Michael Ziegler, the one-man creator and sole developer of studio Hidden Fields, brings us Mundaun, his debut ‘lovingly hand-pencilled horror tale set in a dark, secluded valley of the alps’. This horrifying alpine adventure promises a surreal trip through the mesmerising Swiss mountains, traversing rough terrain, solving unique puzzles and dealing with folk horror monstrosities in order to uncover the dark secrets of your grandfather’s past.
In the end, uncovering these long-dead revelations certainly makes for a unique experience that boasts a solid aesthetic, a consistently immersive ambiance and great narrative flow. Ultimately though, it’s the monsters that make or break a horror game and unfortunately they’re not quite up to scratch.
STORY – A FAUSTIAN BARGAIN
Mundaun is framed around an odyssey homeward. The protagonist, young Curin, returns to his hometown after the suspicious death of his beloved grandfather. As you might expect, not all is as it seems. The metropolitan hero returns to his humble beginnings to find it changed. It’s a kind of reverse culture shock, albeit with an additional supernatural twist. You see, an insidious dark force has corrupted the very foundations of the Town and now threatens the very souls of its inhabitants. It’s totally Faustian.
Somehow, it’s all related to your recently deceased grandfather. It’s up to you, with some help from your ragtag team of eccentrics, to uncover the dark secrets of the past and vanquish this mythological menace. The opening of the game is especially solid. The melancholic fusion of the familiar and the unfamiliar really is engaging– the contrast of Curin’s warm memories of the past in conflict with the cold and heavy reality of his present situation.
So, it’s a story of discovery and identity. Mostly, you’re there to uncover the answer to one question. What exactly did your grandfather get himself wrapped up in? What does that mean for Curin and the Town’s inhabitants as a whole? The downright Lynchian characters you meet were, for me, the highpoints of the entire game. They are all distinct and intriguing and delightfully zany, and they make for a shining beacon in the lovely but bleak and desolate landscapes.
It’s all wonderfully goofy for a horror game. It’s impressive just how well it balances its more gloomy aspects with its more silly and fantastical elements. Nothing feels out of place. Consistently enchanting and full of twists and turns that eventually make for a cohesive conclusion.
GAMEPLAY – ALPINE ANTICS
So, for the most part, there are three parts to Mundaun’s gameplay – you will be either exploring vast mountaintops, solving a myriad of mostly fetch quest puzzles or dealing with an array of mythological enemies. Let’s break down each of these parts and see what works and what doesn’t.
First – the exploration. The game is essentially an extended hike up and down from the unholy site at the summit of the mountain. All the same, the environments really held my attention. Each zone has its own unique threats and obstacles, and you’re constantly moving forward. I really enjoyed how the summit is pretty much always visible from even the starting area of the game. So there’s a real sense of scale and immensity that’s really satisfying to overcome.
You’re not limited to walking either. Pretty soon after arriving, you gain access to your grandfather’s off-road jeep. Driving down the abandoned, pitch-black mountainside roads with the headlights glaring and the radio blasting with the strange local music was captivating and memorable.
Second – there are the puzzles. There weren’t any real head-scratchers, but they did require some thought and occasionally were quite satisfying. Though, it usually a case of finding some clue (usually in the form of a diagram or drawing) and then finding an object such as a key or a battery to progress. They’re fine.
Unfortunately, the enemies you encounter are some of the weaker parts of the game. This is a shame since their visual design is wonderful and unique and really complements the mythology and mood. Simply put, they just didn’t thrill or scare me. They were simply a nuisance that I found myself having to bypass again and again. I think it comes down to two things; pacing and spacing.
Firstly, they’re just so damn slow. You can simply move away from them at a brisk pace. Your means to deal with them are limited, too, so more often than not, you’re left in a pretty awkward position. The only way is the hard way. Time after time, I found myself awkwardly pushing past them in a way that’s reminiscent of celebrities pushing past a horde of paparazzi. Not scared or thrilled- just encumbered and tired of them.
What doesn’t help is the space they occupy. Think of the best horror games you’ve ever played; how many of them have predominately taken place outdoors? It’s hard to get right. The vast majority of enemies are encountered outside. Most of the time, you can see them lumber about in the distance well in advance, so there’s very little tension. With monsters – less is more. The game doesn’t quite get there.
I just wish the game would have let me drink in its wonderful atmosphere and locales. There should have been a sharper focus on its more surreal, dreamlike and already successful narrative sequences to creep me out. But instead, I found my immersion consistently broken by enemies who were frustrating, lethargic and downright painful to deal with.
GRAPHICS AND AUDIO – SHIVERS DOWN YOUR SPINE
As you probably already know, Mundaun is pretty exceptional, so far as visuals go. Its design is marketed as ‘lovingly hand-penciled’, and that’s about right. It’s a unique look and matches the atmosphere and tone perfectly, but most importantly – it works. Monochrome always runs the risk of being a little hazy. But it’s no problem here. You can read the landscape easily enough; it’s always clear where you can and cannot go.
There are some caveats. Some key items are occasionally hard to make out against certain backdrops and some textures – especially the ones on the ground – are a little worse for wear. Despite some weird animation now and then, there’s nothing that will break the immersion. The facial animation and lip-synching were surprisingly solid.
The soundtrack is subtle but fits well. In the best way possible, you hardly realise it’s there at all. It builds apprehension and dread and curiosity whilst not distracting your attention from anything else. It regulates the tension and mood fantastically, only occasionally taking centre stage for a successful dramatic effect.
The voice acting was something that really impressed me. It’s all in Romansch. It’s a Swiss language spoken predominantly in the Swiss canton of the Grisons. I’m glad there isn’t an option for an English dub. The native language (of which I’d previously never even heard of) really adds a note of remoteness that only complimented the eeriness of the already hostile Alpine environments.
Mundaun was reviewed on PC via Steam.