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Wot I Think: Mushroom 11

Not a cloud in the sky.

We've been thrilled by the concept behind Mushroom 11 [official site] since it was first shown at 2013's GDC Experimental Gameplay Workshop. Now the final game is finally with us, out today on Steam. And here's wot I think.

The most immediately important thing about Mushroom 11 is that it introduces a completely new movement mechanic to gaming. And a stunningly good one. You indirectly control a gelatinous blob, by destroying it. Holding down the mouse button, you move what is essentially an erase brush, that lets you rub away portions of the peculiar organic mass – do this and those erased parts regrow on its other side. So, to move the organism to the left, you erase the right.

As you do this, momentum is created, meaning you can cause the blob to roll, climb, or balance, and because it will fill the space its given (to its maximum size), you can also force it through narrow passages, erasing the back end of the resulting sausage to advance the front end.

This still works if the green mass is divided into separate parts. Split it in two and erasing one part will have it reappear on the other. And so, with this extremely clever manoeuvring in place, the puzzles naturally arise. Get the clump to push a button with one end, so the other can get through a door. Delete the button pushing end and it regrows the other side of the door, and you’re through. Or shape it such that it fits itself into a socket, in what I’ve just learned is called “gomphosis”, such that it can be carried or rotated.

Once you get used to this mechanic, it becomes fantastically intuitive. You can race along narrow passages, diverting down tunnels, then quickly figure out how to cross a pool of destructive lava by wedging a portion of your blob into a nook on one side, and carefully growing him such that he balances himself. He, him, I’ve already started anthropomorphising this thing.

Figuring out how to climb onto the top of a lift shaft by hooking the thing over the roof, then judiciously deleting below such that it crawls on top, is extremely satisfying. Later you’re working out how to defy gravity and climb chains of pods, growing the globule around hanging plants to get a hook then meticulously ascending and finding a way to grip such that you can squeeze through a vertical passage in the rock. Or how to roll a large wooden X across a pool of water, such that you can reach a higher point on the other side. Or how you can turn yourself into a ramp to propel a rolling ball into an obstructing obstacle.

As the chapters progress, the difficulty climbs significantly, and until Chapter 5 does this with some great precision. Come Chapter 5, I think things get a little wayward. Up until this point, most puzzles and challenges have relied on your wit and ingenuity, pushing you to improvise new ways to manoeuvre your green splot in situations where you can see the obstacle ahead and fathom how to approach it. A little too often in Chapter 5 however, deadly surprises appear. A hole whose bottom is lined with spikes that you can’t see from above, a thing throwing fireballs at you that you’d not encountered before, or simply an obstacle that requires a good dose of blind luck to get past. I think I’d not mind any of them, if it weren’t for their appearing too often on the wrong side of some more elementary challenges, after the previous checkpoint. It’s a hoary old mistake, but the toughest parts come after a lengthy portion of busywork, like crossing a ravine via a series of pegs. It means repeating the dull bit so very many times, before fluking the tricky section. Satisfying to eventually get past, but damned frustrating at the time.

However, reach Chapter 6 and it’s wonderful again! Although bloody hard It becomes a real tour-de-force of what the game’s offered so far, pushing your farther, making you apply your gathered skills to new, well-presented challenges. Gosh, it’d be nice to snip out Chapter 5 and have a puzzle game that scrapes against perfection.

It’s all very, very beautiful. The green shape is animated across a grid, so veins/wires seem to pleasingly spread themselves as you change shape. But the backgrounds are where it really shines. They have a dystopian feel, echoing some notion of apocalypse, and are grim, gorgeous, and change with each chapter. Exceptional music accompanies this, and it delivers some of the most precisely refined use of sound effects I’ve heard in a very long time – communicative and non-intrusive.

Each level is packed with strange little plants to absorb into your blob. These aren’t anything to do with growing in size or any similar mechanic – they’re simply extra challenges. At first you just trundle over them as you go, but in the later sections they become a sort of super-difficulty option. They’re often in the hardest to reach places, making an already tricky section utterly bewildering. By the later chapters I came to accept that these are for Other People. Better People. I’ll be content with just getting through, and leave the 100%ing to them. And I’ll watch in wonder on YouTube play-throughs, and consider them gods.

It should be noted that I’ve shouted out loud in frustration, but mostly with myself. Aside from Ch. 5’s errant ways, it’s hard to blame anyone else. This is a game that gets very difficult toward its end. But it really ought to be celebrated for that.

It’s rare for a puzzle game to be truly original, but Mushroom 11 can claim that accolade. It applies its originality in smartly traditional ways, employing 2D physics puzzles in a new style. It’s glitchless, which is a rare treat, especially for a game that lets you break your blob into many parts and jam them in between rotating cogs and swinging platforms. It’s one of the best puzzle games in a very long time.

Mushroom 11 is out on Steam, GOG, and Humble tonight.

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