Much like the real-world locations and German and Swiss folklore that inspired Michel Ziegler, Mundaun is both familiar and unfamiliar--comforting and unsettling. Its edges are coarse as sandpaper, but through it all, Mundaun captures an unnerving atmosphere that satisfies a very specific audience.
Mundaun is a municipality in Switzerland. Often a vacation destination due to its scenery, it features a vast mountain range cut off from traditional society. It is an escape to nature. This remains at the heart of Mundaun's mission statement--It wants players to experience an environment and culture the developer identifies with.
This backdrop is afforded through a narrative conceit whereby the protagonist, Curdin, receives a letter detailing his grandfather's death in a barn fire. He returns to his childhood settlement to pay his respects, leading to a supernatural series of events involving a mysterious old man. The story isn't especially gripping, but its simple premise keeps the experience focused. You're not playing Mundaun for its deep introspection of the human psyche. You're playing it for its imagery. That said, there's a surprising amount of character given to each denizen. There are so few players in this story that it makes each person stand out, even if much of that character comes from the game's technical makeup.
According to EVP of Content at MWM Interactive Ethan Stearns, Mundaun's publisher, the game's visual style was created by Michel by using a "process in which he creates texture maps of templates, and then hand-draws them in pencil, then scans them into the computer and then wraps them around the 3D objects". This unique approach is further bolstered by an amateur sense of artistry. Michel didn't begin the project in 2014 knowing how to draw. It's a skill he learned for the sole purpose of expressing a creative side that's left him wanting. As a result, Mundaun's environments, creatures, and characters veer into the uncanny.
Humans, especially, often feature horrific facial expressions. They're even more unsettling than the creatures. This visual identity is able to derive so much discomfort because of its animation, calling to mind the horror games of yesteryear--titles whose budgets and hardware constraints made them future-proof as their relationship with the uncanny evolved along with technological progress. Mundaun fits into this mold with humans sometimes hovering across the ground and goats whose stiff movements most closely emulate wind-up toys.
Body animation, especially across the main character and villain, enhances this unnerving simulacrum of the human experience. Mundaun's quiet moments rarely feel comfortable thanks to its incongruous visual identity.
Mundaun mostly involves searching for items to interact with the next story objective. This basic structure sounds unappealing, but it rarely feels as such because of an organic structure with clear signposting and tons of optional content. The alps sound treacherous and confusing, but the various major environments across this mountain range are self-contained enough that players shouldn't find themselves stuck for long.
Story objectives are typically simple affairs with little guesswork involved; a testament to its clearly laid out level design. There are portions during which invisible walls are placed, preventing players from progressing until they've found the necessary item to continue. In most games, this comes across as patronizing. In Mundaun's case, it serves to balance the systems that aren't explained.
While Mundaun can be completed in under four hours when focusing on the story, it's built on exploration. Much as Michel spent many years of his life connecting to the alps, the game's different sections are filled with optional buildings, puzzles, and items to reinforce players' connection to the world. This connection comes from a mix of optional narrative splendor and immersive interactions. There are items like matches, logs, pans, and teacups, whose uses aren't immediately obvious. Most of the player's inventory through the four to seven-hour adventure is filled with optional items. I won't divulge any of these interactions and what they influence as that's part of the Mundaun experience--existing in this space.
Enemy encounters play a light role in addition to exploration and puzzle-solving. Head-to-head engagement isn't advised for many reasons. Whether using a hay fork to poke at a straw man or a rifle to shoot at a beekeeper, combat feels weightless. It's normal for classic horror games to lack in the combat department, but that comes from limited control as opposed to a lack of player feedback. The hay fork feels like you're whipping something with a piece of paper and the rifle offers less impact than a finger gun. Additionally, Mundaun employs a rudimentary fear system. The closer Curdin finds himself to supernatural enemies, the higher the chance of slowing down, freezing up, and taking different types of damage. After being stricken by fear from a straw man, for example, Curdin's body begins to form a straw-like shell as he takes periodic damage.
Because of these factors, stealth is the only truly viable option. It's less risky, but it also trivializes the initially menacing threats. From what I could tell, AI doesn't appear to be alerted by sound either. If so, their threshold isn't sensitive enough or it's bugged. Their vision cones are more polished, but it's not hard to outrun creatures after they spot you in the near distance. The first time players come across the vaguely human-shaped straw creatures instills genuine concern with that concern quickly giving way to apathy.
Mundaun is remarkably unnerving despite its bogus creature AI. It feels like a perfect storm of variables that won't be able to coalesce in quite the same way again. Michel has released one game prior to this, which is free to download, named The Colony. Taking a look at it, its overall visual signature is more simplistic, owing to its earlier place in his pursuit of his creative vision. Mundaun is a technical markup while retaining an obfuscation that keeps it at arm's length--never 100% comfortable even in its most harmless moments. The project was also almost entirely made by Michel with the exception of sound design and music help by one person each after being picked up by MWM.
It retains its atmosphere because of the circumstances surrounding its development. Had Michel been a lifelong artist or had he worked with a larger team, Mundaun would be more polished, but it would also risk losing that uncanniness intrinsic to the experiences that lead to its release. If you're in the market for a spooky game to spend a night on, Mundaun is a good bet.
TechRaptor reviewed Mundaun on Xbox Series X (Xbox One version in backwards compatibility) with a copy provided by the developer/publisher. The game is also available on PlayStation 4 (Playable on PlayStation 5), and PC.
- Unique Visual Style Adds an Unsettling Aura
- Makes Players Vulnerable
- Clear Signposting While Leaving Room for Exploration
- Irregular Stuttering on Series X
- Awful AI
- Combat Feels Weightless