Mundaun Review: Dark Secrets And The People Who Find Them

The journey, rather than the destination, is the focus of Mundaun–the reasons you take it and the travel required to reach its conclusion. In this way, it feels like a spiritual successor to Half-Life 2’s Highway 17, a mid-game chapter that finds crowbar-toting protagonist Gordon Freeman traveling by buggy along the lonely coast. It’s a lengthy, melancholy section of the 2004 shooter where the driving is occasionally interrupted by combat, puzzles, and on-foot exploration. Mundaun is like Highway 17 expanded to a full 10-hour experience. In your journey to the mountaintop, you sit passively in a bus, drive a hay-baling truck along bumpy terrain, and ride a sled across quiet alpine slopes. You’re guided through a series of dark, labyrinthine tunnels by a trolley car the size of a toaster. You ride a chair lift. The inclusion of vehicles might not sound noteworthy on its own, but traversing the mountain in all these different ways–on foot, by sled, by truck–has the effect of making the mountain feel like a real place; a peak that must be considered to be conquered. You don’t cover dozens of virtual miles in your quest, but Mundaun feels like a journey nonetheless–personal and physical–as a result of this fixation on the vehicles we use to make our pilgrimages.

This horror adventure game’s distinct point of view is obvious the moment you see it in action. Each first-person frame looks like hand-drawn pencil art, and the entire game is presented in black and white. Developer Hidden Fields uses this to terrific, eerie effect. The mountain lake where those beekeepers are doing their work is beautifully alien, a rocky landscape that’s empty except for these strange beings in their protective suits accompanied by an unnerving buzzing. Night on the mountain’s snowy slopes feels eerie in a different way–dark, save for the light of the moon, and quiet, save for the sound of your snowshoes or sled on the powder. With winning art and sound design, Hidden Fields brilliantly brings home the feeling that you are alone, and that this lonely journey is one you must take on your own.

Mundaun's art style is distinctive and impactful.
Mundaun’s art style is distinctive and impactful.

As that journey begins, protagonist Curdin sits on a bus winding its way up narrow mountain roads to the sleepy alpine town where he often visited his grandfather growing up. The young man is returning to the village to attend his grandfather’s funeral after receiving news that the old man died when his barn caught fire. But something’s wrong. Despite the village priest’s claims that his grandfather was already buried, Curdin finds a charred corpse in the barn. When he goes to see the priest, the chapel is locked. He goes to the graveyard–grandfather’s grave is empty. As Curdin attempts to get to the bottom of these mysterious events, he begins a trek to the top of the mountain, whose towering pincer-like twin peaks can be seen from almost anywhere in the game.

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