When I was little, I enjoyed stories that featured mice as the main characters. The Secret of NIMH is one of my favorites, telling the story Mrs. Frisby’s attempt to find medicine for her sickly son. Runaway Ralph is another fun one about Ralph S. Mouse and his adventures at a children’s summer camp. And who can forget Stuart Little? It’s fun to see how these diminutive characters interacted with the larger world and how they carve out a civilizations of their own in a world occupied by dangerous humans. So, it made a good deal of sense that I would enjoy playing Moss, a PlayStation VR fantasy adventure game developed by Polyarc. The adorable love child between Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux and David Petersen’s Mouse Guard, Moss is a charming adventure story starring one of the most endearing main characters to grace the PlayStation library.
Quill is a young mouse with an adventurous spirit. Born with an explorer’s heart, she traverses the nooks and crannies of the Kingdom, a land that was once home to her proud race until it was usurped by the evil Sarffog, a fire breathing serpent. While exploring a forest, Quill comes in contact with a mysterious crystal that forges a connection between her and the game’s second major character: you. In the “real world,” you are an unnamed scholar reading a book about Quill’s adventures inside what looks to be the Great Hall found within the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The crystal she picked up allows the two of you to communicate with each other, forging a powerful partnership that bolster’s Quill’s newfound destiny to defeat Sarffog. When her grandfather discovers this connection, he panics and runs off to battle the monster instead to spare her, only to go missing not long after. It’s up to Quill and the Reader to hike across the landscape shaped by mice and men in search for her grandfather.
Quill’s journey takes place across an unknown continent that serves as a home for her fellow anthropomorphised woodland creatures. The journey to Sarffog’s castle is made up with a series of screens set within different areas of the continent. These areas, such as forest, an underground temple, and the city streets of the once proud capitol, feature puzzles and other navigational obstacles that make going forward a complicated affair. You’ll control Quill directly across platforms and crumbled structures while fighting off mechanized bug-like monsters intent on killing her. For the most part, though, you’ll help Quill to traverse platforms and such which are too big for her to lift, push and pull. This is where you, The Reader, come in. Your presence in Quill’s story is limited to a floating bubble of energy that can grab onto stone platforms and other mechanical objects to help Quill advance forward. The environmental puzzle design is fun and while many of the contraptions aren’t particularly difficult to solve, you’ll put some thought into making them work, especially as you juggle moving platforms while trying to time Quill’s jumps and the like.
In combat, which is mostly hack and slash, your bubble can take control of the mechanical bug creatures sent to kill her. By doing so, you can use their innate abilities to help activate weighted surface pads, fire projectiles at far away activators, and destroy weak masonry. Should Quill get hurt, either by the environment or during battle, your mystical sphere can heal wounds simply by enveloping Quill and holding down a button on the controller until she is at full health. Over the course of the game, you and Quill develop a special symbiotic relationship, one that is further enriched given how freaking adorable she is.
What I love most about leading Quill through the different landscapes is how good the game is at interpreting scale. It’s easy to forget that you’re a tiny creature in an unknown part of an Earth-like world because of how well Quill’s kingdom is realized. The medieval architecture of her home, be it the country village or the ruins that mark her journey towards the king’s castle, is similar to our own, giving Moss some nice, down to earth familiarity. However, there are great and subtle instances that snap you back into the reality, that the entire game is set inside a miniature world. Take her early adventures in the forest, for example. As you navigate the crumbled ruins of some temple erected in honor of Quill’s forbears, you’ll see deer in the background as they lap up water from the surrounding lake. To Quill, the lake is as vast as an ocean. That bronze bridge you had Quill cross? It’s actually the remains of a rusted sword from some ancient battle. There are more than enough hints to suggest that humans once occupied this world but all that’s left in their memory are the iron and leather carcasses of worn armor, chipped swords, busted helmets, and statues all but worn to dust. I really like how the game naturally calls the player’s attention to the larger world because it doesn’t force my attention in “HEY, LOOK! SEE? THERE’S A BIGGER PICTURE HERE! WHOA, LOOK AT THAT!” sort of way. It doesn’t beg for my attention. I would get so focused on Quill’s world that I was constantly surprised to find it taking place in mine.
Moss’ most brightest star, though, is Quill herself. (Warning: this is the part of the review where I turn into a fleshy mess of squeals and cooing.) I fell in love with the character the moment she came on screen. Polyarc’s animators are masters at creating a digital mouse who expresses herself in a manner that’s both human and animal-like in the clearest and cutest way possible. I adore everything she does; the way she lifts and rolls herself across low walls, how she clambers across cliff faces, the shake of her head “no” when you try to leap off said cliff face if there is an obstacle in her way, how she uses ASL to communicate with the player (WHICH THE ANIMATION FOR IS SO CUTE) and I totally dig her eagerness for a high five after getting through tricky puzzle spots. But what I love most of all is giving her head scratches. HEAD SCRATCHES! Whenever you interact with Quill outside of battle, moving the energy bubble across her head as you hold down the controller triggers, simulates you petting her on the head, her eyes closed as she leans into the affectionate action. When you’re finished, she rubs the back of her hand with her tiny pink mousey hand in a way that sends me into a blubbering mess of delighted, high pitch squealing. Quill’s animations are superb and shows an attention to detail and strict study of how real mice move and behave. Either that or I’d like to believe that Polyarc put a mocap suit on a mouse.
There is nothing about Moss that I didn’t like. Well, actually, that’s not entirely true. I couldn’t muster much interest in the story because of how frequently it pulled me out of the action. Once you’ve completed an area, you are taken out of Quill’s world and sent back to Not Hogwarts (as if this were The Neverending Story) to turn pages of Quill’s book in time with the narrator’s expedition dump that explains her transition from one area to the next. I found this constant hopping back and forth a little annoying because it was taking me away from a place I didn’t want to stop exploring. I wanted to see and not be told. The side effect of all this was a loosened grasp on the tale to the point where I sometimes forgot why I was on the journey with Quill. There’s a character she meets who always talks in a way that suggests it has some darker, ulterior motive for helping Quill reach the king’s castle. It then abruptly disappears at the start of the third act and never gets brought up again. All this leads towards a rushed and undeserved cliffhanger which suggested to me the possibility that Polyarc didn’t know how to end the story. I’m upset about this because I wasn’t ready to walk away and I am concerned that this could be the last we see of Quill. So buy this game, people, and give me the sequel I deserve! I do not want this to be the last I see of this cute, plucky mouse!
Moss is one of the most fun and imaginative games available for the PlayStation VR. Even the VR design, which plays with distance and depth of field, is really cool. Although the story was mostly lacking, the world building is fantastic and real, the puzzles offer enough challenge for this age-friendly game, and above all, you’ll be enchanted by Quill and want to hug her and be her best friend forever and ever. A game that people of all ages can enjoy, Moss provides a feel good adventure reminiscent of cozy fantasy fiction like The Princess Bride, The Last Unicorn, and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.