Drop the laser rifle buddy, because Waking Mars wants nothing to do with those. Survival horror, maybe? Nope, not a slobbering mutant in sight. Instead, Waking Mars is a side-scrolling, story-driven, adventure-platforming, plant-life manipulation-based puzzler (Didn’t see that coming, did you?). Waking Mars tosses out any clichéd “when aliens attack” storyline and instead puts you in the astronaut boots of extra-terrestrial adventurer Liang. With your exploration partner, Amani, topside and ready to provide support, you’re tasked with spelunking in the recently-arrived-to cave system of Mars in hopes of recovering lost probe “OCTO”.
Early discovery reveals that the planet does house extra-terrestrial life, but not aliens; plants. The discovered flora begins as simple, harmless buds, which produce seeds ripe for sowing on any fertile ground in each cave. Planting the seeds and producing more biological life becomes a necessity right away, since thick, organic walls grow near each individual cavern’s exit. In order to progress, plant life in each respective cavern must reach a certain total mass (measured by a star-based rating) before the wall opens.
In the game’s early stages, plant types and consequently, plant interactions are tightly constrained, as is the cave system itself. As you progress through the individual caverns, however, the game shakes off its linearity by letting you explore numerous branches in each cave and manipulate the expanding life in each as you see fit.
That’s the core of Waking Mars: seeing how all the different organisms react to other organisms. You might plant one sapling, only to have them swarming all over the cave’s soil the next minute, or you might try to lure food to a predatory plant, in hopes of catching its rare seedling. It may sound boring, but by playing the game, you’ll see it’s anything but. Waking Mars really nails down a sense of wonder as you watch a hungry plant consume a crab-like creature, or as you witness a water-spewing organism fertilize other nearby growths.
In addition to just discovering new organisms, you also have the option to further research each individual life form, discovering how exactly they react to certain actions. Do they have predators? What does it take for them to produce a seed? What kind of soil do they thrive in? The fact that you actually have to physically witness the answers to each of these questions really makes you feel involved in the discovery process.
The story that drives the whole affair is well-put together, offering great dialogue and a decent framing for the player’s ecosystem meddling. After Laing’s introduction to the first cave system, his fertilization of the plants there, and subsequent return to the surface, he discovers that his tampering with Mars’ ecosystem has had rapid and drastic affects. As he ponders this, the research lab occupied by he and his partner sinks into the now-unstable surface. He then must find his way out of the (literal) hole he’s dug himself into, while finding more about the missing probe. I won’t go into huge detail, but I will say that the probe becomes almost trivial compared to the intriguing mysteries of Mars the game presents, begging to be solved.
Overall, I was impressed with the strong narrative, and I found myself really wanting to see how all the teasing questions received answers. However, to resolve all of the mysteries requires the player to go back and aim for a high mass (star) count in a bunch of the caves, and this can lead to frustration. You might have to stop a rapid spread of an unwanted plant, you might not have a seedling with a high enough mass rating, or you might have to do some serious biological overhaul of a certain cave. This does make the caves feel like a true ecosystem, but the heavy requirements to get to the conclusion can turn the gameplay monotonous and time-consuming. And since there’s no ending to the story away from the mass requirement, leaving the game before you reach a high mass count understandably makes the game feel horribly ambiguous. Thankfully, this possibility doesn’t ruin the game, and I’ll bet the mass requirement makes the ultimate conclusions all the more rewarding.
The whole of Waking Mars‘ presentation is nicely put together. The graphics, with their “realistic comic book” style, offer some pretty slick visuals. The sound effects and score work nicely as well, audibly delivering an “adventurous” feeling throughout Mars’ caverns.
The controls are not so polished, since the “touch-and-drag-to-move” scheme can lead to your finger covering up the screen. It might be better on an iPad, but for those iPhone gamers, it will become a nuisance. This irritation is a small one, though, and is far from a game-breaker.
Offering fresh, adventurous plant-manipulation gameplay and an entertaining story, Waking Mars is both memorable and fun. Despite some minor control issues and some possible moments of irritation, the game still shines. I’d be remiss not to recommend this gem.