Mars has always held a fascinating yet threatening place in the human mind. From HG Wells martian invaders through to Doom’s shotgun-armed marines fighting inter-dimensional demons, Mars has rarely been pictured as a place of serenity and peace. It’s with some surprise then that indie developer Tiger Style’s newest game, Waking Mars, concerns a topic you’d expect to be of more interest to your grandmother: gardening.
In the shoes (and spacesuit) of Chinese astrobiologist Dr Qi Liang, players investigate a branching series of caves in Mars’ fictional Lethe Cavern using a jetpack for propulsion. Liang is primarily searching for 0ct0, an exploratory robot that had previously entered the caverns and lost contact with the home base. Within minutes however he’s stumbled across life in the caverns – strange plants within a unique ecosystem, awakened from millions of years slumbering by the activity of humans.
The primary goal in each cavern is to exit through the Cerebrane – a membranous plant that remains shut until the total “biomass” of the area reaches a certain goal. Liang achieves this by taking part in a spot of aerolian gardening, collecting seeds and planting various florae throughout the cavern. Different plants and species interact in unique ways – some symbiotic, some predatory – and creating a balanced ecosystem can be a challenging task.
Liang carries seeds of plants such as halids, hydrons and ferans, searching for fertile ground in which they can grow. Liang is a scientist first and foremost, so discovering how plants reproduce, feed or defend themselves is a major part of gameplay. The caverns present a reasonable amount of danger from plants, acid, lava and simple falls, and being only armed with seeds and a doctorate in botany means Liang has to constantly mindful of potential threats. Death isn’t much more than a temporary inconvenience however, and players are quickly back on track to greening the red planet.
Other than a handful of exploding seeds and the odd sharp or tangling plant, Waking Mars is an entirely non-violent game, a refreshing change from the usual plasma-cannon-wielding space marine types that inhabit most games. A sharp mind, forward planning, and a good dose of agility are required to move Liang throughout the caverns and their fragile ecosystems in balance.
One of the more impressive features of Waking Mars is its reasonably solid grounding in real biology and botany. While obviously there’s currently no known life on mars, the game has a distinctly scientific feel about it with explanations and an internal ecosystem providing more than adequate realism for the astrobiology layman.
The story advances through Liang’s contact with the only other human on Mars – Amani, the base controller back on Mars’ surface – as well as ART, his highly advanced but amusingly inarticulate suit computer. The depth of the story and quality of writing come as a surprise for this indie gem; developers Tiger Style have put in some real effort to give the game character and the talented voice actors do the script justice.
The game can at times become repetitive however, and players are likely to find themselves backtracking frequently to previously completed caverns to pick up replacement seeds and materials. It’s a significant roadblock to the game’s flow, as players need to wait around for quite a few minutes while certain plants produce the necessary fertilisers to boost biomass. While not absolutely necessary, maximum biomass is required to unlock the game’s third and “biggest” ending.
With a surprisingly deep and well-written story combined with solid gameplay, Waking Mars is a refreshingly unique take on the sci-fi genre. Repetitiveness is a minor yet nagging issue, but is mostly overcome by the constant discovery of new lifeforms and the unveiling of hidden mysteries beneath the surface of the red planet. As a casual indie game, Waking Mars is a solid effort well worth a look for anybody seeking something a little different.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary PC code was provided to Brash Games for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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