Bullet mayhem that doesn't capitalize on its unique ideas
The bullet hell / shoot 'em up subgenre has been around since the early days of the medium. The combination of mayhem, luck, and player skill led to many memorably frustrating and victorious moments, and the design has stood the test of time. As such, many smaller developers often try their hand at this genre, much like they do with platformers, as it provides an easier barrier to entry thanks to a straightforward formula. The newly released Mothergunship may have the look and feel of a bullet hell game, but to its credit it tries to offer some rather unique elements, which unfortunately don’t come together in the end.
The story is minimal; you are a solider who is suddenly thrust into a space conflict with an invading alien armada headed to Earth. Guided by audio transmissions from a cast of characters on the ship that serves as your home base, you set out to missions that take place across various invading spaceships, eventually working your way to the main vessel. The well-voiced characters are there to provide a distraction from the gunfire, and to crack jokes that mostly come off as amusing but not particularly funny. The end goal is the destruction of the alien invader ships, and that's pretty much all you need to know.
Mothergunship offers a unique mix of traditional 3D shooting combined with bullet hell elements (though quite similar to developers' previous game, Tower of Guns). What that boils down to is you entering a series of rooms with enemies or traps, who shoot projectiles/lasers/other hazards at you at relatively lower speeds. To survive and overcome, you observe the trajectory of these incoming dangers, dodge or destroy them, and then attack the source – typically cannons or robots of some sort. It really does feel like a bullet hell game with a new perspective, and that's pretty neat. There are drawbacks, however – in a typical 2D bullet hell, you usually have a full view of the environment and are able to oversee the incoming fire. In the first person perspective though, you will easily lose track of incoming fire from the side or behind, and take damage. Later in the game when the entire level is covered with foes and you're darting across the air at breakneck speeds, it is both exciting to do and disappointing to acknowledge how much damage you have no reasonable way of avoiding.
To that end, the game does offer fairly satisfying controls. You can jump up to three times by default, and as the game progresses you can find powerups that add additional jumps. In the later levels, you have an absolute ton of jumps available, letting you stay in the air for a very long time and reign down fire. There are also plenty of platforms that will propel you forward. The levels are procedurally generated, and often feature a couple of different path choices, but feel rather typical in their design for a sci-fi space shooter. Verticality and unique structure only really come into play during some story missions.
From your home base ship you can set out to missions, either story related or side objectives. The missions display what relative difficulty they are, and also what rewards they offer. For the most part, those rewards are tied into the game's unique gun crafting system. You have a collection of items that will grow exponentially over the course of the campaign, and you choose which ones you want to bring to the mission with you. This leads to the game's main unique mechanic – weapon crafting.
At the start of each mission, and later on throughout the levels, you will find crafting benches where you can put together weapons using parts. Parts come in three categories – connectors that provide insertion points, barrels that shoot things, and caps that provide passive stat bonuses. On a 3D screen, your task then is to connect these things together. The only rule is that barrels must always face forward – so you're free to multi stack connectors and caps all over. You can get fairly creative, blending rockets and flamethrowers, though you're only limited to the items you've brought with you at the start of a level and purchased during its course from the shop rooms that pop up a few times. The game balances this freedom to dish out crazy damage by using a power meter system – the more powerful your custom weapon, the more quickly it will deplete and need time to recharge. It's a sensible design approach that works.
The firepower you get to wield comes in crazy shapes and sizes, but the mechanics of actually shooting aren't that exciting. Your left and right guns are bound to left/right mouse button, and most of the time it just becomes a matter or holding them both down, and perhaps keeping an eye on the energy meters for each side. The shooting feels rather weightless and lacks impact, despite the many explosions that occur, and it fails to invoke the sheer joy of dual wielding like Wolfenstein does. Things also get fairly repetitive. The enemies you encounter feature little behavior or attack variety; boss battles can be memorable, if few in number. As the visual aesthetic is largely the same across the levels, it all starts to blend together after a while.
While Mothergunship features some rather interesting ideas, it all fails to come together due to the game's roguelike approach. You'll come to collect up to 100 weapon parts from the missions, but they are awkwardly placed in a small window which you must scroll through. If you get more, you have to discard some. The reason for so many parts is because when you die in a mission, it's game over, and you lose everything you've brought with you at the start/collected during its course. It's not as punishing as some other games that employ a similar design, it's just annoying. Health can deplete rather suddenly and with so many explosions and effects in later levels, the last thing you're looking at is the small health bar on the side. In general, it can be just too hectic to tell what's going on. Health pickups are random drops and seem rare, and with no regeneration, you could be facing a boss with a sliver of hope remaining. Because the levels and enemies are also random, you will have learned nothing from your demise. So the question becomes – do you save a rare powerful part for later missions, or just use it so you can have some fun? Another annoyance comes from the fact that all weapons you craft are not kept – you have to start each mission creating stuff from scratch. Hope you remembered that sweet gun design from earlier and how it was put together.
You buy new weapon parts by earning currency throughout the mission, and can purchase new components in the same room as the crafting stages. You also earn experience from missions which ties into light RPG elements to increase your speed and health over time. When you're done with the campaign, there is also an endless mode to tackle, where you can finally go really crazy with weapons as each stage progresses and lets you keep the weapons for as long as you survive.
Visually, Mothergunship has a clean and rather generic sci-fi look, with many enemy and turret designs inspired by bullet hell shooters. The art style is slightly reminiscent of Borderlands, and the color palette doesn't change much, especially for the side missions – hence again, things can get repetitive as rooms and enemies run out of variety even with the random generation. Things can also get rather hectic and your screen fills with explosions and gunfire, from your own and enemy weapons, which leads to a lot of moments where you don't really feel in control. Again, another side effect of changing the perspective but trying to keep the same bullet hell gameplay. At least there are adjustments that can be made to FOV and framerate limits. The background music provides a few forgettable techno tracks, and the explosions and gunfire don't sound overly impressive.
Mothergunship has a few unique and enticing ideas, and on their own, they sound quite interesting. However, after putting it all together, the final result doesn't really gel. The movement is fast and fun, and the switch to a new perspective in a bullet hell world is well implemented, but carries a few natural drawbacks. Collecting gun parts and creating your own weapons is engaging, but having to do so every single level gets tiresome. The action doesn't carry much weight, and things eventually become rather repetitive. The roguelike aspects don’t work in the game's favor. It's a robust and highly replayable shooter, but one that will only appeal to a certain class of bullet hell fans.