Munin ReviewAustin Godfrey
Munin is a puzzle-platformer that borrows parts of its story from Norse mythology. While usually borrowing from a mythology can give a developer a supporting structure to generate either a new story or retell a classic one, Munin doesn't appear to do much of either. Maybe some background in the source material fills in the gaps, but to the average player it seems as though Munin is just borrowing a lot of proper nouns for the sake of naming characters and worlds.
From what could be gathered by reading the Steam store description, as well as attempting to read the in-game text, the player plays as Munin, one of the two crows who observe the mortal world and report to Odin. Munin has been turned human by Loki, and now must travel through nine worlds collecting his feathers to regain his form. That's about the limit of the plot from the start of the game to the end of it.
It's a little difficult to skim the story out of most of the in-game text because the sentences are structured like that of mythological epic. Sometimes it's hard enough to tell just who the speaker in a paragraph is, let alone, try to make sense of it. Also, the stylized ancient Norse font doesn't make the endeavor any easier. However, none of this really seems to matter in the long run. The only story relating to an objective is told in the title screen that plays every time the game boots. Any text before a new world is just about that environment and doesn't add to an ongoing plot.
It's not too fair to judge Munin for trying to add story to a genre that usually boils down to do the thing to unlock the next thing, but its core mechanic is so disengaged from the flimsy narrative framing given that it's a wonder why they even bothered. In Munin, levels are constructed out large tiles. The player can rotate these tiles to match platforms and move elements of the level around. However, despite contextualizing Munin's character and motivation, the story never mentions why he can move the earth around him. Normally, the lack of a setting in a puzzle-based game is purposefully done so that players just accept the mechanics of the game as nothing more than challenges the game throws at them, but creating a setting that tries to explain everything but the central ability of a player's character feels like, at best, a missed opportunity and, at worst, a gaping hole in the player's understanding of the game.
Munin does a good job of playing around with its core mechanic to give some variety, but it falls a bit short on the pacing. In the first of the nine worlds, the game introduces the player to the basic implications of moving around a level's tiles, as well as the hazards of the game. After completing the first basic world, the player is given the choice of three themed worlds to travel to next. Each world has its own unique mechanic that interacts with the game's core-mechanic, and each world mechanic manages to create interesting new puzzles that leave the game as a whole from feeling stale. Each level does an amazing job of showing; not saying, and teaches all of the game's mechanics with all but the most basic of tutorialization. There are a few frustrating what now? moments, but any hurdle in Munin can be solved by spamming all possible tile configurations until something produces progress.
While trial and error puzzle-solving is a nice safety net for the player, the ease of it is where the game struggles with pacing. Essentially, the difficulty of each level comes from whether or not the world's unique mechanic can kill the player. If it can't, then the player can just spam away until a solution is reached; if it can, then each move must be carefully considered because a death will result in restarting the whole puzzle. This is at its worst in the required lava world when the player has to deal with wonky liquid physics that result in instant death. The experience then becomes a test of endurance as the player has to be mindful of the entire puzzle at once with every little move. Later, when all of the mechanics are combined for the final world this becomes even more difficult. Many of the more peaceful mechanics up until this point have been solved by test all the possibilities, so mixing them with the instant-death mechanics requires the player to rethink their entire strategy as well as die frequently The game straddles the line between being relaxing, almost zen-like experience and a frustrating, rage-inducing nightmare, and can't seem to decide which it would rather be.
There is also no set world order. The player chooses the next level from a set of two or three. Because of this, the game ends up riding a sporadic difficulty wave rather than a consistent curve. This is very evident after completing the first four worlds, and unlocking the next set of two worlds. One of the two is made laughably easy compared to challenges completed so far because the unique mechanic actually reduces the number of possible solutions, and the other world (the earlier mentioned lava world) goes as far as to start the player in harm's way at one point with little time to react. It's all a bit of an emotional rollercoaster for the player, and could have benefited a lot from an ascending order of deadliness to give the player a sense of progression.
The order alone doesn't hamper the pacing of Munin. The worlds themselves feel much too long and lack a conclusion. While the unique mechanics of each world keeps the game as a whole feeling fresh, within the world they don't evolve much at all. After a level or two of introducing the world's mechanic the difficulty often plateaus for a few more levels until the world just suddenly ends. There's no build up or climax. After completing all the levels the player is just suddenly dumped back to the world select screen. The game gives little to incentivize the player moving forward except for maybe getting to explore a new mechanic after having done the current one to death.
There is however an expectation. One world does have a very simplistic build up in the last two levels with an undead god in the background. In the penultimate level, he's a pretty decent size and just floating on one side of the screen watching. However, in the final level takes up the whole backdrop, and his eyes follow player as he/she progress through the level. Moving background pieces like this are a huge strong point of Munin's art style, but don't occur quite as often as they should to keep the player captivated.
Unfortunately, some of the foreground objects didn't get as much attention as the background. The layouts of the levels are impressive, as all the levels are well-designed in that each possible configuration is interesting to traverse. However, Munin himself has an odd and kind of bland design for something that player spends so much time looking at. His head is quite large and just sits on his stiffly animated body. The character walks very slowly making some of the timing puzzles that much more frustrating, and his jump is purposely floaty since his true form is a bird. The jumping takes some time to master too since Munin easily glitches out on the side of terrain. Plus, slow or not, none of his movements seem natural. The animation is at its worse when it tries to make Munin swim through the water which is animated just as poorly.
Speaking as an individual now, I'm at a loss for who I would recommend Munin to. It has a lot of great qualities for a puzzle-platformer, but I feel it lacks a proper audience. Those who like to be challenged by puzzles will find half of the game to be too boring, and those who like to relax with puzzles will find the other half to be too stressful. The game has very little else going for it. It does have a few great art moments, but they are far too scarce. Even if you're a huge fan of Norse mythology it's not really a factor here. The setting has very little to do with the game past the title screen, and that's where I feel it let itself down the most. With either more or even less of the narrative framing and an actual progression to the difficulty, Munin could be a pretty good game. However, as it stands, it's more just a pretty good idea.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.