I’ve been excited about Mundaun for a while now. Set in the Swiss Alps, you play as Curdin, who has returned home after his grandfather’s death and his meeting with the Mysterious Old Man. While overall it’s a basic first-person horror game, the art direction and style here is what captured my attention. The main draw being the hand-penciled textures which give it a storybook quality. Basically, all of the art was hand-drawn and then stretched over 3D models. It’s quite a unique look and took years to accomplish.
I found myself often just taking in the sights and admiring the work that went into this. You carry a backpack to store items, and each can be looked at from all angles. A notebook full of drawings and maps guides your way, with Curdin himself adding sketches here and there. Paintings, when stared at for a few moments, will zoom in and sound effects will play of whatever is happening in the artwork. As if you are reminiscing on it as a memory.
The game is fully voice-acted in Romansh, the oft-forgotten fourth language of Switzerland. This adds another layer of authenticity and atmosphere. Curdin isn’t overly talkative, but he will have things to say based on what he interacts with and is thinking about.
I enjoyed these quiet moments that let your mind fill in the blanks about the town and its people. Only a handful of NPCs exist, but each has major importance to the story. There is nothing superfluous in the world of Mundaun.
The gameplay focuses on exploration and the occasional puzzle, some of which have quite ingenious solutions. As I progressed through the world I felt I had a better understanding of how the world “worked” and found the answers came quite naturally as they reward you for paying attention to the environment. Clues in the notebook also lead you in the right direction.
As this is folk horror, the monsters are fittingly inspired by European Pagan costumes. Bizarre, humanoid strawmen are the first type you encounter and are quite spooky. Standing in the distance, I could not tell if one was facing toward or away from me. As I approached, it extended its arm and pointed at me and I nope’d the heck out of there. You have several methods of dealing with these creatures but I found their presence unnerving enough that I avoided them at all costs.
Unfortunately, there was a moment where I unlocked a door, turned a corner, and one was staring straight at me! How something so simple can be so scary is amazing.
Combat is a bit stiff and underdeveloped but I don’t generally feel that is important for games like this. You are not here to be Doom Guy, you’re just a simple man trying to find out what happened to his grandfather. Stealth is a totally viable option for traversing the world.
Another thing I found very immersive about Mundaun was the sound design, which Eric Lorenz goes into great detail in this post. They recorded every sound you hear from life. Every door, every item from big to small, even every surface you walk on has its own specific noise. Most players will hardly notice these kinds of details but I find it incredibly fascinating. He also talks about how certain sounds are over-exaggerated to heighten their importance. For some doors, sounds of cactus spines being played with a violin bow are used.
There is hardly any music—only during key moments. Otherwise, it is mainly the ambient noises of the Alps. It’s a very lonely world, and you get the sense that something terrible happened here (Which—it kind of did).
Granted I don’t know a lot about Pagan religions, but these aspects of the game were also very enjoyable. It feels like everything has set rules and whether these rules are followed or not is important to the story. Who is the Mysterious Old Man who serves as the antagonist? What is his purpose? What rules does he follow? These questions gnawed at my mind as I ventured further.
Something I find European horror does a lot more in general in comparison to Americans is there is still room for humor and light-hearted moments. It adds humanity and realism to the world, even if the events are more supernatural. It also helps break up the lonely, quiet atmosphere of the game (I laughed out loud at the name of an achievement, for example).
Curdin has a small upgrade system for fear, health, and rifle proficiency, rewarding your exploration as some of the items for these are hidden. I did die a few times, but the checkpoint system saves often enough that it was never annoying. Manual saving is also available by interacting with clocks.
One of my favorite mechanics is the way to summon your truck. Scattered around the map are posters of the truck, which state the vehicle is missing. Stare at them long enough and the image will appear, accompanied by an engine revving. Your truck is now outside! Such a simple and clever way of teleporting the truck to you.
I played Mundaun in several chunks, but I believe you can get through the game in several hours. There are points in the game where you have to make choices, and this leads me to think are multiple endings based on your actions, giving it a bit of replay value. But even besides that, this is a world I want to visit again just to look at. “Every frame a painting” has got nothing on “literally every object in this world is a painting.”
Mundaun is available on Playstation 4, Playstation 5, Xbox Series X, Xbox Series S, and on PC (Steam), with a Nintendo Switch version coming at a later date.
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