Indie Wonderland: Mothergunship

A few hours in

Nope! Turns out the Mothergunship wins. She wins, I’m out.

Okay, but hear me out: It super is, though.

A thing I didn’t mention at the start of this review is that I got to Mothergunship in a more non-standard manner. I first heard of the game when I saw it being streamed on a certain nightmare public access show, which made it look cool and interesting — and also something that people I like were playing, which probably helped. I proceeded to download the Steam demo, Gun Crafting Range, which interestingly isn’t you traditional vertical slice demo showing off one section of game, but more of a horizontal slice showing off one gameplay system (guess which one). The demo left a bad taste in my mouth, honestly: The gameplay was repetitive, the mechanics shallower than I’d expected, and the writing felt like someone was trying to hit the unfunny ‘random’ humor of later-era Borderlands and somehow still landed below the mark.

I’m generally not a fan of ‘hate-reviewing’ games; longer-time readers may notice that I often stick to games and genres I think or know I’ll enjoy. All the same, it’s important to extend that comfort zone sometimes. So in spite of the bad demo taste I decided to get Mothergunship, if for no other reason than to tear into it for my own amusement. But I was in for a surprise: The full game is actually significantly better than the demo? I know, I was shocked too. The gameplay is way less repetitive, there’s an overarching structure that gives more meaning to the mechanics, and I haven’t encountered any truly bad writing yet, or even much that was particularly cringeworthy.

So colour me shocked! Mothergunship isn’t actually a bad game. The upgrade from demo to full game has moved it from a game I couldn’t wait to uninstall, to a game that’s simply interestingly flawed and serviceably dull.

“Jarenth, that still doesn’t make it sound like you want to play this game.”

Mothergunship‘s heart is… actually, I’m going to say that Mothergunship has two hearts. Its first heart is the combat, which marries fast-paced mobile FPS gameplay in the vein of DOOM and Serious Sam with bullet hell speed and projectile density and roguelike procedural level generation (it’s a polyamorous marriage, okay), and then sprinkles its own seven secret herbs and spices on top (the secret to any good marriage). The atomic unit of gameplay is the ship/level, each of which you crash into at the start and proceed to tear your way through. Ships are made up of procedurally-generated rooms full of enemies and obstacles, which you kill and/or avoid; you do this until you hit the final room, which generally has either a data core or a self-destruct button.

Yeah, they all look like that. Including the sign.

It’s a simple gameplay loop, made very palatable by an impressive set of generated levels that incorporate verticality, open spaces, and environmental obstacles, and which make good use of Mothergunship‘s focus on speed and jumping — the triple jump you start out with is very literally only the start. You’ll have to stay in motion to stay alive: Many enemies are aggressive accurate hunters, so you’ll hop around the room and use vertical motion to break line of sight if you know what’s good for you. You can pass most rooms by fleeing too, if you want, but defeated enemies drop experience and money, and sometimes health and powerups.

Like any good game that hates you, Mothergunship gives lava a common seat at the table.

And things get even more complicated from there. Almost every room has multiple exits, but not all exits are equal. Some will lead to ‘challenge’ rooms, which offer an optional challenge on top of your regular diet of death robots: Stuff like ‘kill X enemies in Y seconds’, ‘don’t take damage for X seconds’, ‘don’t stop moving’, or simply ‘survive’. Clear the challenge and get a cash reward, fail and continue as you were… unless you fail the ‘survive’ challenge, obviously. Others are ‘dice’ doors, which… I honestly still don’t quite know what those do? I think they lead to rooms with particular floor obstacles, that’s the best I got. At any rate, you can choose to go into these special doors if you want to shake things up or try for rewards, or you can go through normal doors if that’s what you want to handle at that moment.

Unless the random algorithm decides to screw you over.

And then there are the shops, which you’ve seen. Shops only open if you kill everything on a level, which can sometimes lead to ‘fun’ hunts around for the one enemy stuck in a corner somewhere. You can use the money you might find to buy gun parts and (rarely) health.

Which segues neatly in Mothergunship‘s second heart: Gun crafting.

“It’s like Spore, except for making crimes against firearms registration law instead of crimes against humanity.”

A rough recap of gun crafting: You craft guns from three categories of parts. Connectors tie other parts together and provide sockets to slot things into; barrels provide the firepower; and caps add all sorts of fun superpowers onto your gun. You can basically go as mad as you want with all the parts that you have, keeping only two rules in mind: No parts can physically overlap, and all gun barrels must face ‘forward’.

The former is more often an issue than the latter.

Gun crafting is a very cool idea on paper, and you can make some wild creations if you let your imagination run free. Tape eight shotguns together, why not. Add a shotgun to a sniper rifle. Combine a rocket launcher with a laser beam with a minigun with a spike ball launcher, then add shot bounce boosters the whole lot. The sky’s the limit. Well, that and two practical limitations: First, all gun barrels draw from the same generic ‘energy’ pool to fire, and once that runs out, you’ll have to wait for it to recharge (though your left and right guns do have separate energy meters). So sure, make a block of ten rocket launchers; you better make sure you hit with that first shot, though, because you won’t get a second one for a little bit. And second, depending on the way you orient your parts, your field of vision might start getting impacted.

This isn’t even a particularly wild example.

Still though. It’s not too difficult to work within those boundaries and still get crazy.

“A sawblade is a close-range weapon.” — you, an uninspired novice.

The gun crafting is certainly a fun and cool gameplay system. Although I would have liked to see it go further into either a serious or a wacky direction. Playing it seriously, imagine what would happen if ‘ammo’ wasn’t magical regenerating energy, but actual ammo you had to find? With different ammo for each gun type or class? That would definitely incentivize weird gun combinations and creativity. Currently, people like me, who are boring, will find it’s generally easier and more useful to just stick the same gun on there over and over. But imagine if your rocket barrel used rockets and your laser barrel used energy cells and your chaingun used 30 mm… I can’t say that I wouldn’t have hated that, but it definitely would have forced people to think on their feet. Or alternatively, lean into the wacky side and remove the restriction on barrel facing. Why can I only have forward-facing barrels? Let me build a gun that shoots in four directions at once! Let me add barrels that face left, right, backwards, and up, and just spray the room with bullets. It’s so easy to get cool with this, like, imagine: A double-barreled shotgun, except the barrels point different directions. America, you’re welcome: That one’s one the house.

Daydreams aside, it’s easy to see the combined Mothergunship gameplay loop. You start each mission with a small number of chosen parts to build starter guns, which you expand as you go with the items you buy. You increase in power partially just by adding more stuff to your gun, but there’s also an element of part rarity in play: Parts can be grey, blue, purple, or yellow, corresponding to increasing power levels. Better parts do more of what they do for less energy: Better barrels do more damage and fire faster, better upgrades are better upgrades. So getting better parts allows you to get more powerful while reducing the drain on your energy, which is necessary to counteract the slowly increasing difficulty. Better parts also look better than lower-level ones, which I think is neat.

It’s a pretty significant difference.

This is also where the shine starts coming off the apple, sadly.

Here’s the thing: Mothergunship is hard. Incorporating bullet hell mechanics into FPS gameplay runs into the same issue that Mirror’s Edge had with platforming: In the first-person perspective, you just don’t have access to all the information you would have in other, more common perspectives. Bullet hell in particular relies equally on player reflexes and on player awareness of incoming threats. Taking an FPS perspective in a 3-D world means that by definition, almost three quarters of everything is outside your field of view.

So you’ll get hit a lot, almost unavoidably so. You can mitigate it by staying on the move and looking around, and presumably by other ways of ‘being good’, but you’ll still get hit. Individual hits are small, one bullet won’t kill you, but in later levels with dozens of enemies those small hits quickly add up. And Mothergunship is surprisingly stingy when it comes to healing: Enemies may drop healing items, some of which decay over time if you don’t pick them up fast enough, and you can find healing in secret areas or in shops — occasionally, and if you can spare the cash. And since the levels are randomly generated, a bad roll of the dice might mean you get your ass kicked with little recourse; you can only be so good.

This would be okay if Mothergunship was built on the idea of you dying. And it is pretty lenient. Death loses you almost nothing: You’re not set back in the narrative, main missions don’t go anywhere, and you still gain exp and money from failed missions. It’s almost entirely consequence free.

Almost. Remember this screen?

I remember this screen. I remember it well.

On most missions, you can choose to bring a small number of parts from your inventory. Key word here is inventory: Every individual gun part exists as an item in your list. You can bring a mission-mandated number of them with you, and if you win, you take them back home, along with every part you bought or found along the way. But if you lose… you take home nothing. Not the parts you bought, and not the parts you brought, either.

Rare parts are rare, News At Eleven. You can occasionally buy higher-quality parts in mission shops if you’re lucky, or from the hub’s smuggler if you’re wealthy (and you can find them), and sometimes you get them as mission rewards. I played Mothergunship for several hours and I can count my number of purple parts on one hand. So losing these parts hurts. But as the game gets more difficult you’re increasingly incentivized to use those parts, since they’re just objectively better. This can lead to a negative feedback loop: As missions get harder, you need to bring your best stuff to win. But weapon gear generally only improves your damage output and occasionally mobility, not your health or survivability. So you’re still at significant risk of death while wielding your Sunday best, and if you do die, those parts are gone.

Jumping over giant fields of lava while floating robots take potshots at you will never be safe, no matter how many ultra sniper barrels you brought.

Mothergunship has an intended offset/recovery mechanism: Side missions. Every main campaign mission, represented by a large ship, is surrounded by several smaller side mission ships, which you can run at any time. Some offer a large exp reward at the end, some offer money, some offer both (at the cost of being ‘nightmare’ ships). And some missions don’t offer particular rewards, but have a mandated starting loadouts: These are great for getting more weapon parts, since you keep the stuff they gave you and the stuff you find, and you don’t have to bring anything. But all missions can get you bits of everything, it’s just a matter of focus.

I’ve mentioned ‘exp’ a few times: This is used to upgrade your armor with several non-gun-related boosts, like max energy or health or starting number of jumps.

If you win, of course. It’s just as easy to lose those, and still have nothing to show.

In retrospect, why *did* I try this one?

I’d call this mechanic ‘grinding’, but that’s not really accurate. ‘Grinding’ implies a simple boring activity that you do over and over until you get where you need to be. Mothergunship‘s loop is more like gambling: Maybe if I do this mission with these parts I’ll have enough of a head start to overcome the difficulty, and then I’ll get what I want. Or maybe I won’t, and I’ll get nothing, and lose my starting parts in the process. Now I’m even weaker than before. But maybe if I try this mission with these parts… Obviously, player skill matters here and you can mitigate a lot, but all the same, there’s only so much you can do to not die to random chance.

I don’t quite get why parts work this way. I don’t understand why weapon rarity levels aren’t, like, unlocked through missions, or upgraded with cash, or something like that. The current system seems built specifically to require extended play, repeated side mission grinding, particularly if you have bad luck or if you’re not that good at it. And hell, you might not even find parts that you like! Everything is randomized all the time, because Mothergunship intends you to roll with the things you find — it’s funnier and more interesting that way. And it would be, if it then didn’t punish you for experimenting. Or for misunderstanding how some systems work. Or just for bad luck.

Just my luck.

Having repeated bad luck is what soured me on Mothergunship. It would be okay if I ‘just’ had a bad spell, or if it clearly meant I was the failure point, that I needed to get better. It would even be okay if I was failing forward in some way. But using good parts to try and get out of the hole I’m in, and failing, means I actually take steps back. And using bad parts means strongly setting myself up for failure, and wasting my time. Which is not trivial thing: Any individual Mothergunship side mission can take between 5 and 15 minutes, depending on density, with main missions getting even heavier.

Let me plunk down a few other complaints here too: I didn’t think Mothergunship had very good gamefeel. I’ll compare it to Borderlands again here: It lacks a sense of impact, with bullets and shots doing nothing more than causing visual FX on enemies and making health meters go down. It’s very difficult to track your own health and damage, too. I particularly never had a good sense of where any incoming damage was coming from. It all feels very… floaty, is what I keep coming back to. You click a bunch and numbers pop up and meters go down and suddenly you’re near-death.

And the levels get visually busy fast. I understand the need for dozens of enemies, but they’re often not very visually distinct from each other, and depending on the level tileset they might not be very distinct from the background either, making it difficult to keep track of some or all of them. So you just… spray bullets and hope. Watch several health bars drain away, slowly.

Woooooo.

And finally, the game’s ‘secrets’ are a joke. I don’t even want to get into them, that’s how meaningful they were. I understand why proc-gen levels can’t have meaningful secrets, but… why even have them in the first place?

Crucially, none of the above points would matter too much individually if, on the whole, I was feeling good about Mothergunship. But I’m not. From where I’m standing right now, instead, they feel like individual contributors to the death cycle of my starting optimism.

And if there was ever a phrase you don’t want associated with your game…

Final thoughts

I did enjoy my time with Mothergunship to a significant degree. I might even choose to play more later. Maybe as a game I’ll pick up in small bursts, running short missions with bad gear and slowly trying to improve. Or just building weird guns in the gun lab, or doing the predetermined loadout missions.

All the same, I don’t expect to actually ever finish it. And I don’t really expect I’ll go back to it after I ‘finally’ put it aside: Out of sight, out of mind, is probably how that’ll go. It’s an interesting design experiment with strong innovative highlights, but the overall experience puts me in the mindset of systemized entropy more than anything else, and that super clashes with the bright, colourful, optimistic narrative and visual mood.

Case in point:

If making your own cool guns and bringing them to hypermobile combat arenas sounds like your jam, and you don’t mind the occasional grinding or burst of frustration, consider giving Mothergunship a try. For all my earlier smack talk about it, there is a demo, though one you should take with several grains of salt. And Mothergunship itself runs at twenty-five bucks, which is indie-high but not super pricey. So it could be a game to take a gamble on, if it looks good to you.

Just maybe don’t use your quality free time on it. Not at first.

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Jarenth will one day build his ultragun, and everything will have been worth it. Suggest loadouts to him on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?

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