At the launch of the PlayStation 4, when Sony can point out how committed it is indie games, Super Motherload stands out among the initial offering. It didn't get the benefit of being free for PlayStation Plus subscribers, like Contrast. It didn't get backing from Sony like Resogun, and it's not a port of an existing console game, like Flower and Sound Shapes. It isn't a sequel with an established console presence, like Trine 2: Complete Edition, and it isn't a free to play title like Blacklight: Retribution and Warframe. It stands alone as a self-published game with a modest price point and no advertisement beyond its placement in the online store. Like a true indie, those who give it a chance will be surprised, but it also depends on your expectations of modern games.
You are the 1,001st employee of the Solaris Corporation, a mining company that has set up a series of colonies on Mars. Your job is to dig deep into the planet to retrieve precious elements and minerals that can be converted into cash. Things go very well until you start to get broadcasts warning of danger on the planet. With those broadcasts becoming more dire and frequent, you decide to investigate and see what's going on.
The story doesn't delve into new territory, especially with its sci-fi skin and use of the red planet. Corporate secrets, space dementia, and life on Mars have been explored countless times, and that is especially true of all three themes being combined into one story. What sells the idea is how the story progresses and how things play out. The idea of something going wrong hits immediately, but the progression of how bad things have gotten is handled well enough so it's not overwhelming. What starts off as static blips turns into full-blown dementia for some characters, and it's refreshing to see the signs of worry that creep up on some of the corporate entities. The game becomes an unintentional horror game but without the associated gore, and it plays out in a fascinating way.
Super Motherload starts with some simple goals and mechanics. After choosing a character, you get in your rig and start drilling. Each mineral you drill through gets set into your cargo hold, and each movement you take eats up your fuel reserves. Run out of fuel, and you can't drill anymore, prompting you to go back to base to pay for more fuel, convert the collected minerals into cash, make repairs, and continue the process. You can also buy items, such as different bomb types, that are good at destroying soil and rocks, and you can upgrade your rig with things like a bigger cargo hold, larger fuel tank, faster drill speed and increased hull strength, just to name a few.
The game opens up when you discover the concept of chaining awards. You can earn bonus cash when you collect the same items in a row before another mineral is picked up. Adding and upgrading a smelter to your rig also gives you the ability to combine two consecutive elements into one newer element that is worth more money and takes up less space in your cargo hold. As you travel further toward the core of Mars, you'll collect things like alien bones for instant cash, and you'll be given a few fetch quests to complete.
That's about it, as far as gameplay goes. You discover all of the above quite early on, and while the game tries to introduce a few new elements, like different bomb types and rocks or metal plates, the crux remains the same. If you want some challenge, you can change the difficulty level to Hardcore, which forces you to be more wary of your fuel since you'll immediately die once you run out. You'll also have a limited amount of lives because dead players can't be resurrected, and if you're starting on this difficulty level before unlocking more players, you'll run out of the roster pool rather quickly. You can also try to play the game in co-op, which allows four players to dig together. For the most part, the mode is competitive since you don't share upgrades or money gained from elements, but you all share the same fuel tank, which forces some cooperative action. Sadly, the co-op is limited to local play, and no online version exists.
Even with those additions, Super Motherload can feel slightly tedious at times. Getting minerals to get money to power yourself up is pretty close to grinding in RPGs, and with no way to really see the upgrades, the reward can feel empty. The act of refueling also adds to that tedium, especially as the distances between bases become longer and your progression to the planet's core covers less distance in each trip. Until you get your force field upgrade to prevent the rig from taking damage due to impacts, expect your progress in the latter half of the game to be very slow.
Another issue has to do with a boss fight in the final part of the game. When you make it to the planet's core, you're asked to pick a side in the fight, which allows you to go up against a large boss. No matter which side you choose, you're forced to race up to the surface, avoiding the rising magma while tailing the boss before stopping at each base and attempt to blow up the adversary. Without this knowledge beforehand, the fight comes out of nowhere, and until you get a rhythm going, you'll die often since you'll either run into land and get caught in the magma or you're out of bombs, which are required to fight the boss. Each death means restarting the sequence as you dive from Delta base to the core, but you'll do so without the bomb reserves you had from the last fight. It is a taxing enough fight as is, and the sequence feels out of place when you consider what the game had you doing before.
Despite these negatives, the game is strangely addicting. Until that last fight, the game has a bit of zen-like quality, since creating pathways to get elements is a stress-free goal. With no time limit and no adversaries, playing the game is a calming experience, and those who become addicted will spend hours with the title.
From a graphics standpoint, Super Motherload doesn't showcase the PS4's capabilities. The game looks good, but if you place this next to the PS3 version of the title, you can't tell the difference. The artwork uses something similar to watercolors to paint everything, and both the vehicles and environments pop because of this, even though the style looks purposefully flat. Particle effects are simple, and the engine doesn't struggle even when four players are on-screen. It works, but it isn't a showcase title for the system.
The audio side is fascinating in its execution and gives the game some personality. The voice actors play their roles, and none stands out in either a positive or negative way. The music is done well; the melodies are beautiful, and it really complements the story. Things start off with some upbeat melodies, but as you delve deeper into Mars, the tone starts to darken and comes closer to horror territory. The synth-style soundtrack conveys both extremes, and the shift between the two really sells the idea of things getting progressively worse as you go further into the planet and the game.
Super Motherload is a strangely addicting game that some players might dismiss due to the lack of depth in the title. The somewhat tedious nature of the gameplay doesn't help its case, and neither does the sudden change of pace in the title's one and only fight. There's still something oddly satisfying about the act of strategic digging, and the snippets of radio chatter make the story interesting when you get into it. It may not have the graphical prowess of other games on the system, but it is indicative of the interesting experiences that indie games are expected to bring to the table. It's certainly worth checking out if you're in the mood for something different.
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