Played on Xbox Series X
Mundaun is very unusual. It is not often that you come across a game from a one man studio who has actually taught himself to draw with pencils and lumps of graphite in order to bring his vision to life. Since starting work in 2014, it has taken Swiss programmer and illustrator Michel Ziegler of Hidden Fields over 6 years to create what is hopefully the first of many masterpieces.
Using real life locations as his inspiration the game plays out in a town situated high above the clouds in the mountains of Switzerland, a place called Mundaun.
We begin by winding up a mountain road in a bus as our hero finds himself returning to the place where he grew up with his grandfather, after the old man’s sudden death in rather mysterious circumstances. The local Priest has written to say that he is not needed at the funeral, but he returns anyway to discover a malevolent force has a grip on the valley and this begins a very unique survival horror experience. As we try and work out not only what is going on but why and how this came about many years before it becomes clear that this story is by no means a remake of Heidi.
With such a striking hand drawn design aesthetic, I have never played another game quite like this. The use of the black and white medium may sound like a mistake here but strangely this use of light and shade actually seems to absorb the environment and draw it more closely around you as the game progresses.
The gameplay obviously takes place at high altitude which means that both snow and clouds are almost ever present in some form or other and you really get the impression from the whiteness of the design that cold, damp or frozen water is all round you. Darker locations such as a labyrinthine military bunker and the natural rock formations inside a mountain cavern amplify the feelings of claustrophobia that the player is experiencing due to the the polar extremes of light and dark used.
Real world sound recordings have been incorporated into the world design that were recorded high up in the mountains of Switzerland and the sound design in general as relayed by my new Xbox Wireless Headset was second to none. Feelings of unease, caution and heightened awareness were ably created by combining these realistic sound affects with choral singing and chanting. The hairs on the back of my neck have stood up thinking about it hours after I heard it.
In fact, this game must have quite a phycological impact as after several hours of play I went to sleep and had my first ever black and white sketchbook dream, and before you ask – it was nothing like an A-ha video from the mid 80’s.
Gameplay is generally made up of exploration in order to uncover secrets and resources along with puzzle solving in order to get you through to the next section. As always though, the real challenge comes when the light fades from the day.
When night falls things truly get dark around these parts and you will be called upon to defend yourself from various foes ranging from walking scarecrows to levitating monks and an army of frozen soldiers. The game has a specially designed ‘Fear System’ that comes to light when you have been spotted by these adversaries, which physically slows you down for a set period of time.
This effect can result directly in your death and a ‘fin’ caption so learning how to buff your response to this is an early must. The rifle which you can get halfway through the story can really help here but be warned, it is not the easiest thing to aim when you first receive it. My main tip for players would be to get a Lantern as soon as you can, traversing night-time landscapes in a black and white environment can be a bit tricky.
The puzzling on offer here seems to strike just the right balance – they take a little time to work out, but never become confusing, frustrating or worse – rage inducing. The game controls themselves are tight, responsive and easy to use and there is some really nice detail too. The rumble from the Ski lift as it crosses underneath one of the supports has to be one of the most unnerving parts of any ride on one of them. Not many adventures allow you to ride Ski Lifts, go sledge around an enemy army or drive a hay collecting vehicle up a mountain road, which in turn must make this one of the most unusual indie titles to be released on Xbox this year.
On a negative note, the game did allow me to go astray on a few occasions without completing a required task, this was a bit annoying as at other times you are not allowed to leave the area until you have done something specific. I managed to waste a lot of time here backtracking but to be fair the game is such a pleasant (or unpleasant!) experience that it was not too big a deal.
This is an incredibly unique title and in my opinion, well worth the effort that has clearly been poured into it. Considering how highly detailed the original sketches must have been this really is a work of art in video game form, that needs to be seen to be believed. Mundaun may be inspired by local folklore but it keeps you guessing right up until the end. Catch the bus up to Mundaun, after your visit I can assure you of one thing – you will never forget it.