Creat Studios are like the unsung heroes of the PlayStation Network. Boasting the likes of Cuboid, Magic Ball and more recently riotous RC racer Smash Cars, the company has in the last couple of years been one of the most consistent and high quality supporters of Sony’s downloadable service. Despite this, they’ve never really been recognised as a quality brand in the same way that, say, the PixelJunk series is, but perhaps with their latest games led by the excellent Mushroom Wars that could soon all change.
Mushroom Wars is, at its most simple, real-time strategy stripped down to the absolute basics. The player takes command of a tribe of orange fungal chaps as they battle over territory with their green, blue and red peers. Each level has a collection of village structures that must be captured; upon doing so they can be upgraded to do their task more efficiently, rebuilt to serve a different purpose or held on to as a stronghold or barracks. Each structure upgrade or alteration requires a sacrifice of a number of troops in a monetary sense, so there’s a balance to achieve of a building being more effective in the long run or more defensible in the short term.
Structures vary in their uses; there are the standard barracks where more troops are constantly produced, catapult towers which attack nearby enemies and forts which boost troop effectiveness and morale. At all times a balance must be maintained in preparedness to assault and strength to defend, and particularly at the hardest difficulty it’s literally a case of sending troops marching back and forth between structures to defend when required and attack when an opportune moment arises. The game can be very challenging and chaotic at times, and effectively managing four or five different villages amongst three warring enemy factions is no mean feat.
The campaign echoes that of PixelJunk Monsters in that the player makes their way across a map taking over territory as they go. Level designs are broadly similar to one another, although the main difference is in enemy numbers and positioning. Further, there is a skirmish mode where levels sometimes have a unique quirk such as specific structures which must be captured or a strict time limit that must be met.
Controls are often where console strategy games come unstuck, and Mushroom Wars makes a pretty good job of the limited control pad layout. Each village structure can be selected (commands are issued to bases, not troops directly) and from there pressing L1 brings up the option to upgrade and pressing R1 brings up the option to send any troops to another location, with circle, X, square and triangle sending 25%, 50%, 75% and 100% of troops respectively. It’s a simple but effective fomula which works really well and allows structures and armies to be managed quickly and with little fuss.
The presentation is very chirpy, quirky and pleasant – in fact, it’s so familiar that it could almost be an entry in the PixelJunk series. The visuals are fully presented in 2D sprites but are in full HD and there’s never slowdown even when there are hundreds of units marching all over the screen. The soundtrack is composed of a few different tunes which play on repeat, but they’re pretty amiable so it’s never really a problem. There is also the option for two-player local co-op which is great fun with a friend, although the trophy asking for 100 local matches is probably a little on the steep side. Oddly, the game signs in online but there don’t appear to be any online features at all – no online multiplayer and not even any friends’ scores, which is a bit of an oversight in the game’s potential long-term appeal.
There’s not really a great deal here to criticise as long as players know what to expect; a simple real-time strategy with cute presentation and a fair deal of content. Online play would have been most welcome so it’s a shame that wasn’t included. Perhaps the biggest question mark would be its comparatively high £8 price point – considering PixelJunk Monsters is less than half the price, it’s a shame Creat couldn’t price Mushroom Wars a little more modestly. At its current price it’s probably just outside most gamer’s impulse buy price range, and relative to its content £6.29 would have been more realistic.
However, minor pricing issues aside, Mushroom Wars is one of the most likeable releases on PSN of late. It presents a basic but very playable interpretation of strategy gaming with an excellent control scheme and just the right amount of depth to combat repetition and frustration. These bitesize strategy games really seem to be coming into their own in the last couple of years, and this is yet another very good entry to the sub-genre.