I intentionally went into Mugsters with no knowledge of the plot. While I played a snippet of the game at E3, my attention was drawn by both the minimalist, colorful art style and the distinctive gameplay. In both my convention session and the full version here at home, I never knew the reasons for my actions until reading the Steam description. It’s a testament to the game’s design, then, that I was hooked on the gameplay elements alone.
I assumed, like most titles, that the game would provide context. It doesn’t. What I learned after playing is that aliens have taken over the world. Now, it’s up to you to save it. Each level is an island with the primary objective of freeing entrapped humans and escaping via plane. Islands have side missions as well, such as shutting down satellites or gathering alien crystals.
From an isometric viewpoint, you’ll drive vehicles, throw explosive barrels, fight two-headed alien monstrosities, and run from UFOs as you navigate the world. One puzzle had me sneaking around a giant alien ship in search of a crystal, while another involved simply jumping across platforms in the proper order to reach a hidden area.
Areas are increasingly creative. Initial levels often see you ramming a car through walls, enemies, and explosives. Frankly, this never gets old. Later levels are the same, only sprinkled with ramps to jump, narrow pathways to navigate, and hazardous elements like collapsing bridges.
Prepare to consistently fail, as death is a given. I have run myself over more times than I can count. If they get close, aliens kill quickly. There are no checkpoints, and dying means a full restart. This mechanic is frustrating in longer levels, especially when I’ve been stuck in the geometry or fallen into unescapable areas. Fortunately for completionists, you don’t need to do every side mission at once. You can save two of three survivors, finish the level, and then come back for the last one in subsequent playthroughs.
The camera is as much an asset as it is your enemy. While the wide view enables you to see obstacles, solutions often hide behind landmasses and other objects. In earlier levels, it’s easy to rotate the camera and explore, but the later, faster-paced stages don’t give you enough time to look around. Generally, it’s difficult to make precise camera movements while a giant UFO shoots after your speeding minivan.
Mugsters is eerie. There’s no score behind your actions - furthering the feeling of isolation inherent after an alien invasion. But, in a similar vein to the Portal games, the lack of music also helps one focus clearly on the puzzles instead of serving as a distraction. The silence also emphasizes sound effects. I’ve jumped more than once at an alien ship careening off the ground.
Less enjoyable are the slippery, teeter-totter controls. I advise against using keyboard and mouse. Most actions require accurate movements, such as using the roof of a car as a stepping stool to higher ground. A controller softens the blow, but my character still moved in ways I didn’t intend. It’s hard to say if the imprecise controls are deliberate. But, when movements contribute to various untimely deaths it takes away from the fun.
Also, while death is a slight distraction in the early game, it happens all too often during longer levels. Since there isn’t a checkpoint system, I’ve lost quite a bit of progress many times. I don’t usually get angry at games, but having to restart due to my character cheaply glitching through a wall is a blood-boiling experience.
But, despite the high level of restarts, a special feeling of success evokes from finally escaping a level with all the objectives completed. Maybe it’s from pulling through after so many losses or through experiencing the mesh of the multi-game mechanics coming together that results in this happiness. Regardless, victory is a high that keeps me going through the levels.
There’s nothing quite like busting a literal semi truck through a stone wall, bailing out last second as it barrels into a group of enemies, and escaping into a plane with a couple of survivors in tow. Each victory validates all of the deaths that came before, no matter how invalid they may have felt.
Equally attractive is Mugsters’ bright and colorful art style that helps it to stand out from other indie titles. Colors starkly contrast one another, with dangerous items highlighted in a vivid red while useful items may be blue or green. When standing still, parts of Mugsters resemble actual pieces of art. Each shade contrasts well with the others, creating a perfect palette in which to reign destruction.
Mugsters is not for those that give up easily. Sometimes intentionally and sometimes due to bugs, the game will shut you down more than it won’t. But, those who stick through the loss will find a unique and rewarding experience that's unlike any game I've played in a long while.
TechRaptor covered Mugsters on PC via Steam with a code provided by the publisher.