Momodora: Reverie of Requiem Moon Cat Reverie is a game I’ve been looking into buying for about three years, ever since it first released and I caught the inimitable HalfCoordinated running it at a GDQ event. It’s the kind of product that feels particularly targeted: it has cutesy key artwork, 32-bit style graphics in-game, a Japanese-sounding name and definite anime aesthetic, and an obvious Castlevania homage right in the title. It knows exactly who it’s after, and I think if you had a sheet of paper you might be able to draw them. They’d look a lot like me – they’ve got my number to the tenth decimal place. It’s a game that wears its influences so far out on its sleeve that there might as well be an annotated list: it has the Metroidvania gated exploration, the gridded map and intimidating bosses, the traversal mechanics and quirky, mysterious NPCs. It has the adorable, super-expressive pixel art of something like WayForward’s early Shantae games, but with a decidedly cutesy-gothic slant. Like Salt and Sanctuary, it has a version of Dark Souls’ healing Estus Flask system, which replenish upon a save point visit, as well as a limited, strategic equipment component. In so many other ways, Momodora clearly draws from the Souls games: there’s the whiplash difficulty of many of the boss battles, the inscrutable and intentionally half-sketched lore of its world, the secret lore hidden in item descriptions, as well as that game’s lingering, persistent sense of melancholy. No matter how cute Momodora might get, there’s always going to be a chance that that next room hides a character death, or a seemingly insurmountable combat challenge, or some other bizarre, surreal horror. It gets quite real, by the end, and that’s without mentioning the Cat thing.
There’s a Cat thing.
The willingness to go from ‘moe cuteness’ to ‘surprise death’ to ‘bizarre existential parable’ is one of Momodora’s most endearing features, and I think it’s worth digging into. It reminds me strongly of another weird little indie metroidvania that I played in the last little bit, although one which a much higher profile: it reminds me of Hollow Knight. Hollow Knight is completely brilliant in a number of surprising ways, but one of its most impressive feats was translating the overwhelming grimness of a Souls-like game down to its own insectoid scale without losing any of Dark Souls’ sense of grandiose, Gothic wonder. Where Hollow Knight broke with the Souls tradition was in its sense of humour, its heart, and its frankness of tone. Where Dark Souls often feels like a work of ornate medieval poetry, Hollow Knight is more of a very dark, exceptionally complex animated feature: it maintained all of the thematic punch without losing any of the work’s inherent maturity.
Momodora, interestingly, falls somewhere in the middle. There’s a roughness to its artistic edges that, while making for a less consistently-polished product, leaves a kind of artistic gap through which the player can get a sense of the creator’s hand, busily at work behind the scenes, throwing things together. Momodora is sometimes messy in its tonal shifts, and at times rushes past opportunities entirely: for instance the vibrant beauty of the opening area disappears immediately, and is absorbed into a muted world of greys and blacks, from which it never really returns. Several characters’ storylines are unresolved in a way that can feel incomplete, and while some of the vague storytelling is clearly intentional, some NPCs defy narrative convention entirely. For example: at one point we enter an area and the camera smash-cuts to introduce another character as she escapes a prison cell. We meet her, and exchange names and backstories. She then disappears until we can track her down again, and then once more later on, but at no point does her story progress, or is her motivation made clear, nor does she provide any meaningful flavour beyond her presence. Even now, I can’t remember her name. This one mystery NPC has more screen-time than any other, aside from the protagonist. Other characters drift in, introduce themselves, and then simply disappear entirely – their stories are left half-sketched on the periphery of a main narrative only occasionally interested in its own resolution. At one point we’re asked to contemplate the death of a character whose name the average player isn’t likely to remember at all.
Perhaps most damningly, the game’s true ending is locked inside an arbitrary, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it secret item, hidden away in one of the game’s middle areas. When you collect it, you’re simply told you’ve unlocked a very special ability, and that’s that. I happened to find it long before encountering the final boss, completely by accident, and so I never witnessed the game’s ‘incomplete’ finale at all. I’m glad I got the true ending, but have to admit I was left a bit confused.
And yet, every one of these half-complete threads drew me in closer and closer to the game itself. In Dark Souls, the awkward poetry of its dialogue was a deliberate attempt to weave a fairy tale into the game’s enormous, confusing narrative and meta-narratives. In Hollow Knight, the frankness of the characters’ dialogue made them feel human, vibrant, and immensely, relatably sad. In Momodora, however, the sparseness and possible incompleteness of the dialogue often reads like a haiku. It suggests multitudes beyond itself, without ever resolving or dispelling much of anything at all. In a lesser game, or perhaps one in which I went in expecting it, this might be a nuisance. In Momodora, it brings a limited interactive world to life through a level of suggestion and nuance which I never would have expected. Through the very roughness of its storytelling and polish, it achieves a level of completely intriguing subtlety that totally impressed me. In the best way, Momodora feels like an overly ambitious student project, and what it lacks in consistency it makes up for in sheer enthusiasm. It’s a game that trips over its own wealth of neat, weird, charming ideas. Over four hours or so, I was consistently impressed by the richness of the world it suggests – often without showing or telling.
I’ve always been of the mind that if a thing can’t be perfectly polished, a better alternative is to be undeniably unique. It’s the mentality that gives us so many of the indie games we love so well: these are developers who know that they can’t compete when it comes to budget or manpower, so they take the back door, they improvise and frequently give us works of either astonishing personal significance, or bizarro artistry, or total accidental genius. Momodora, largely the work of a single individual, is some combination of all three. While its moment to moment gameplay is an excellent facsimile of a Symphony of the Night (and a total joy to speed through), it’s in the game’s aesthetic and diagetic storytelling that really shines through. While a sparse four hours long and rife with unanswered questions, there’s no denying that Momodora: Reverie Under The Moonlight is the work of an undeniably talented and passionate developer finding their footing. Whatever comes next will be worth keeping an eye on.
Also, you get to be a cat. For that alone, I give it 10 out of 10 vague item descriptions.
Momodora update: holy hell, what do you know! The day I go to publish this thing, the sequel releases! What a wild coincidence! Jump on Steam and grab Minoria ASAP. If the Momodora quadrilogy is anything to go on, it’s probably a riot.