Mothergunship Highlights the Delicate Balance Between Punishment and Reward in Roguelikes

Games Features Mothergunship
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<i>Mothergunship</i> Highlights the Delicate Balance Between Punishment and Reward in Roguelikes

Mothergunship feels like a classic case of a flawed game with extremely high ambitions. It’s not a bad experience by any stretch, but the few problems that surround an otherwise extremely tight core become more and more glaring as the game progresses.

The game, by Grip Digital and Terrible Posture Games, is a mix of first person shooter, gun construction simulator, and roguelike(-like-like-like) where runs consist of assembling guns and surviving through randomized dungeons of bullet-hell style rooms full of enemies. It came out earlier in the year and mostly feels like it was swallowed up by the tide of summer games.

It’s unfortunate it didn’t get more attention at the time, because, if nothing else, Mothergunship is really trying for something. It’s bombastic, loud, and the gun creation/customization mechanic is genuinely fresh in a way that I haven’t seen in games in a long time. Snapping gun barrels, connectors, and caps (small attachment pieces that grant slight attribute bonuses to the complete gun) together like Lego bricks is a simple, easy and fun twist on what usually happens with upgrade trees. Moving around extremely fast and jumping ludicrous amounts of times (the game goes far beyond double jumps, with a maximum upgrade level of 40 midair jumps) is fun. Dodging oversize bullets fired from waves of enemies is fun.

What isn’t so fun is the overly punishing nature of the game’s metastructure, or how the levels eventually start to feel too similar. The roguelike dungeons are technically infinite, but within a single run or two you get a feeling for how they’re infinite, which involves a lot of recycling of specific room archetypes with slight variations on enemy placement and exit doors. It’s not “bad,” but it’s certainly not the most advanced method of roguelike level design that I’ve seen.

The levels aren’t helped by the fact that since you go in to each alien ship with an initial loadout taken from your personal gun-parts stash, dying in that level means not just that you permanently lose whatever you’ve accumulated in the run, but what you brought in with you. It’s frustratingly easy to end up on a losing streak and depleting your stash of materials, since a losing run could lose a full six gun items. For comparison, a good win of a medium-sized alien ship gives you, generally, maybe fifteen new items. The ratio is simply too punishing to maintain pushing forward.

There is another option, luckily—you are always granted a range of different missions to take on, and one of them is always a supply run where you are granted five gun parts randomly, instead of choosing items from your personal stash. I found myself going on these runs extremely often, as the lack of risk made them attractive… at the cost of feeling burnt out on seeing the same rooms over and over.

Mothergunship has a lot gunning (heh) for it. It’s not a bad game by any means, and I’m still probably going to keep playing it after writing this. But it’s hard to not feel like it could have been a truly great game with just a few tweaks—up there with Dead Cells as one of the defining roguelikes of the 2010s. As it stands, however, it’s just a lot of bark and not a lot of boom.

Dante Douglas is a writer, poet and game developer. You can find him on Twitter at @videodante.