By EVAN MILLAR
If you’ve ever found yourself alone in a remote location surrounded by nothing but inky black darkness and the lonely accompaniment of your pounding heart, you know full well that it’s a setting that’s easily able to stir up dormant feelings of fear.
Imagine then, if you will, travelling to an unfrequented valley in the Swiss Alps for the funeral of your beloved grandfather Flurin after a barn fire claims his life. Upon arrival, it’s clear that the accident has an air of eerie peculiarity surrounding it, and that dear old grandfather may have had a lot more going on in his life than you once thought.
As MUNDAUN’s protagonist Curdin, you’ll rekindle powerful memories from his childhood, and much of the beginning of the game is spent becoming acquainted with his grandfather’s belongings and secluded lifestyle. The game encourages exploration in these early hours, with optional tasks and items to be found dispersed across its expansive environmental hubs.
From an aesthetic standpoint, MUNDAUN is unique in the sense that every inch of the game appears as if it were painstakingly hand-drawn in charcoal pencil. In this respect, creator, developer, and artist Michel Ziegler and his studio Hidden Fields have succeeded in bringing a sense of tangibility to every aspect of its visuals.
This style becomes immensely beneficial to the game’s overall tone as soon as the spooky stuff begins taking place: slow-moving beings made of hay that rise up from the fields once the sun sets, beekeepers that hover above the ground, a clawed snow beast, and a mysterious older gentleman whose face constantly shifts perspectives on his stationary head. And that’s not to mention the talking severed head of a goat that you also carry around.
Enemies are best avoided entirely through the means of stealth, though Curdin can wield a flimsy hay fork and an old hunting rifle to defend himself. Puzzles are thoughtful but not overly obtuse, save for maybe one late-game task that could have benefitted from a tiny bit more streamlining. Still, most are a joy to figure out, and as with its exploration, the game does a good job of letting its players do their own thing and approach story milestones at their own pace.
MUNDAUN’s more surreal elements are off-putting in ways that aren’t common in horror gaming, indie or otherwise, and these only escalate in intensity as the plot progresses. They also stand in complete contrast to the game’s mundane, ritualistic gameplay elements in very interesting ways. For instance, Curdin is able to improve his fear resistance, marksmanship and overall health by brewing coffee, finding pages from rifle manuals and consuming food scraps. Making coffee isn’t as easy as just pressing a button prompt, however, as you’ll need to find logs to burn, matches to light them, water to boil, and naturally, the actual coffee beans themselves.
This results in some very deliberate pacing, a feeling that only helps bolster feelings of being somewhere very far away from the rest of civilization, unconstrained by shackles of time. MUNDAUN’s audio design is superbly fitting with this idea as well, being minimal in all the right places and capable of truly transporting players to the windy, snowy, and desolate vistas that make up its locales as you slowly make your way up the mountain in search of answers.
There are also multiple endings to Curdin’s story, an incentive to replay the game at least a few more times after completion to absorb its atmosphere again and see what could have been had different choices been made along the way.
As the debut title from Hidden Fields, MUNDAUN has all the markings of a true indie horror classic. Intensely soul-stirring and elegant without being overwrought, it’s an unnerving and meditative experience that’s best suited to a few late-night lengthy, uninterrupted gameplay sessions. So make some coffee, pack your pipe and snowshoes, and bundle up for one hell of a nerve-racking ascent.