‘Moss: Book 2’ review: a spellbinding fairy-tale bursting with VR magic

An intricately realised fantasy world takes VR gaming to new heights

So many virtual reality games seem obsessed with the first person perspective, viewing it as the most direct route to player immersion. The assumption is that it’s the most obvious way to transport a player, to connect them to whatever virtual realm has been constructed. Moss: Book 2 is a virtual reality adventure game that proves that cheering on a tiny little mouse from the sidelines works a hundred times better than any of that.

Moss is a fairytale, a hardbound tome about a realm populated by brave rodents and evil owls that you stumble on in a library. The act of reading gives this realm life, creating a metaphysical bond with Quill – a teeny tiny mouse with a big sword and an even bigger quest to collect magic stones and save the world. You don’t become Quill, you accompany and guide her through a myriad of puzzles and battles – directing her with the analogue stick while you exert your own will on the environment by moving platforms and possessing enemies.

Much of the immediate joy of Moss is down to how truly alive and independent from the player Quill is. She knows you’re there, occasionally glancing up at your towering spectral form and offering little affirmations in ASL. Help her through a battle with mechanical beasties ten times her size and she might extend her minuscule paw out for a high five.

Moss: Book 2. Credit: Polyarc.
Moss: Book 2. Credit: Polyarc.

The relationship between the player and Quill is a fascinating use of the unavoidable disconnect that still exists in virtual reality. By establishing the player as an outside influence, it lampshades that disconnect and uses it to astonishing narrative effect. The player assumes the role of a Reader, an ever-looming spectre from another world – an unseen hand orchestrating events from behind the scenes. Some characters know of them only through legend, through whispered myths that paint Readers as malevolent interlopers. Only Quill, through your mystical connection, can perceive you – rendering her as an almost Jeanne d’Arc-like figure, a revolutionary acting under divine guidance.

An all-too-brief change of perspective in the game’s middle sees you haunting a far more sceptical rodent, one who views Readers with suspicion. Try to scratch this one’s ear and they’ll recoil in disgust, try to accept a sarcastically offered high five and they’ll pull it back at the last moment. They consider you a manipulator, something just toying with the lives of lesser beings for their own amusement. Which, inarguably as a player, you absolutely are. It’s a friction that’s rarely present in even the most experimental VR games, so it’s exhilarating to see it explored in a fantasy platformer.

The world itself is a gorgeous series of perfectly realised fairytale vignettes. It’s like having a procession of increasingly elaborate sets for a stop-motion movie lowered onto your head, each one filled with details and nooks and crannies that you can’t help but lean and crouch and turn to examine as closely as you can manage. The sense of physicality is easily among the best in the medium, it’s like having a pop-up book dangled in front of your gawping face.

Moss: Book 2. Credit: Polyarc.
Moss: Book 2. Credit: Polyarc.

Each vignette is typically either an environmental puzzle or an arena, and they’re paced out in such a perfectly measured way that you never tire of either. The puzzles are rarely particularly taxing, but are immensely satisfying just to watch unfold and fall into place. The combat is similarly slight – Quill spends most of the run-time with just her sword and most fights can be breezed through with the game’s singular combo, but the crunch of metal and the scattering of debris always makes it a satisfying break from the platforming.

It’s only tragically close to the finale that the puzzle rooms really start making the most of the toolset, requiring complex combinations of weapon and Reader abilities. The fights also get more involved as every variety of beastie starts showing up at once, requiring you to work harder and faster than in the breezier opening worlds. It’s a mostly welcome escalation, but it’s also where some of the limitations of the control scheme become more apparent.

The game doesn’t use the (prohibitively expensive) PlayStation Move controllers which have become the standard for most of PSVR’s big titles. The game instead requires the analogue stick of a standard DualShock 4, which you would expect to be put to full use. Dodging requires a simultaneous press of the attack and jump buttons, a bizarre choice given that half of the face buttons aren’t in use. Switching weapons is a case of physically dragging the item from a magical pocket and dropping it into Quill’s tiny hands. It’s an action that initially feels appropriately tactile and whimsical, but as the fights get more hectic and the puzzles start demanding more tools you’ll find yourself wishing there was a way to do it by just hitting one of the vacant shoulder or directional buttons.

Moss: Book 2. Credit: Polyarc.
Moss: Book 2. Credit: Polyarc.

Using the DS4 also means the game can only track the controller as long as the light bar on the front is facing the screen, which can lead to you frequently losing track of your hands if you’ve become used to the more natural and flexible Move controllers. This is an unfortunate trade-off for the use of the analogue stick that the Move controllers lack, a victim of the first generation of PSVR being retroactively cobbled together out of pre-existing peripherals.

Moss: Book 2, then, serves as the perfect full-stop for Sony’s first generation of virtual reality – an accessible, visually impressive and perfectly paced delight that effortlessly utilises and shows off the full capabilities of the technology. It’s a simple, charming platformer that just so happens to also offer some fascinating ways to think about perspective and the role of the player in virtual reality. It’s few flaws are almost entirely down to the rapidly approaching limitations of the PSVR, limitations set to be rectified by the impending PSVR2. Developer Polyarc has made a fascinating middle chapter here, and the prospect of seeing these ideas expanded on with bigger and better toys should excite everyone for the future of VR games.

Moss: Book 2 is available on PS4 and PS5 via backwards compatibility. We reviewed it on PS5. 

The Verdict

Moss: Book 2 is a big, bold adventure about a stunningly well-realised tiny mouse. It effortlessly uses perspective and framing, married with incredible animation, to create a bond with a virtual creature to an extent that hasn’t been achieved since The Last Guardian, while also being a perfect showcase of everything Sony’s first foray into virtual reality is capable of. A dream-like experience that lingers long after the credits roll, your mythic connection to this realm and its miniscule inhabitants not quite severed.

Pros

  • Perfectly realised storybook worlds
  • Takes surprisingly big narrative and thematic swings
  • Incredibly comfortable to play due to fixed positioning
  • You can fist-bump a giant frog

Cons

  • Simplistic controls can frustrate in the more chaotic battles
  • Puzzles only begin to become genuinely engaging towards the end
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