Growing up as an imaginative young boy in my village community, I remember being really compelled by local folklore and ghost stories that would often pass around the playground. Stories about witches, spirits and demons are pretty common to hear when you’re nine years old, and when you reach your adolescence those stories are still always there. They influence a big part of your creative mind as you enter adulthood.
For Mundaun creator Michel Zeigler, this has not changed. This is a game that truly breathes life into a lot of central Europe’s folkloric background, inspired by many tales that have passed through the continent over the centuries.
One story seems to have had a major impact on Mundaun’s backstory. The Teufelsbrücke (“Devil’s Bridge”) is a bridge in Switzerland which is said to have been built by the Devil himself. As the local settlements were constructing in a difficult place, the Devil appeared to them and offered to help with its assembly in exchange for the first living soul that crosses it. To trick the Devil, who expected to receive the soul of a man, the locals instead send across a goat.
In Mundaun you play as Curdin, who has returned to his isolated hilltop community where he grew up to investigate the mysterious circumstances surrounding his grandfather’s death. After some frightening encounters and strange occurrences, Curdin becomes involved in a mystery in which he discovers something far more hellish is at play.
One of Mundaun’s biggest appeals to me is the way it employs an unusual pencil-drawn style for its visual flair. Every texture in the game, from the items you wield to the ground you stand above, was first drawn by hand in pencil on a notebook. It was then scanned in and applied to the corresponding 3D models to create an almost storybook way of telling the story. This gives the game a sense of impermanence, much like the changing nature of folk tales that the game takes inspiration from.
It isn’t just limited to its real-life inspirations, however, as Mundaun also takes inspiration from the folk horror films that have cropped up in cinema over the last few decades. The unsettling quietness of Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973) or the dark expressionist lighting as used in Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015) stand out as the main culprits of this presentation, but the slow zoom cinematographic techniques that occurs when you focus on an object of interest in-game also brings a little of Kubrick to the piece.
Where Mundaun excels in both graphics and storytelling, it also lets itself down by being prone to many bugs, some of which can completely break the playthrough. Over the course of my time with the game, I experienced two soft locks as a result of sequential issues, including one where a door that was supposed to be open remained locked. It was such an unexpected glitch that I didn’t even realise I was stuck until I spent around thirty minutes just aimlessly wandering around the same area.
This extends to some of the signposting, which can be a little confusing at times. Mundaun uses a lot of visual clues to point you in the right direction, and does this wonderfully when it does it right, but there are also moments where you’re not quite sure where you need to go next and the information given to you is unclear. You end up wasting time because of an objective that isn’t coherent enough sends you to the wrong part of the village.
With both of these issues in mind, Mundaun’s estimated 5-6 hour play time was extended to about double of that in my playthrough, involving having to restart from the beginning twice due to game-breaking glitches. It soured the experience for me a little.
Mundaun is largely an atmospheric piece, where it emphasises tension over deadly horror situations. But to ensure this pressure persists throughout the game, there are a handful of enemy encounters that pit you against hellish monsters. As a fearful everyman, Curdin can get scared from these combat scenarios, and the more scared he is the less capable he is in fight or flight situations. If you let yourself become overwhelmed by enemies, Curdin will be unable to move as swiftly and his vision becomes impaired.
The game does give you options to fight back, though. This includes weapons such as a pitchfork and a rifle, but supplies are limited and thus the game encourages preserving them for only when you need to. It does this largely well, as I believe I didn’t even defeat a single enemy until I hit the third act of the game. It creates an exciting balance of feeling both powerful and powerless, and this idea of being repeatedly pushed between those two extremes.
If it weren’t for the bugs and navigational issues, I would call Mundaun a near-flawless horror title. The attention to detail with its visuals and atmosphere is unbelievably high-quality, whereas the pacing of each story beat will constantly keep you glued to the game. We’re scoring this four stars, which I should say is still in Very Good territory, but I really want to award it a higher rating.
If you can put these issues aside, or prepare for them by reading about the fixes and workarounds ahead of time, then it’s probably one of the best games released so far in 2021. If you’re after video games’ answer to The Wicker Man, look no further.
Tested on PC
Also available on PS4, PS5, Xbox Series X|S
Developer Hidden Fields
Publisher MWM Interactive
Disclosure a copy of Mundaun was provided by Honest PR