Puzzle me intrigued!
Team17 have a penchant for publishing strange, quirky games, with recent offerings including Worms games, Yooka-Laylee and Overcooked. Mugsters, the debut of studio Reinkout, doesn’t just continue this trend – it turns it up to eleven.
Mugsters is a hard game to define. It’s a puzzle game, yet the way you solve most puzzles is by blowing stuff up. It’s a game about saving the world from aliens, yet its minimalist art style clearly distinguishes the setting from the world we know. It has no plot but a clear progression system, multiplayer support but no multiplayer levels, and no in-game civilisation but cars, planes and ruins that litter the levels.
The game is a mass of contrasts, but strip back the confused layers of aesthetic and genre, and you’ll find a solid and challenging puzzle game.
The objectives of each level is three-fold: firstly the player must complete a set task such as destroying several generators or connecting a giant plug to a socket. Then they must escape while gathering several crystals scattered throughout the level, and rescuing a collection of trapped humans. Scattered across the levels are exploding barrels that can be thrown, vehicles that have a number of uses, walls that can be brought down in different ways, various switches that can be triggered, enemies that can hurt you, and various other impediments to success. The variety of resources and obstacles across each map becomes staggering as you progress in the game.
The reason Mugsters’ puzzles work is that each level has a variety of solutions. Instead of memorising each puzzle and its elements, you simply learn how different aspects of the world interact, and can forge ahead as you please.
For example, in one level you can use exploding barrels to break down walls, thus unlocking switches that open new areas with more switches and barrels. If you’re a pioneer, however,you can jump in a hot-air balloon, get close enough to a giant alien ship to entice it to chase you, and fly over all the walls as it grounds them to dust in its pursuit. Finding alternative methods to puzzles is one of the greatest sources of fun in the game.
Despite being marketed as an action game, with trailers showing fast-paced driving, flying and running to be integral to the gameplay, Mugsters is fundamentally a slow game. Most of the gameplay is spent traversing the levels and slowly figuring out the best way to mitigate all the obstacles. An important aspect to the game is rescuing humans and leading them unharmed to the exit, and since these humans are surprisingly delicate, a slow and methodical approach to each level brings the best results.
That being said, there are times when the pace rockets up, like being chased by the aforementioned alien ships. These events differ drastically to the aforementioned slow pace found throughout, and by having to think on your feet, they throw an exciting curve ball into the gameplay. Usually, however trying to re-create the fast pace of these segments, and the trailers, usually just ends to a quick death.
Ignore the adverts: the fun of Mugsters doesn’t come from taking down aliens and their bases in action-packed levels, it comes from slowly and meticulously picking through each level to devise wacky and wonderful ways to reach the end.
The isometric design of the land forms and vehicles of the world is complemented by the zoomed-out top-down perspective on the levels, turning each level into an elegant and lonely diorama. Especially fantastic are the water animations, with polygons oscillating in a hypnotic kaleidoscope pattern.
Equally commendable is the music and sound design. The scarce use of sound effects means that any sound seems important, be it a barrel destroying a wall or the low pulsing of a nearby trapped human. The music in each level seems to consist of only two notes, but instead of getting repetitive the simplistic repeated melody constantly creates layers of foreboding.
Unfortunately, the haunting atmosphere created by the sound has no relation to the atmosphere of the gameplay, which consists of using fast vehicles and big explosions to solve puzzles. Similarly, the visuals can get in the way – the zoomed-out perspective makes it very difficult to see where you’re jumping to in the numerous platforming segments. The artistic vision of the game is clearly at odds with the gameplay elements.
The game is coupled with an offline multiplayer mode, however the multiplayer levels are just slightly modified versions of the single player levels. There are scarce occasions that require both players, with the sole benefit of having a buddy being that you can complete the levels slightly faster. It doesn’t help that the characters look remarkably similar at a distance, and it often becomes confusing trying to figure out who is who.
There are also a few problems in the single-player mode, such as the fact vehicles sometimes start driving themselves when you exit them, or the strange and oft-suicidal AI of rescued humans. These can become frustrating when you’ve spent a long time completing a puzzle perfectly just to die, or lose a companion, for seemingly no reason. These issues are likely bugs, however, and they occur only rarely.
Lastly, a word on the story: there is none. The game doesn’t suffer from its lack of a plot as the narrative progression – of completing more audacious objectives in more dangerous levels with a wider array of vehicles and tools – is as much of a plot as is needed. Perhaps, however, the solid mechanics shown in this game could be adapted and improved for later narrative games.
Despite clear identity issues, Mugsters is an enjoyable puzzle game that lets the player take the reins to complete each level how they like. Its distinct visual style and adept sound design also deserve recognition, despite jarring with the gameplay.