Coming from small developer Morteshka, The Mooseman is a 2D journey across ancient lands which takes inspiration from Finno-Ugric lore and the Chud tribes of Northern Europe. You control a wandering shaman able to perceive an ethereal plane where beasts reside in the landscape. You’ll encounter a host of animals and spirits that will help or hinder you on a hike through the three layers of the universe.
Graphically, The Mooseman is a cave painting brought to life, with intentionally scratchy animation and parallax scrolling creating the illusion of depth. Initially, Limbo seems to be a dominant influence, especially as you hide from giant predators and respawn after deadly attacks, but that monochromatic, silhouetted style soon expands with a more varied colour palette. We’ve seen some striking 2D art in the ‘indie’ space over the past decade or so, and there are some neat effects here, although nothing you haven’t seen before. Choirs sing as creatures appear over constellations in the night sky and reflect in pools of water. It’s effective, if not spectacular.
Following in the footsteps of the mystical half-man/half-god ‘moosemen’, you’ll solve some rudimentary environmental puzzles. Pressing ‘A’ enables you to see another layer of existence with glowing white figures and markings appearing over much of the scenery. A large boulder might be revealed to be a lizard-like creature that follows where you move – leading it to a specific point and returning to the mortal realm will make a high platform accessible or allow you to cross a ravine.
It’s a simple mechanic that facilitates elementary puzzles, but there’s nothing too taxing here. Beyond moving your character with the left stick/D-buttons and activating ‘Moose Vision’ with ‘A’ – accompanied by an ominous ‘whoosh’ which quickly becomes irritating – you’ll eventually be able to deflect hostile projectiles by illuminating your journeyman’s staff with ‘B’, creating a one-hit shield. Progress is saved as you play and scenes are accessible from the main menu.
Mechanics aside, the game’s focus on interpreting symbols and folklore gives it the feeling of an esoteric museum exhibit. The onus is on the player to digest the history and mythology presented and The Mooseman requires a willingness to delve into object descriptions and text. As you walk – auto-stroll is activated with a double tap – the eyes of idol statues light up. These unlock previously indecipherable texts that tell the creation myth behind the game, a tale of three worlds.
You’ll also come across hidden glyphs and artefacts to collect which depict animals and other figures. These join a collection that can be browsed by hitting ‘L’, each with a description and reference to a genuine relic found in the regional museums in Perm Krai, Russia. This text constitutes a large part of the game’s appeal – you’ll likely find The Mooseman underwhelming if you don’t engage with it. Black screens with evocative sentences and audio set the tone between scenes, but to get the most out of the game, and to extend playtime beyond a couple of hours, you’ll need to dive into the menus.
Unfortunately, those menus could really do with another quality pass – the user interface feels unintuitive and ignores convention. Hitting ‘B’, for example, doesn’t go back. ‘Start new game’ is the default option on the title screen rather than ‘Continue’. The ‘+’ button pauses the action but resuming requires you move three spaces down a list and hit ‘A’. Having done this, you return to the game but that same button press simultaneously activated (or deactivated) ‘Moose Vision’. So, if you were crossing an ethereal bridge when you paused, you’ll fall to your death.
Other UI issues also put a dampener on things. It’s difficult to tell what symbol is highlighted in the artefacts index, moving to the next page requires navigating to an onscreen button, and your last position isn’t remembered upon closing, so you’re forced to make multiple cumbersome inputs every time you check the catalogue.
None of these issues would be terrible in isolation – and they’re nothing that a patch couldn’t rectify – but cumulatively they become tiresome as you’re required to negotiate the menus to access the real ‘meat’ of the experience. Surprisingly, we also saw a couple of moments of slowdown during our playthrough.
If you’re the type to burn through the Louvre in an hour and wait for your companions in the cafe, The Mooseman may well try your patience. If you’re more inclined to wander around with an audio guide, reading every accompanying plaque and information card, you’ll likely enjoy its sedate pace, workaday puzzles and catalogue of artefacts. A clumsy UI seriously hampers the experience but, if you’re willing to work around the irritations at its core, it offers an interesting, sometimes beautiful journey.