TLDR: While Vita Nova does not have the same ratio of inspiring and innovative ideas per page as the official Mothership modules from Tuesday Knight Games, the premise and tools in the scenario are strong and interesting enough to provide gameplay that is wholly different from anything that is currently available for this ruleset. Mothership can be guilty of delivering a homogenous experience that resembles a dungeon crawl in space that unavoidably plays out like scenes from the movies Alien and/or Event Horizon. For anyone trying to escape the trappings of the tropes associated with those movies, Vita Nova offers a different set of puzzles and a framework for wilderness exploration.
The author wardened this scenario for a group of mostly strangers and me at a local game cafe. This review is based on my experience as a player who subsequently purchased the PDF because I had such a great time.
The PCs comprise a team sent by a company to investigate the progress of a planet in the process of being terraformed. They find that the planet is being terraformed at an accelerated rate, but not by technology engineered by the company. Traveling to the edge of the terraformed area triggers a timer for the scenario that can last between one and three sessions. We played this as a one shot, but two sessions would have been ideal because we could have explored more of the planet and the base.
The terraformed portion of the planet is referred to as "the Zone" after the Strugatsky brothers’ Stalker and Roadside Picnic. The allusion’s intent is to imbue overland travel with a sense of unpredictable danger in an alien landscape, but Burroughs’s Caspak trilogy from Appendix N immediately came to mind during play because the planet’s flora and fauna evolve in stages from quasi-mundane species to deadlier, more complex monsters as the PCs travel further in country. There are also obvious parallels to the mutated creatures encountered in the Shimmer from the book/movie Annihilation. The rate of evolution is described in four phases. Suggested creature features that might appear during each phase and a chart for quickly generating creature stats based on deadliness are functional and easy to use at the table with little to no prep. The lack of dynamic generative roll tables (as in Slumbering Ursine Dunes or The Garden of Ynn in which roll modifiers increase or decrease according to how weird the result should be) seem like a missed opportunity here. Creature generation roll tables with incremental modifiers for each phase based on something like The Tome of Adventure Design or Random Esoteric Creature Generator would not be hard to put together. The creatures we encountered during play (a giant centipede, a swarm of cockroaches, a giant lizard, and a massive, flying brain) did not disappoint any of the players, so I think the provided creature rough sketches definitely deliver out of the box in the hands of an imaginitive warden. While combat in Mothership is typically too deadly to pursue head-on, an all-marine Starship Troopers style of play in which PCs can choose to fight instead of run might work with creatures encountered during the early phases.
The scenario comes with a collaborative metagame system that uses physical props for building a base from parts of the ship on which the PCs arrive. All the players at the table seemed to enjoy building the base and lamented not being able to interact with it more during the single session. Once the base is built, each phase contributes complications that compromise the stability of the base that the PCs can attempt to resolve or ignore. My group did not have a chance to encounter any of the base complications because we spent more time driving in the Zone than at the base, but I think this aspect of the scenario could be implemented to great effect if the scenario lasts more than one session.
The journey to the center of the Zone culminates in an encounter with a cosmic entity. By design, there are no scripted NPC interactions or areas of interest along the way to the final destination. The evolving wilderness is a gauntlet that the PCs must survive before the timer runs out. Ultimately, anything that occurs at the base or along the way to the final destination serves as a distraction from the ticking clock.