I’m not a fan of puzzle games, as anyone following the blog may be aware by now. Waking Mars hid its nature well enough to let me enjoy the almost cathartic experience of exploring the cavernous underground of our neighboring red planet.
The story in Waking Mars is shown from botanist Dr. Liang’s perspective, crawling his way through the depths of an immense subterranean complex aided by a handy jetpack, as he searches for clues on the location of 0CT0, the autonomous research robot that found traces of what seemed to be life in Mars.
Now, almost all of the martian life found in the game are part of the zoa, which could be described as a hybrid between animal and plant, sometimes showing an obvious awareness of their surroundings, and sometimes behaving in a more passive way, but always trying to spread their seed. A big part of the game consists in just studying the different reactions in this alien ecosystem, as most zoa interact with each other in varied ways; from using seeds as fuel for a mitotic reproduction, to destroying other zoa with explosive seeds or changing the pH of the ground, making it impossible for certain species to survive.
And… that’s most of the game, really. The map is divided in several zones giving about 6 hours of gameplay as we leap from one area to another to gather specific seeds to bring enough life (measured in biomass) to each of the parts of the cave. Don’t think this is an easy task, though; there are several hazards, including, but not limited to, lava, explosions, acid, predating zoa, unexpected contact with the ground at high speeds and death by blunt force trauma from the several precariously supported stalactites. Death isn’t final, or too punishing, getting us back to the beginning of the area; all progress is lost, but by the time you’ll have to face the hardest maps, you’ll be more than used to the game mechanics, leaving damage as a background worry.
But it is done in a very subtle way. The game has quite a few interactions between Dr. Liang and Dr. Amani, who’s helping him from the lab on the surface of the planet. These conversations, apart from giving some insight on what’s going on also serve to set a tone and develop the characters into actual interesting beings. This was unexpected to me. While Dr. Amani is an upbeat, cheerful individual not unlike some of the science-ish peeps from some forensics themed series, Dr. Liang is introspective, quiet, finding himself bound to the dark red caverns in an almost spiritual way. He faces a few dilemmas throughout the game, portraying the humbleness of his persona and his ethos.
I can’t really say much about the actual development of the events in the game, not to spoil anything, but there are actually three different endings to the game with obvious differences, although probably you won’t require a full replay of the game to get them all, as the game gets saved in a… well, a safe place. You might want to go all the way to the “good” ending, though, if you’re thorough in your research. I wasn’t, and left a few key areas undiscovered until the very last moment. The game has some troubles presenting the different connections between the areas on the map, and sometimes it’s hard to know where have you been, and where you haven’t. There’s a small metroidvania component in the game, too, and once you’ve found a certain kind of zoa you might need to backtrack a bit to open a few closed passages.
The game surprised me in the graphics department; it was developed with handheld devices in mind, but at 1080p the game looks gorgeous with smoothly animated sprites that made me wonder a few times whether they were bitmaps or actual 3D models, particularly in the case of Dr.Liang.
Overall, I found Waking Mars to be a rare gem. I had seen a few positive reviews before, but the game surprised me and kept me hooked until I finished, all the six hours of it in a marathon of awe. I can’t but recommend it as an interesting experience that I wish I hadn’t overlooked when it came out.