The most striking thing about Mugsters is the feeling of isolation it gives you. There’s no dialogue, just a hypnotic, low-key musical score. There aren’t any real characters, just you, some faceless alien enemies, and a few nameless humans that they’ve captured, all in an empty polygonal style. There isn’t even a story - you’re simply dropped onto one of the game’s various islands on which each level is set, given a few objectives, and left to figure things out on your own. This is emphasized by an isometric, far-away camera angle.
This isolation, in a way, turns into freedom. Ultimately, your goal on each island is to rescue the humans imprisoned there, collect the crystals littered around the place, and hook some machines together (the last objective varies but is usually the same kind of thing). You can simply avoid all of that, run to the nearest plane and escape the island just by yourself. Although this means that you won’t unlock a time trial for said level, as well as a few extras in the hub world, you can still do it and the game won’t punish you for it.
It’s hard to explain what Mugsters is about in terms of genre. It’s probably best described as a sandbox 3D-puzzle-platformer. Even though the game is divided into islands, each of them is pretty big and contains vehicles to drive around and objects to throw. While the objectives might be pretty straightforward, there’s definitely a puzzle element in the way they all fit together. Should you collect the hard-to-reach crystals first and go back for the humans later, or save them first and risk them dying or getting stuck?
For a while, it’s a fun and challenging experience trying to fulfill all of its objectives in one go - especially in the time trial mode. Frantically collecting crystals, screeching round corners and smashing into human prisons in order to rescue the people, and then rushing to the plane to make your escape feels pretty satisfying - if it goes off without a hitch.
“Go off without a hitch” is the operative phrase here, though, because a lot of the time, things will go wrong - and a lot of the time you’ll feel cheated. There are a few questionable design decisions that ultimately make Mugsters a lot less fun than it could be. I never spent more than an hour at a time with it because frustrating moments made me feel mugged off.
The main issue is combat. Although it plays less of a role than puzzles in Mugsters, it still feels needless and just a distraction in its current form. The red aliens that litter each level are more of a nuisance than a complicating factor - one punch with the square button and they’re gone. Yet, in the later stages, they become a huge source of frustration, swarming around you and devolving the game into a button mash-fest, which often ends up leading to your death. Since the later levels are bigger, more complicated, and don’t have any checkpoints, it feels cheap and hugely demotivating to die like this.
UFOs (both small and big) are the main threat in Mugsters, abducting you immediately if you walk under them. Again, dealing with them isn’t fun and is more of a game of chance than requiring any skill. Smaller UFOs can be easily dispatched by throwing an explosive barrel at them as they lay dormant - in fact, most of the puzzles in this game are solved with explosive barrels - but the bigger ones are a chore to deal with. Usually taking three or four hits to down them, the best method is simply to drive a vehicle around until the UFO hits you and explodes, then quickly jump out before the vehicle itself blows up, rinse, and repeat. It’s not fun, and what’s more, it can often lead to your death if you can’t run quick enough. Again, it feels unnecessary.
Friendly AI is also an issue. Upon releasing human captives, they follow you and mirror your actions, but they often get stuck on the terrain, especially if you’re jumping up a hill or from platform to platform. Sometimes, they’ll even trigger log traps that you’ve jumped over, killing you instantly, or fall off the level entirely, meaning that the best way to alleviate frustration is to clear each level of all possible dangers and then go back and free the humans. This gets pretty tedious, however, so it’s a lose-lose situation.
The two-player local co-op on offer does make the game a lot more fun, though. Messing around on Mugsters’ sandbox worlds is a lot more fun with a friend, and things get a lot less frustrating and tedious when you have two brains to a deal with the game’s many puzzles.
It’s a shame that Team17 have found it hard to strike a balance between complicating things enough to keep Mugsters interesting but not too much to make it tedious and frustrating. The first few levels are a fantastic hook into the game, showing off its terrific abstract graphical style and some fun, yet simple puzzle mechanics, but the more you play, the more it gets bogged down by the burden of adding more. The multiplayer does add some fun novelty, but ultimately Mugsters probably isn’t a game you’ll feel like completing.