It feels like a very long time now since I got my first hands on with this mind boggling puzzle game, and in the time that has passed since, there probably hasn’t been a single day when I haven’t thought about it to some extent. You see, Mushroom 11 doesn’t just turn the genre on its head, it fundamentally changes everything that one would normally associate with video games for one pure and simple reason; if there is one universal feat in games, it’s that we must guide our protagonist away from harm in order to successfully overcome the challenge that the game presents us with, but here, it is the destruction of the game’s principal character that drives the whole experience along. Between this, its soundtrack and overall vibe, I think it’s fair to say that its developer, Untame, have created not simply a puzzle game worth playing – and to me that’s rare enough - but one of the finest releases you’re likely to experience anywhere this year.
If you can cast your mind back to April when I had the opportunity to interview the aforementioned development team, it came out that this project was based around a combination of Paul Stamets TED discussion “6 Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World”, and the concept of Ouroboros (the snake eating its own tail). Self-perpetuation then, is the key to the whole thing, as one part of the game’s protagonist (a jellylike organism) dies, another is born, and this extends beyond mere cerebral leanings to the core mechanics that drive the whole game. Movement within Mushroom 11 is achieved by systematically destroying parts of the organism’s form, seeing other areas of it expand out in the opposite direction from where the cells were initially vaporised, this allows the player to propel themselves in any given direction through, for want of a better term, self-harm. It seems like such a simple idea, yet it truly separates this game from the rest of the crowded puzzle genre, and gives it an ease of access that strips it of the need for some cumbersome tutorial section, allowing the player to fully immerse themselves in it from the get go.
Picking up the survival essentials takes mere moments, but mastering control of the almost shapeless blob is something else entirely, and as the puzzles ramp up in their complexity, quick thinking and reflexes become as necessary as raw intellect. Gravity poses its problems, as it does in most puzzle efforts these days, but learning that this oversized fungi can be hacked up into multiple pieces to solve a particular challenge adds a whole new dimension to a player’s approach to the game. A heavy handed style often results in failure, which generally left me erring on the side of caution throughout, with overly aggressive attempts to solve even middling conundrums so often seeing the gelatinous creature being eradicated by yours truly time and time again. Thankfully, Untame have provided two tools to destroy, and with it expand the being, the second of which allowing for a finer level of control, which proves to be an essential addition as early on as the game’s second level.
As it progresses, Mushroom 11 demands new solutions to its puzzles, adding quick tempo changes and a strong sense of verticality to it, in most cases it becomes quite clear what the developer has had in mind straight away, but there are times when this is not the case. Thankfully then, Untame have also been gracious enough to add in a very sensible, and rather generous checkpoint system that prevents any challenge from becoming too frustrating and rendering each failure as a learning experience of sorts.
This, as it turns out, was a more than necessary addition to the game, because the overall vibe of Mushroom 11 is one of relaxation, with a subdued colour palette and a multi-layered, watercolour-like visual style, the game looks great, and handcrafted to a certain extent. In terms of its aesthetics, everything just looks natural, and quite frankly, despite its relative simplicity, it somehow still comes across as a very good looking game. Complementing the visual allure is an excellent, ambient score from the brilliant, electronic maestros Garry Cobain and Brian Dougans, who are better known as Future Sound of London. As far as videogames go, their most recognised work would be the more up-tempo flavour of their WipEout 2097 contribution, We Are Explosive, yet the compositions that the duo have crafted here feel like some strange hybrid of their earlier, Lifeforms-era material and Radiohead’s experimentations with electronica, particularly the vocal sampling and manipulation that created their song, Kinetic. In short, the audio work here is simply brilliant, elevating Mushroom 11 far beyond the majority of its contemporaries, whilst simultaneously raising the question of why the games industry hasn’t been champing at the bit to involve such musical luminaries on a more consistent basis?
The main game will take somewhere in the region of eight hours to complete, yet the adventure doesn’t quite end there, with collectibles in the form of luminous insects to find (a great deal of these force the player to explore optional areas of the levels) and a speed run mode to perfect, there is certainly enough about Mushroom 11 to keep gamers coming back for more. Personally, I’d be only too happy to return to the game just to savour the overall mood of it, its ambiance, and to perhaps even further hone my control of the perpetuating blob, which alone is surely enough to warrant the lowly £10.99 price point that the developer has set for it.
Puzzle games have never really been my forte, yet there are a few exceptions that somehow manage to suck me in to their worlds, though they are certainly few and far between, but there is simply no denying that Mushroom 11 now resides upon that list. It looks great, it sounds fantastic and it turns the entire genre – if not the industry – on its head, what more can one really ask for?