The gameplay of Moss Book II won’t be changing the formula from the first game: this is a puzzle-platformer first and foremost. What Polyarc has done, though, is add in an array of new tools to create an experience that appears to be full of variety. A vine tool, for instance, connects seemingly unreachable sections of levels together with a blooming pathway constructed of the strongest organic tendrils, described as “fun and joyful” by Burton. The tools are dual-purpose, as you can create blooms of wallflowers to climb sheer surfaces of the garden, too.
For a game designer, the result is twofold. It gives them more verticality to play with in a level, as well as more varied platforming spaces for little Quill to run around in. Being able to create life on a level as the Reader, we imagine, will also give you a sense of adding to the richness of the ecological environment, something that I was struck with continually through the demo. New enemies, like the shelled ripper, are also interactable as a tool to help you get through platforming sections.
Each level, it seems, will have a ‘dungeon’ to explore. Burton says that in these areas, PolyArc “will amp up the combat and puzzle intensity, and add new mechanics to play with.” We head underground to one of these dungeon experiences. It is a cave area called The Foundry, dotted with lava and progressively becoming more and more mechanically enmeshed with the steaming lava floes.
About these harder areas, Burton remarks: “The dungeons in Moss are still a part of the primary story. The story is still fairly linear [...] but once you have been through an area, you are free to kind of go back and forth at your leisure. We will have more things to find and discover in the different rooms. There will be different rooms that will be a little optional, but the main dungeons are part of the main path.”
The first thing you notice is some impenetrable metal boxes that can only be smashed with a tool you find later on. Indeed, in that same room, Quill attracts your attention with a wave and a point to a statue holding a hammer. Interacting with it, Quill earns herself the blacksmiths tool. Now, you and Quill can return to those boxes and smash them up using a Spirit Hammer blast, which will also be useful later in the level to clear blocked sections that would be impossible if you hadn’t found this mighty new tool.
This begins to open up The Foundry and is a great showcase of just how tightly woven these levels can be. There seems to be collectables and boxes smartly hidden just around the corner of your VR window into the world, meaning it looks like you will be constantly thinking about how you are positioning yourself in the fantastical world. There are combat scenarios to face with devious combinations of enemies, some who can be smashed and others who will take a bit more precision.
The team at PolyArc wanted to “keep combat fluid but still approachable, but use new weapons to add a bit more depth and complexity.” New enemy varieties designer around your new hammer in The Foundry, for example, will make you use a spiritual slam to break their shells. Meanwhile, a bomber lobs mines at you like a destructive American footballer. The heavier hammer requires you to strike true — the wind up is longer and it is vital that you are accurate.
Burton notes that this should add variety to proceedings: “We have the [new] weapons now, that lets us give the player a little bit more choice in how they attack different combat scenarios.” Indeed, this sense of broadening the number of things to do in Moss continues with one other tease: “We had a pretty big boss at the end of Moss I. With Moss II, we want to continue pushing our boss fights and take advantage of that sense of size and danger.”
These new tightly-woven levels with different layers accessed by different tools are, as Burton mentions, the biggest alteration to the formula of Book I. “Our rooms are much more geared towards coming back to them and replaying them multiple times. As you get new abilities and new weapons, you can come back to old rooms and access new areas that were off-limits to you before. That's going to be a big difference in Book II. There is a lot more re-traversing spaces that you’ve already been through and lots more complex spaces that will change as you come back them.”
Even once you've finished a level, there will be plenty to find for you and Quill when backtracking. Scrolls may be hidden out of view, treasure chests are squirrelled away in high ceilings, and gates require keys to unlock. “Players can expect that we are going to keep things fresh,” says Burton. “As you go back through rooms, you’ll have scrolls to find, dust to collect, and new areas to access.”
But how do you prevent that old-school Metroidvania-style of level design from getting tedious, particularly with progression blockers in place to enforce the use of new tools? “It’s definitely a balance. Playtesting is the one thing that we do a lot of, especially in VR. In general, comfort is a big thing and that comfort [can] extend into frustration... mental frustration. Things just need to feel natural and make sense.
“If you come up to a door and you don’t realise that it's a gate you need to come back to later, then that's going to be confusing and frustrating for players. It took a lot of effort in playtesting to make sure that the barriers you come up against either felt very natural or were almost seamless so you didn’t realise the barrier until you understand what new tools you're going to have and how they work. So now that you have a certain tool, you can back and say ‘Oh, I saw this thing and I didn’t know what it was, but now I know how these tools work [...] I can come back and figure that out.’”