Review: Morels: The Hunt

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Review copy provided by developer

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I need a break from all this fighting and magicking and commanding and conquering in video games. Sometimes I just want to take a nice, peaceful walk, and without being hounded by ghosts or demons or the specters of my protagonist’s hidden misdeeds, either. Titles like Morels: The Hunt are rare gems for moments like these, games that emphasize a simple outing entirely devoid of conflict, with some benign, constructive goals to achieve. Obviously this isn’t going to be the kind of thrill that everyone is looking for, but if you like collecting things and nature, it should hold plenty of appeal.

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You’re a mushroom hunter! A hunter of morels, to be specific, small white-and-black fungi shaped like gnome caps. You’ve got 100 days to collect as many of the things as you can, all over the continental United States. Starting in the deep south and unlocking more locations to explore as time passes, you’ll spend each day combing the woods, fields, and valleys of rural America in search of delectable fungi. It’s not just morels you’re scrounging for, either. Several other mushroom types will earn your points, along with some amateur nature photography, to purchase new hunting gear and pay your way to the more exotic parts of the country. And if you’re really lucky, you might just make some discoveries that earn you headlines in the paper.

Morels: The Hunt was created by four brothers who’ve harbored an actual passion for morel hunting since childhood. The entire game is designed to capture the placid joys of experiencing nature, and it shows. Each area you’re given to search is a lovingly-rendered slice of the great outdoors, full of towering trees, babbling brooks, and vibrant greenery. In particular the high grasses and overgrowth is incredibly dense, giving the game a sense of actual wilderness that even the most immersive first-person games often lack. Over the course of a day you’ll hunt from sun-up to sundown, and night falls fast to immerse you in the near-total dark of nature, unless you bring along a trusty headlamp to aid your search.

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The actual morels themselves are fairly small, inconspicuous things, especially with that dense overgrowth I mentioned. There’s actual challenge here to locating any appreciable number of them on a given day, requiring you to scan the foliage carefully for those tell-tale signs of white and black. Other mushrooms have their own visual cues and traits, like puffballs being ruined if you walk over them, and you’ll need to learn which ones are tasty and which are poisonous for the sake of your health and score. The points you get from collecting are used to buy tools like morel markers (which persist between days to mark likely patches), sprays and first aid kits for dealing with seemingly random afflictions like poison ivy and ticks, and upgrades to help you cope with rain, darkness, or just make you move faster. You have an energy bar to watch but it’s mostly a non-issue, only draining if it’s raining and you don’t have a coat, get a tick, or get attacked by the few hostile forms of wildlife in the game.

There are animals here as well, and in some ways they’re even more of a draw than the morels. Dozens of woodland critters, from squirrels and rabbits to deer and bears, can be found roaming the different maps. You have a classic Polaroid camera to engage in a little nature photography, and the first picture you take of each animal you find awards you points. You’ve got to center each creature to get a good snap, and some of the more skittish ones can be a challenge to line up. At times I’ve found the nature photography to be more engaging than the mushroom hunting (for obvious reasons), and it gives some much-needed variety to the gameplay in allowing you to focus on multiple goals or just chase after something other than fungus.

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Digging deeper into the game also reveals a number of surprises to uncover. In addition to the many natural creatures of different rarities in each area, there are also secret animals to find. I won’t spoil what they are, but you may notice some distinctly unnatural sounds or tracks in rather out-of-the-way parts of the maps. The maps themselves are anywhere from large to enormous, featuring plenty of side areas like caves and cliffs that take some effort to get to and search. There are also golden morels to find, one hidden in every locale, that I haven’t even worked out the trick to finding. You’ll level up your morel hunting and photography skills as you use them over time, unlocking further hints and options, and there are weekly challenges for each of the in-game weeks to earn you additional points.

It’s a nature-lover’s dream game, honestly, but limited by its indie roots as so many great games are. The environments are a true highlight with how lush and detailed they are, but even on maximum settings the engine suffers from a lot of pop-in on small elements like rocks and shrubbery. I love the animals but don’t expect detailed or even believable behaviors here, as sometimes critters foxes and raccoons will bolt towards you instead of away, or just freeze in place for a bit. Dangerous creatures in particular have no tells or conspicuous behaviors to indicate when they’re fine with you and when they’re about to remove your face. And sometimes the experience gets in the way of itself, like when you finally unlock the ranch in Texas to search after two in-game weeks, only to find having a massive map ten times the size of the previous ones only makes it that much harder to find tiny morels.

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Gripes and nitpicks aside, Morels: The Hunt really is an ideal title for anyone wanting a peaceful game about nature. You wouldn’t think a game about hunting mushrooms (the normal kind, not the Mario kind) could be so engrossing, but I’ve spent hours combing the forest floor and chasing around blue jays because it’s just so relaxing and rewarding. The secrets and upgrades are just icing on the cake, because I think I’d be perfectly happy taking nature strolls and picking morels just for the sake of doing it. The world could use more games about relaxing and enjoying the world without conflict, especially now, so make the most of gems like this one.

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