Moss Review: Tiny Triumph

Too often VR games seek (and fail) to replicate the feel of traditional games. Their inability to translate the smooth gameplay we’re used to–as opposed to working with the strengths of the hardware to create something new–often sours the experience. Moss, a new PlayStation VR exclusive from developer Polyarc, does the complete opposite. With its careful use of the hardware it’s running on, Moss is a platformer that isn’t just full of charm and surprises, but one that wouldn’t feel at home outside of VR.

Moss stars Quill, an incredibly adorable white mouse with an aptly tiny sword and satchel on her back. Quill lives within folk tale, the sort of whimsical fantasy that comes to life from the watercolours of a story book and narrated over with a single personable voice. Due to a terrible war years earlier, Quill and an adorable city of similar rodents live on the outskirts of a castle that kisses the horizon. There’s mysticism and magic at play around every corner, different factions controlling parts of the thick forests surrounding you, and dangers that have everyone keeping their heads down.

Quill doesn’t seek to change this balance, but like in all good fantasy tales, fate doesn’t share that opinion. It doesn’t take long for her to stumble upon a magical item that introduces a second protagonist: you. You control Quill with a standard DualShock 4, but you also play the part of the Reader, a ghost-like figure with a mask that only Quill can see. You do double duty as an ever-present deity, actively observing Quill’s adventure and aiding her where you can.

Your relationship with Quill and the investment in her journey are paramount to why Moss entangles itself in your heartstrings. Using motion controls, you’re able to give Quill a little head scratch, which she reciprocates with an appreciative smile and wave. At certain times, Quill will gesture for a high-five after completing a difficult task or gesture toward the solution of a puzzle when you’re stuck. Quill is almost unbelievably animated; her motions give her personality and entice you to just watch as you control her scamping about. The way she kicks her legs at the end of a climb or communicates through sign are both contextually fitting and wondrous in both minute detail and fluidity, and never ceases to bring a smile to your face.

Moss is all about multitasking. You handle Quill’s platforming in small, bite-sized areas, with the thumbsticks and face buttons for control. As the Reader, though, you interact with objects within Quill’s world with the use of motion controls and single button holds. At the same time you’re able to peer around every nook and cranny the space has to offer, manipulating your view to discover new routes, spy on well hidden secrets, and just keep up with Quill’s fast movements. Moss doesn’t feel like a game that would work without VR. It combines its many input options eloquently, using them to inform and drive the design of its puzzles instead of the other way around. It’s a joy to engage with in ways that so many other VR titles struggle to achieve.

Moss requires you to interact with specific objects in Quill’s world. You can move large stones with small motion gestures to shorten a gap for Quill to hop over or pull staircases from the ground that lead to doorways above. You can even load a ballista for her to fire with a lever nearby. These interactions are enacted with simple motion controls and single button holds to grab onto items. Moss does a good job of gently increasing the difficulty of its challenges as you go but always understands the limitations of its control scheme. It’s rare to run into puzzles where deft timing is the only way to succeed. Instead, Moss requires you to understand how to work together with Quill, and its challenges are designed around that rather well.

Often, puzzles involve moving elements in each area to create paths for Quill to traverse. Gates might be controlled by a pressure pad nearby, forcing you to keep it pressed down as Quill rushes to slink beneath it. Other times it’s a simple matter of spacial awareness. Quill can scale ledges demarcated with white paint, but reaching them might involve moving a platform along a small rail of track and blocking it at just the right time to make the jump possible.

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Enemies punctuate this in a clever way, making up what would in any other game be additions to Quill’s inventory. Quill never gets access to anything more than a sword, leaving her with just a simple string of attacks and a useful dodge in her repertoire. As the Reader, though, you can take direct control of three distinct enemies. For example, one will simply rush Quill with dangerous swipes of its arms, while another will sit atop a ledge and fire off balls of energy in your direction. The latter just explodes in a fountain of green, smelly goo, with its blowback proving useful in making space during combat or knocking down walls impeding your progress.

Alone they are pieces to a puzzle: taking control of a projectile-based enemy lets you trigger switches from afar, while a well-timed explosion can remove a fragile wall blocking the way. In combination–specifically in the limited combat arenas you will find yourself in–it becomes a tricky dance of control. Quill is fragile, with only a handful of hits spelling death. It’s up to you to keep her dodging around the battlefield while locking down enemies for her to strike, or better still, using their abilities against each other to level the field in imaginative ways.

It’s a pity that you aren’t given a lot of time to truly experiment with these combinations in more ways. Moss is almost criminally short. Quill’s adventure abruptly ends after about three hours, with a tease that Quill’s story isn’t yet complete. It’s heartbreaking in the way that finishing any good game is, but Moss could certainly have benefited from a little more finality after such an emotionally engaging journey.

Slight hiccups in performance also detract from what is otherwise an impressive VR achievement from a technical standpoint. Quick movements with the motion controls are difficult for the PlayStation Camera to pick up reliably and can often result in the wrong enemies being locked-on to. But while it’s inconvenient, death is hardly punishing, so these stumbles are easier to swallow. As are the infrequent technical issues, which resulted in some enemies clipping through walls and being unable to move–a small fracture in what is otherwise a captivating and rich technical showcase.

Moss thrusts you deep into its whimsical world with a variety of different locales throughout Quill’s journey. The sense of scale that VR affords lends the world a lot of weight. A stirring deer in the distance might be a throwaway movement in another game, but its tremendous sound and size in comparison to Quill make it an earth-shaking moment. Later in the game, glowing sentinels and a suffocating infestation of metal vines wrap around a city long forgotten, acting as a strong change of scenery after extended trips through damp catacombs and sandy beaches. Quill might be small in stature, but she takes you on a riveting trip through some truly beautiful scenery.

It’s a testament to just how well Moss understands PlayStation VR and works with the device instead of trying to bend it to a will it was never designed for. Moss wouldn’t feel right without it at all, and its many strengths are married to the interactions that only full immersion can manufacture. Unsurprisingly, then, Moss is easily one of PlayStation VR’s best titles to date, even if it’s a little too eager to get you in and out of its world.

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