Tiger Style Games’ Waking Mars never puts a gun in your hand. Playing as the intrepid Dr. Liang dives headlong into the caves of Mars, only his mission is not to conquer, kill or destroy: It’sto learn. In this way,Waking Mars feels unique in a landscape dominated by violence, though that alone can’t make it entertaining. A clever core mechanic and smartly developed world make Waking Mars striking at times, but it just doesn’t do enough with its gameplay to make it interesting for its entirety.
Moments into Waking Mars Liang learns that plant-based life does indeed exist on Mars. Searching for his organization’s research robot, OCTO, Liang ventures into Mars’ subterranean network, studying each new life form he comes across. Waking Mars never beats you over the head with lengthy tutorials. Instead, you’re encouraged to learn as much as you can by playing with what you find, gathering various seeds from the creatures you encounter, planting them and learning what effects they have on the environment. New life forms are introduced over time without becoming overwhelming, and learning new skills and information came naturally because you’re taught early on that investigating objects will help you on your journey.
Of course you’re not just planting seeds for fun, you’re on a mission to find the robot. Growing plants, or Zoa as they’re called in Waking Mars, will build up
Waking Mars is a one-of-a-kind adventure in which you jetpack through subterranean Mars encountering a host of extraordinary alien lifeforms that operate as a living, breathing ecosystem.
biomass, opening living doors that bar your progress. A meter at the top of the screen keeps track of the total biomass of an area, and various Zoa are worth more biomass than others. While the way Waking Mars artificially walls you into areas feels a bit cheap at times, there’s a certain reward to achieving a max biomass in each area. Over time you’re introduced to many types of Zoa, from benevolent species that will heal you to others that will consume anything that comes close and still more than aren’t plantable but instead run wild like scurrying insects. Later areas become fully-fledged biomes, wherein you have to delicately balance the number and type of Zoa in an area to achieve maximum biomass. Sometimes this involves your direct attention, and in these cases the levels feel like smartly designed puzzles. In other areas it’s as simple as planting a few seeds and being patient as life forms strike a natural balance. There’s a really smart and careful design to the Zoa and how they interact, and creating what is essentially a self-sustaining mini world is really neat.
Initially the sense of discovery and awe of seeing something new in Waking Mars makes it exciting to move from cave to cave, but it drags towards the end. Finding all the Zoa doesn’t mark the end of the research (you still have to see how they react to one another, what their weaknesses and strengths are, etc.), but eventually there are no more creatures to find, and the only way to proceed will be blocked until you get enough five or four-star ratings in caves. The reward that comes from maxing out the biomass in a room diminishes as you do it over and over, and with nothing new to see or learn it really soured the sense of excitement and discovery so well established by much of Waking Mars.
The weak narrative and cast can’t support the parts where the gameplay becomes tedious, either. Liang’s calculated disposition makes him feel a bit dull. The supporting characters? Utterly forgettable. The story goes in decidedly predictable directions, and, with the exception of its final moments, never served as a compelling reason for continuing to play. Ultimately you’re left with more questions than answers at the end, which isn’t a very satisfying conclusion after all the work you did as an interstellar farmer.
TOUCH VERSUS PC CONTROLS
The PC version gives you the precision of analog sticks or mouse and keyboard, whereas on iPhone or iPad you’re left with the touchscreen. Touch just doesn’t allow the same fine movements, and maneuvering feels a bit sloppier. It’s not unplayable by any means, but I always feel a bit less in control with the touchscreen version of Waking Mars.
Waking Mars introduces you to a world of bizarre life and at first succeeds in making it fun to play with. After the wonder wears off, though, things just start to drag.Waking Mars ends up feeling too long for the number of mechanics included, and without an excellent story to carry it, its shortcomings stand out more and more as the levels go on.