exploration brought out through the title’s approach to gameplay. It works quite well.

It is, though, unfortunately to some, on the short side. It took me probably four or five hours to beat, the game acting as the first part to a diptych or a series. This isn’t such an issue, as what’s delivered is a tight, self-contained adventure with pacing attuned to its length. There are also plenty of collectibles (and, of course, a platinum trophy) for those who wish to squeeze more out of the core game, as well as free (!) story DLC released in June of last year to add to the already enjoyable narrative. The potentially brief experience could lead Moss to feel like a tech demo more than an artistically viable product, but this is a conception combated far enough in execution. It isn’t really an issue.

Not only is the 2018 title pioneering (both technically and emotively) for single-player VR experiences, but it’s also a wonderful, more quaint entry into Sony’s star-studded catalogue of great exclusives. Polyarc could well be a serviceable part of PlayStation’s first-party ecosystem if the technology takes off further and the company decides to take such a leap. Who knows? I wonder often, in however many years’ time, if we’ll look back from a commercial industry that more deeply favours VR. If the hardware becomes increasingly affordable and integrated, and more pushes are made within its cultural influence to cement titles like this one as possessing original value, Moss will certainly be looked back on as a favourable stepping-stone. For now, though, it remains a hidden gem to numerous players, even, bafflingly, many owners of the necessary hardware. It is worthy of gamers’ time, and I hope that the property and/or its developer’s sensibilities are expanded upon in the future — in whatever shape this might take.

Moss is available now on PlayStation 4.

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Digital Culture Editor 2020/21, Film and History student.

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