Review for Mundaun
It certainly makes for a memorable gaming experience when you can pause at almost any time and it feels like you’re looking at an eerie pencil sketch. The solo creation of indie Swiss developer Michel Ziegler, Mundaun features a unique greyscale aesthetic that blends hand-drawn and computer-generated elements in a way that isn’t exactly beautiful in the traditional sense, but is so dense and raw that it serves the atmosphere perfectly. The same kind of treatment has been given to all aspects of this haunting mountain trek, resulting in a first-person 3D survival horror adventure that oozes unease out of every crevice.
You play as a young man named Curdin, who is on the tail end of a bus journey to the titular Swiss town after receiving word of his grandfather’s demise in a barn fire. It doesn’t take long for things to turn topsy-turvy once you arrive, as you are immediately swept up in a curse inflicted upon the surrounding valley by a mysterious old man, turning your hand to wood in the process. There’s a dark past to unearth here, and if you’re to prevent an even darker future, you’ll need to figure out who the mysterious old man is and put a stop to his evil deeds. In doing so, you will be faced with the fact that your grandfather could be somewhat complicit in the unnatural goings-on, and that nothing in Mundaun is quite what it seems. In order to save the valley from the monsters that have appeared, and to free your grandfather’s soul from the old man’s grasp, you will have to collect items, solve puzzles, and deal with enemies as you make your way to the top of the mountain.
The important backstory of Curdin’s grandfather is shown mostly through conversations and flashbacks, with cutscenes usually allowing you to continue walking around freely as they unfold. You will meet several other characters in your travels, each with their own unique quirks and interesting dialogue. There’s a strange little girl who doesn’t speak and sends you clues in the form of drawings, a very nervous priest, and an old veteran who seems to think he’s still at war, all of whom are connected to the mysterious events in the valley. The dialogue is fully voiced in the obscure language of Romansh with English subtitles, and I really appreciated the extra effort to immerse players as fully into the setting as possible.
While there are elements from other genres here, Mundaun is primarily an adventure game. The setting is quite large, though rather than being available to explore all at once, it’s segmented into smaller traversable areas. That’s good, because you will benefit from looking into every little nook and cranny you can find, as they may contain items you need. Most of your time will be spent in the open air outdoors, but there is also a whole underground maze of tunnels leading to a bunker, and a cave whose surroundings become more twisted and strange as you delve deeper. The old man’s influence can be felt in many places, as the architecture will sometimes warp in response to your presence, opening a way forward or even enveloping you and transporting you somewhere else entirely.
The controls are standard for a first-person game: WASD to move and mouse to look, with an inventory and journal quickly called up by their respective keystrokes, while another cycles through your equippable items, including a pair of binoculars that can be used to zoom in on distant views whenever you want once you’ve discovered them. You can crouch and jump, but you won’t be doing the latter very often. You will be sprinting a lot, though, as you are sometimes required to travel across large areas on foot. Doing so all the time would be a massive chore, but thankfully you can borrow your grandfather’s old Muvel (a hay loader) to drive around freely in many places. Some houses contain Muvel posters, which when stared at will conveniently spawn the vehicle right outside, just in case you left it elsewhere, and its lights will flash if you are away from it so that you can easily find it again.
Mundaun goes to great lengths to make every part of the interface feel organic, other than the somewhat invasive tutorial tips (though I like to think of them as the main character giving himself reminders). Your inventory is found in your rucksack, in which you can examine certain objects you have picked up, even rotating and zooming in on specific parts of them. I found the lack of item names to be a slight problem when in possession of different keys or an obscure and supernatural object, however, since sometimes I would forget what something was and its intended use. Curdin’s journal is used to keep tabs on your current objectives whilst also acting as a place to store the documents, sketches, and other scraps of paper you acquire along the way.
Completing objectives will usually involve travelling somewhere, finding an item, or solving a puzzle. You will always have goals to work towards, some as simple as locating a character to talk to, whilst others can be a bit broader. One section has you gathering hay for the Muvel, and another sees you trying to collect honey for the veteran holed up in his bunker whilst finding a way to survive the relentless bee attacks. In doing such things, you will be rewarded with the means to overcome obstacles that were previously impenetrable, and often dialogue and flashback sequences are triggered when passing milestones. For example, in exchange for gathering the soldier’s provisions for him (and the disembodied yet talkative head of his old pet goat) and navigating through his maze of tunnels, he will divulge past events that are relevant to your predicament, whilst also letting you use his cannon to blast away the snow that was blocking the way up the mountain.
The puzzles are quite varied, ranging from simple inventory use to interpreting the mysterious little girl’s drawings to using the positions of ghostly apparitions to find your way through a maze. Often you will find yourself referring to your journal for clues you have picked up to break codes or to investigate a certain symbol. A particularly fascinating section had me hindered by a broken bridge that was somehow related to a partially erased painting of it. I had no trouble figuring out how to solve these puzzles, which is not a boast of my intelligence but rather suggests that experienced adventure gamers will likely find them quite easy. Having said that, I did find them interesting and satisfying for the most part. There was only one particular part of the game where I found myself wandering around aimlessly and blocked off from progressing for a long time, before realising I had to examine something in my inventory without any indication it might be needed. This frustrated me, as it was not a puzzle so much as an invisible barrier with an unclear way to pass. Fortunately I had no issues with the rest of the challenges.
Often the main obstacle in your way will be Mundaun’s enemies, but combat is mostly optional if you’re savvy and sneaky enough. There are also three difficulty settings to choose from, and I found that on the easiest one the enemies were less threatening and allowed me to focus more on the adventure aspects whilst still providing some change-of-pace challenge. You can find pitchforks to use as weapons, holding left-click to charge your attack and releasing to stab, but they break after a while. You will eventually obtain a rifle, which is a far more efficient way to kill opponents should you feel the need to do so. Holding right-click aims the rifle and left-click fires it, but reloading can take a while so you’d better hit what you’re aiming at. There are only a handful of enemy types here, and some can be handled in more creative ways than just basic fighting. For instance, humanoid creatures made from hay leave a trail of flammable detritus on the ground, leaving them vulnerable to fire, though matches are finite so you can’t rely on this method all of the time. I appreciated the inclusion of these methods as it served as a more adventure-gamey way to deal with threats.
If you have the necessary ammo and equipment, sometimes it is easier to clear out an area so you can move around freely, either by shooting your foes, stabbing them, burning them, or my preferred method of running them down with that aforementioned hay loader. Taking damage in Mundaun is akin to most modern shooters, as your vision becomes degraded and the effect becomes more intense the more often you’re hit, though it will gradually wear off if you avoid damage for long enough. Suffer too much, however, and you’ll die, which will automatically restore you at one of the regularly occurring checkpoints, so you are not likely to lose a lot of progress. The only times I actually died were from accidentally strolling off of cliffs (this is not the game’s fault; I just took some chances on steep slopes that I shouldn’t have), though anyone playing on harder difficulty settings will surely find more resistance.
Some enemies cannot be killed, so if you encounter one of these or have no means of attack available, you’ll have to find a way around them. Enemies seem to patrol specific areas, and their vision is based on line of sight. If spotted by one with a projectile weapon, you can try to get away, zigzagging as their shots whistle past your head, while those that aren’t armed aren’t likely to give chase for very long before giving up. Crouching makes you move quieter so it’s essential if opponents are nearby. Sneaking can be made more difficult by the fact that if you get too close to an enemy, Curdin becomes scared and his movement is slowed. I didn’t find the creatures very scary personally (save for one in particular), but their appearance feels so thematically grounded in the rural world of Mundaun that I wouldn’t change a thing about them. From the tortured faces of the monsters made of hay to the krampus-like yeti, they are all based on aspects or folklore from the surrounding locale.
As in a roleplaying game, certain stats can be boosted by items you find throughout, which is a good incentive to be thorough in your exploration. Food boosts your max health, gun manuals improve your ability to use a rifle, and coffee can enhance your resistance to the fear effect that enemies cause. The first two are fully consumed upon use, but brewing and drinking coffee is a process that requires coffee grounds, a mug, and a pot. You must find somewhere to fill the pot with water, then heat it up in a very old-fashioned stove with wood and matches. It’s strange that coffee is the one thing that requires so much effort to prepare when other stat boosts are simply consumed upon pick-up, but the process isn’t as tedious as it sounds and serves to immerse you even more due to the archaic method in which you brew it.
Throughout all this, Mundaun’s monochromatic presentation is a thing to behold. The pencil-sketched look is certainly unique, and the only minor issue with it is that important objects can be sometimes hard to spot. Interactive hotspots will glow in and out faintly, and items will hover slightly when you go right up to them, though. The attention to detail in each location is extremely impressive. Character models and animations all seem just a bit off, but this is surely by design as nothing about the game feels natural. Most houses are decorated with art pieces or framed photographs that will either creep you out or possibly foreshadow revelations of things yet to come. One brilliant touch is that if you look at a picture long enough, the camera will zoom in and you will hear sounds like laughter if the photo is one of children playing, or the noise of manual labour if it depicts a construction project.
Audio furthers immersion in other ways as well, with the chirping of insects and rainfall making you feel almost at home in the less threatening parts of the game, whilst the sound of thunder and enemy gunshots are extremely loud and genuinely startled me a couple of times. The soundtrack is made up of string sections and percussive or choral pieces, whilst radio stations in your Muvel will play folk music in styles that feel appropriate to the setting, such as country dance tunes played with strings, accordions, and small choirs.
There isn’t really much to criticise about Mundaun – besides the somewhat secret and totally optional sledding section where you race the little girl by steering through a series of checkpoints. At first this was a nice break from the horrors of the game, but it quickly became frustrating due to the stiff controls and a narrow bottleneck that always sent me spinning out no matter what I did. When I finally prevailed, I didn’t even get anything for it. It may have contributed towards the ending I got, however. At least some of the endings appear to be determined by certain dialogue choices you can make throughout the game, though there may indeed be other contributing factors. I can’t really tell if the outcome I got was good or bad, but I suppose that’s just the ambiguous nature of Mundaun.
The five or so hours I spent playing wasn’t terrifying by any means (not most of the time, anyway), but definitely made me feel uneasy in the best way. As someone who loves to be scared by video games but has lost some of his nerve over time, I found Mundaun to be a breath of fresh air in the way it paces its horror but never allows you to truly feel safe. Not only is it an impressive achievement for a solo developer, but with its interesting story, fantastic presentation and well-thought-out blend of genres with varying degrees of difficulty, this game is an essential play for fans of horror adventures.