Waking Mars should be the perfect game for me. I love atmospheric space exploration games, where you feel that a flimsy spacesuit is all that stands between you and the harshness of space, and that feeling of loneliness and being far from home keeps you pushing on against the unknown.
A perfect example of this is A Long Way Home, which I loved on iPad, and I hope to see elements of it in the forthcoming Prevail, the developers of which I interviewed recently. So, as you could imagine, I was extremely excited to get the chance to play Waking Mars, especially when I knew it was from the developer of the sublime Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor.
It is with a heavy heart that I have to report that Waking Mars doesn’t quite live up to its potential. It is undoubtedly a very good game, but a couple of seemingly small missteps conspire to spoil what should be the most important aspect of a game like this; the atmosphere.
The game puts you in the space boots of one of the first human explorers of Mars, on a mission to investigate reports of alien flora and fauna sent back from the deep caverns of the red planet by a probe. The game is a side scrolling platform game, with heavy elements of exploration. You get a surprisingly large freedom of movement from the outset, with a jet-pack helping you reach elevated areas, and is also handy in slowing down dangerous falls.
You go from cavern to cavern, experimenting with the various forms of life that you find to help you discover more about them and, ultimately, help you proceed through the game. Each form of life reacts in different ways to various inputs and items, a very early example of which are the basic plant life that you discover. You are soon picking your way through the bones of an ancient alien civilisation, and it is here that the game is at its most endearing and enjoyable and indeed, that last third of the game is where the game really starts to stretch its legs, with innovative and thoughtful puzzles combining well with the thirst for knowledge that you will have by this point.
My main concern with the game is really the first third of the adventure. You find your first lifeforms within a few minutes of playing, and I fell that this is a mistake, as if a little more time was spent in the caverns just exploring, the discovery of life would have been more of an event, instead of the mild interest that is shown by the game’s characters. While I am on the subject of characters, Waking Mars has it’s story told through the talking heads of your own character and your assistant, back in your ship. The problem here is that the art style for your assistant is woefully out of place, and sucks the atmosphere from the game. She looks like she has been cut and pasted from The Sims, so out of place are her expressions. Really awful, and it is no small coincidence that as you get further into the game, you hear from her far less often, and the enjoyment factor rises.
There are far too many of these scenes early on, taking away from that all important feeling of loneliness. The other problem I have with the game is the controls are a bit too fiddly, especially if you are trying to fly your jetpack and use an item at the same time. It is never a difficult game, but frustration can set in.
Despite these issues, Waking Mars is a very good game. The approach to dealing with alien life, and using it to progress is brilliant, and the graphics and music are fabulous. There are some genius level designs later on, and the fate of the alien civilisation is both interesting an engrossing, making the last sections of the game really enjoyable.
Waking Mars gets off to a bad start, and makes a few silly mistakes but it gets stronger and more confident later on, meaning that this is a high quality slow burner that will no doubt win a legion of fans. Overall, a very good game that falls short of greatness, but still comes with a good recommendation.