A wonderful VR adventure worth the wait

Moss: Book II

Moss: Book II
Picture: Playarc

Every Friday, audiovisual club staff members kick off our weekly open thread for discussion of game plans and recent gaming glories, but of course the real action is in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What are you playing this weekend?

Three and a half years ago – Lord, time! – I wrote an episode of this column that asked a direct question: Was I a moron for dropping $300 on Sony’s mid-budget answer to the burgeoning VR market, PSVR? It was a standard version, really, of the early adopters’ lament: spending too much on a system that promised too much and delivered… Well, okay, he delivered some good stuff.

Among them was that of Polyarc Moss, an intensely charming fairy tale adventure released in early 2018, in which you, as a giant gazer in a series of gorgeous pop-up-book-esque dioramas, helped an adorable mouse named Quill take on mechanical crustaceans and an evil, uncle-kidnapping snake. It was, and still is, a beautiful and surprisingly moving experience, with the worst thing that can be said about it, just being there just wasn’t enough. (A common problem with VR games, which have an annoying tendency to be full-price experiences barely longer than the demo length.)

Now, Moss: Book II has finally arrived, exclusively on PSVR, that is, on a system that is only barely keep up with modern consoles or current VR technology. (Technically you can play Moss on a PS5 connected to a PSVR—if you have an adapter for the PlayStation Camera, and if you have a PlayStation 4 controller that it can keep up with.) Still, I was happy to plug in the various cords and charge the various controllers needed to play it; such was the affection that my previous adventure with Quill – one of the most charming and lively heroes in all of video games – had engendered in my heart.

Revisiting the vibrant animal world of Moss, I was struck once again by an odd side to these games: they didn’t need to be VR at all. And yet, they are both incredible selling points for the technology. The actual game of Moss: Book II is, after all, quite simple: like the first game, you simultaneously maneuver your mouse hero with the usual buttons and sticks on the controller, while also using a ball of light (activated via VR controls) to manipulate the environment to help them progress. There’s nothing you do with this last set of abilities that couldn’t be easily replicated on the controller’s right stick. Meanwhile, motion tracking is neat but purely optional, and Moss never uses PSVR head tracking for more than a few small perspective changes.

And yet, there’s nothing quite like the feeling of looking down into these beautifully realized worlds, all the distractions blocked and the magic all around. Or watching Quill rush an obstacle or duel an enemy – only to then deliver a triumphant high-five to you, his reader, for your help. Many virtual reality experiences attempt to trick the brain into immersing itself in approximations of reality. But Moss beats most of them by presenting a slightly artificial world, then making it look as lush and beautiful as if you were really turning the pages of an enchanted book.

I’m not finished Book II yet, though I remain enthralled, both by its visuals, and by its attempt to tell a slightly darker, more nuanced fairy tale than what the first game offered. The new powers and enemies are equally charming and fun only play the first set, especially those little dudes that you can send bouncing around the environments like pinball machines, and the game continues to be engaging without being too frustrating. (A little too much backtracking if you’re tracking down secrets, but nobody’s, etc.) It’s a bit of a shame that the game is currently exclusive to hardware which is quickly fading into the distant past, but hey: at least I feel a little less like a jerk to have a headset sitting to experience it.