Hands-On: Moss is pure VR magic that everyone will love
PlayStation's VR headset has been a huge hit for Sony, racking up huge sales and providing the most accessible path to top-tier virtual reality for many gamers. Because of this success, it's no surprise that PSVR was a major part of Sony's E3 2017 press conference, as Sony featured one VR trailer after another, demonstrating the bredth of gaming experiences that will be available for their headset in the coming months and beyond.
The VR title that got the most buzz coming out of Sony's show was Moss, a 3rd-person game from Polyarc (a small studio composed of ex-Bungie, Red Dead Redemption, and Dragon Age crew members). The online audience didn't know precisely what to make of the colorful title, but they knew they loved the mouse that starred in the game's trailer.
Here, just watch. You'll see what I mean.
Intriguing but a bit mysterious, right?
Going hands-on with Moss at E3 2017 gave me a much better understanding of how the game will play. It also left me convinced that this endearing VR title is a game absolutely everyone who plays it will love.
Meet Quill, your new best pal
Moss is introduced via a virtual library, and when you open the book in front of you and begin turning the pages (through simple and intuitive motion controls), you're transported into the world of the book and the proper game begins. There's a lush forest around you, and you have a few quiet moments to interact with the water and plants, all of which respond naturally to your touch. If you look down at the placid pool beneath you, you can see your reflection.
Eventually Quill, the mouse protagonist of the game, emerges and greets you. She waves, and you're going to instantly want to wave back. Quill knows "you" are there, and frequently gestures, chirps, or gives you looks as you play. It's hard to make it clear in words what a charming experience this is. Though you'll use fairly standard PS4 controls to control Quill around the 3D environments, it never really feels like you are the mouse. You're helping the mouse. You two are a team.
Puzzles, platforms, and combat
Moss is a third-person platformer presented in a style reminiscent of classic adventure games like Monkey Island or Grim Fandango, in the sense that you'll progress from one scene to the next and each will have a stationary camera view of the area, rather than a camera which follows the game's protagonist over the shoulder. In this sense, the trailer for Moss doesn't really show what it's like to play the game, but it's always a challenge to properly represent a VR title outside of VR.
The big difference between Moss and those classic titles (or other static camera experiences like the original Resident Evil) is that the player takes on the role of that camera viewpoint. You are seeing each area from a fixed point of perspective, but you can lean your head, look left and right, and even get up and move around a bit if you want (though the whole game is designed to be able to be played while seated). Chronos on the Oculus presented its action in essentially the same way, and it's an effective method to immerse players in virtual reality without disorienting them.
You control Quill's movements with an analog stick and the face buttons on the PlayStation controller, and at the same time "you" can interact with the world by moving the controller in physical space and pressing different buttons to grab, push, or otherwise manipulate objects. You'll need to reach out and pull a stone platform into place for Quill to jump on, for example, or rotate a moving staircase while Quill is on it so she can reach a higher level.
These two different control schemes felt totally natural while I was playing, and it's only now that I'm writing about it that it occurs to me that it could actually be complicated if done incorrectly (or if more challenging portions of the game require you to act with more time pressure). Quill moves, jumps, and swings her sword exactly as you would expect a character in a 3D platformer to, and you interact with the world basically just as you would in real life, so everything feels second-nature and intuitive.
Moss will feature platforming challenges and light combat, but it looks as though the game's "puzzle rooms" will be the real meat of the gameplay. In my demo I encountered a multi-stage puzzle that involved moving Quill and other objects around onto different pressure plates in the right sequence in order make progress, and the whole thing had a mechanical fantasy feel to it reminiscent of Myst or The Room (the game, not the movie).
The VR game for everyone
While the jury is still out on whether VR is safe for kids or if it makes their eyeballs melt or whatever, Moss definitely looks like a game younger VR players will love, thanks to its endearing hero, fantastic world, and accessible gameplay. Of course that's not to say that Moss is just a game for kids, because it's honestly hard for me to imagine anyone playing the demo I did and not coming away with a smile on their face.
The stationary "VR camera" presentation means this game should have essentially zero motion sickness issues for most players, and the gameplay challenges (at least in the demo I played) were just tricky enough to be satisfying without ever becoming frustrating. As a seasoned 3rd-person action and puzzle game player I don't expect that Moss will seriously tax my skills when the full game comes out, but if the rest of the experience is as colorful and entertaining as what I've seen so far it won't matter one bit.
Polyarc's Danny Bulla told me that when the team was setting out to create Moss they first considered what virtual reality does well, and the main points they came away with were "immersion" and "scale." And that's exactly what Moss delivers. You're immediately immersed in a rich fantasy environment, and your motion-controlled interactions with the world feel tactile and satisfying in a way old school adventure games were never able to.
And then you meet Quill. And she's friendly, and brave, but very small. And because it's VR, you really feel how small she is compared to you. It triggers something deep down in your brain, something in humans that makes us want to help and protect small animals. You feel responsible for what happens to Quill, and that's a very powerful thing.
You can pet the mouse
If all the puzzle solving, platforming, and combat gets a little too stressful, Moss offers a wonderful way for both the player and Quill herself to relax. By reaching out with the motion controls and holding a button, you can pet Quill. Petting will heal Quill if she's taken any damage, but it's also just a nice and fun thing to do. You can heal Quill at any time, even during combat, which is good because I don't know if I could handle being responsible for the brave little mouse actually dying.
Quill moves her head the way an affectionate cat or dog would, and you can even feel her small heartbeat via vibration feedback in your controller. I was told that if you pet Quill for too long she'll gesture for you to stop, but I just couldn't make myself test that out. I didn't want to annoy Quill.
We were a team, after all.
Moss is currently scheduled for a holiday 2017 release for the PSVR. Polyarc hasn't ruled out other VR platforms eventually, but for now they're focused on getting the game polished and ready for its PSVR launch.