I’m studying a tan resource map of our new planet, searching for my plot among the many others. Following at my heels is a mechanical mule, the metal lids of its rendered eyes low and impassive. Perhaps it’s had enough of being dragged all over this alien map, dredging up resources. In any case, I keep one gloved hand tight around its electronic tether.
Such is the world of M.U.L.E Returns. That’s right; MULE the seminal 1983 turn-based strategy game by Ozark Softscape has a sequel for Android by Comma 8 Studios. It’s still a resource management strategy game where the objective is to build a thriving space colony using cranky Multiple Use Labor Elements, or MULEs. Pay attention to the in-game instructions, and the colony should thrive to be more than a backwater.
Choose one of eight weird characters that range in looks and, more importantly, starting cash, then begin the struggle for survival. It’s a much shinier game than the Atari original, but mostly the same in play. A transport ship delivers four characters, you among them, to a remote planet, AKA a randomized map. In the first round, the Land Grant stage, tap the screen as the cursor moves over the map of land plots to choose your plot (one per round until there are none left). The three other settlers have their own ideas, so you have to compete with them for land. Timing is everything. If you’re lucky, you can grab an extra plot at a random land auction.
During the cultivation stage it’s time to buy and equip MULEs with resource harvesting equipment. Food determines how much time you have during the cultivation stage, energy runs the individual MULEs once they’re set up, Smithore builds MULEs, and Crystite is a purely cash crop. You can’t buy any of these resources or cash in an in-game store, because there is no in-game store. Thank you, Comma 8.
M.U.L.E Returns shines in the cultivation stage, since it’s real-time. Your food reserves determine how long you have to move around before time runs out, so there’s a degree of tension not usually found in purely turn-based strategy games. It’s what continues to set MULE apart. With direct control of your character on the map, you rearrange MULEs, take soil samples of unowned plots to figure out which holds valuable Crystite, chase the Wampus (the dog-like creature that pays you for its freedom) and replace any MULE that’s gone haywire and run off. Because they can do that — a MULE looks like an Imperial AT-AT with attitude, and they really do have attitude.
Once all the characters are done with their errands, the automatic production stage runs its course. This is when random events like storms pop up; while the land is subject to quakes, meteors, and radioactive storms, characters suffer their own weird random events, like being forced to pay a $100 medical bill, or winning $300 from your MULE’s triumph in the colony tap dancing contest.
The fourth and final stage is just auctions, where all the goodies you and your fellow settlers harvested can be traded or sold to the store. The objective is supposed to be keeping the colony healthy, which in part means making sure other characters have power to operate their MULEs and food to run around. On the other hand, each character is awarded a score, so there is competition. It shows in the moments when one character will go off the reservation and buy out all the store stock, leaving others with no food or energy for the next round. When this is done, the turn is over, and characters start again with another Land Grant.
Like its predecessor, M.U.L.E Returns has three difficulties. Beginner is a six turn game without random land auctions or Crystite, and MULES are placid. Standard is 12 turns, and there are land auctions, but there’s still no Crystite. Tournament offers the most challenge, with 12 turns full of temperamental MULEs and markets, and the addition of Crystite.
Does it sound like a lot to take in? It might be. The friendly graphics belie a challenging system that takes a lot of variables into account. Colonizing distant planets isn’t easy. For instance, the MULE behind me seems to be lagging. After I finish installing it, I get a message that a bat-lizard bit my child and it’ll cost me $25 to take him to the doctor.
That said, I’ve colonized quite a few planets, and MULEs are more forgiving in Tournament mode than I expected. I’ve only seen one run off, and it wasn’t even mine. Further, the game is missing a competitive player versus player mode, as with the original game four players could sit around the same system. Other issues (read: bugs) with controls and the store seem to have been resolved since M.U.L.E Returns’ release in 2013, but the menu logic is still decidedly retro. For instance, the game still loads the auction screen when there’s none of that resource for sale or purchase, though it closes it automatically.
Oh well, don’t look a gift MULE in the mouth. Other than the fact that MULEs are more like faithful ponies, M.U.L.E Returns is challenging. NPC settlers don’t always want to play nice. It’s hard to push the colony rating into the green, even without runaway MULEs or contentious human players.
The fact that there’s so much to say about the game play only speaks well for M.U.L.E Returns. With its odd sense of humor it stands out from other resource management games. No in-game store mucks up the works. Comma 8 even included Google Leaderboards and Achievements. I’d risk recommending this to someone open-minded about alternative Android Strategy games, even if resource management wasn’t particularly their thing. For those who liked M.U.L.E or are into resource management games, M.U.L.E Returns is a no-brainer. Grab it and see for yourself.
Hard as a mule's kick!
Colorful, smooth MULE remake adds new charm to the classic strategy game.