With a final swing of her hammer, the brave warrior lays low the armored behemoth before her, avenging countless lost lives.
Her grief turning to triumph, our heroine raises a tiny paw in victory, reaching out to you, her dearest friend.
Moss: Book II from developer Polyarc throws out the gimmick and spectacle that often defines VR games, instead using the form to bring you closer (literally and figuratively) to its adorable star. The result is a game that sometimes stumbles over its own mechanics, but more than redeems itself with a touching story as fantastical and poignant as any fairy tale.
Return to form
Polyarc’s 2018 puzzle platformer Moss makes you a character in its world, but the story isn’t about you. It’s about Quill, a brave little mouse who gives up everything to save her world from an army of robotic insects known as the Arcane. You play as the Reader, a visitor from another world visible only to a select few. As the Reader, you guide Quill (who you also control) on her adventure by manipulating the environment — but the story is always Quill’s. Even though you literally control her movement, you always feel more like a partner than a commander.
Moss: Book II continues that dynamic while complicating your relationship with Quill — and the role of Readers as a whole. You’ll still help Quill in all the ways you did before, and more, but this time, your bond feels deeper, more urgent, and more terrifyingly fragile.
The sequel builds in more interactions between Quill and the Reader from the very start. The first time you see Quill dart onscreen to greet you is magical. I think the first Moss’ opening scene is more impactful — I distinctly remember thinking “I would do anything for this mouse” when Quill stepped into view — but however you first encounter her is going to stick.
You open the game by returning a lost sword to Quill, and within moments, you’re making paths, grabbing enemies to delay their attacks, and reaching out to heal her wounds. There’s hardly an interaction in the game that doesn’t require coordination between Quill and the Reader, making Moss: Book II more of a full-body sport than the original.
Though it’s a puzzle platformer, puzzles aren’t terribly challenging in Moss: Book II. If you’re hoping to be stumped, you may be disappointed, but there’s a different kind of satisfaction on offer. So much of the game seems designed to foster a connection between Quill and the player. When the Reader swings a platform with Quill atop it to get her to a distant ledge, it feels precarious and intimate in the way that handling a pet does, even though you control both parties.
In combat, this coordinated dance of hand gestures is far more exciting. While you dodge enemies and swing your sword as Quill, you’re also flinging foes around the screen with your free hand, creating paths to give her the high ground, and charging weapons for special attacks. When all the pieces come together, the partnership between Quill and the Reader feels real, like sharing victory and defeat with a trusted friend.
Boss battles push the combat to its most complex and thrilling heights. There are only three in the game, but each one is a major test. You’ll be dodging the bosses’ attacks along with their lackeys as Quill while the Reader sets up opportunities for her to counter. Sometimes that means flinging armored pillbugs at the boss like you’re playing pinball; sometimes it’s grounding a winged foe to give Quill the chance to strike. Quill can’t take too many hits before falling, and healing is slow, so battles are more about clever teamwork than brute force.
As the game goes on, both combat and puzzle-solving get an extra wrinkle from new abilities. First, Quill gains a dash attack with her sword, then a chakram that can stick to walls and be recalled, and finally a massive hammer to smash armored foes. These new abilities add a lot of fun and versatility to combat (which is probably the weakest part of Moss), but have a few drawbacks.
To activate these abilities, you hold the attack button to have Quill lift her weapon, tap it with your touch controller to charge, then hit attack again to launch it. At first, this felt so ponderously slow it discouraged me from using the attacks at all, though it started feeling natural with a little bit of practice. Even then, there were times when the game just wouldn’t register the second step, when I reached out to charge the weapon, until I leaned to shift my perspective and tried again. When you’re solving puzzles, this is just an annoyance, but it can be deadly in combat.
Just switching weapons can be a drag, too, with seemingly one too many steps. Push a button to open a radial menu, grab a weapon with the touch controller, and drag it to Quill. Like with weapon charging, sometimes a quirk of perspective will block Quill from taking the weapon, wasting precious seconds in heated fights. Both of these fiddly interactions help connect you to Quill, but their technical flaws make them frustrating.
Another problem raised by Moss: Book II being a VR game comes in platforming. At all times, you’re free to move around the game’s diorama worlds, but the default perspective is side-on, slightly raised so you’re looking down at the field. It can be hard to judge distances and angles this way, meaning you’re likely to miss jumps and dashes often, sometimes being unable to even tell if a jump is possible without craning your neck for a different view. In some ways, it feels like the game would be a better platformer if it weren’t in VR, but that would rob it of exactly what makes it special.
An immersive tale
VR confers a sense of presence in a way other platforms can’t. The difference between watching a scene and being part of it can’t be understated, and Moss: Book II uses the medium to its full advantage. The game is full of opportunities to poke your head through archways or around corners for a better view of the world. It lets you feel like you’re really sharing this space when you track Quill through windows or behind walls; even tiny details like leaves tumbling in the background are captivating from this point of view. The game’s final stage is the shortest, but it’s the one I spent the most time in, just walking around my room to see the breathtaking environment from all angles, mouthing “wow” to no one.
A natural extension of Moss: Book II’s sense of presence is how close I ended up feeling to Quill. She’s in no way a complex character, but her dogged (moused?) determination and courage made me love her.
In an interview earlier this year, Polyarc environment artist Coolie Calihan told Inverse of Quill’s journey, “It’s not all happy. Growth brings pain sometimes. Any time you’re on an epic journey you expect ups and downs.” He wasn’t kidding.
As joyful as Moss: Book II often is, its story is punctuated by moments as heartbreaking as any I’ve seen in a video game. At several points, including its gut-punch of an ending, I genuinely found myself worrying that crying so much would damage my headset. (It seems fine, if you’re wondering.)
Moss: Book II is a perfect lesson in the power and limitations of VR. As a technology, VR is still clunky, but clearly its storytelling potential is only beginning to be realized. In terms of gameplay, Moss: Book II doesn’t always make the best of VR, but its unique perspective lets you form a genuine friendship with its loveable main character. In the end, my bond with Quill was far more satisfying than any flashy game mechanic.
Moss: Book II is available on PSVR and Quest 2. Inverse reviewed the game on Quest 2.
INVERSE VIDEO GAME REVIEW ETHOS: Every Inverse video game review answers two questions: Is this game worth your time? Are you getting what you pay for? We have no tolerance for endless fetch quests, clunky mechanics, or bugs that dilute the experience. We care deeply about a game’s design, world-building, character arcs, and storytelling come together. Inverse will never punch down, but we aren’t afraid to punch up. We love magic and science-fiction in equal measure, and as much as we love experiencing rich stories and worlds through games, we won’t ignore the real-world context in which those games are made.
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