Us PC gamers are always slightly wary of ports. The reasoning behind it is twofold, primarily stemming from the fact that many ports are rush jobs, leaving us stuck with interfaces that were obviously designed for another platform and failing to take advantage of our PC hardware. It’s also partly due to our slight bruised pride from no longer being the platform any more and the issues with ports just seem to be yet another strike against us. Strangely enough though I’ve found ports from the portable market, mostly from iOS and Android, have actually been quite good with Galaxy on Fire 2 genuinely surprising me with how well it translated to the PC platform. Waking Mars is another title that found its fame on the mobile market and now, thanks to Steam’s Greenlight project, has found its way onto the PC.
Waking Mars is set in the not too distant future of 2093 where a team of scientists, including you playing as Liang, have been sent to investigate some of the caves that were discovered on Mars. You’re not going in blind however as some time before your team sent a robot, named OCTO (presumably because it had 8 legs), down to investigate and the pictures it sent back indicated there was life down there. However shortly after sending those pictures communications were lost and whilst his recovery wasn’t a prime directive it did necessitate the need to go down and investigate these life forms further and discover a whole new world that has been lurking underneath Mar’s surface for an eternity.
Unlike most of the adventure/puzzle/point and click adventures I review on here Waking Mars isn’t done in pixel art fashion. Rather its done in a hand drawn style, one that’s very familiar but I can’t place my finger on where I’ve seen it before. Whilst the animation is a bit wonky at times, for both your character and some of the NPCs in the world, it’s still quite passable. The colour palettes are also quite bright and varied which helps to make sure that you don’t get visual fatigue looking at the same sodden brown landscape for hours on end.
The core game of Waking Mars is a cross between exploration and puzzle solving. Primarily your aim is to increase the “biomass” of each section by making the various creatures and plants reproduce in the little section you’re currently in. Initially this just starts of with you planting seeds and watering them (which then makes them produce more seeds) but it grows into a complex puzzle of what you should plant where and managing the different types of soil in order to make sure you can produce the required amount of biomass. Once you reach the required level the door to the next level will open up, allowing you to dive deeper into the cave.
As far as puzzle mechanics go its pretty novel especially when you get further along when there are certain plants that will kill other plants which also spread voraciously if not kept under control. Each room obviously has an intended solution, one that if done properly will see you complete it with a minimum of fuss and waiting. This can be something of a blessing or a curse as early on you don’t have the right tools to undo your mistakes. Thankfully up until a certain point all the puzzles are designed to not block you until you get to a stage where you can generate any number of the right seeds you need, as shown below.
This particular level also demonstrates the potential for emergent game play mechanics that can be lovingly exploited should you have the time to do so. In this particular area I had what I called a Yellow Seed Reactor (the ones that can grow in the acidic ground) where regular green seeds seemed to collect. Also in the same area was a couple of those life forms that eat the green seeds to reproduce and since the seeds will keep coming as long as I don’t pick them up they had a near infinite supply of food with which to reproduce. In the same area there was also one of the acidic plants that reproduces when it eats one of those little things so whenever I needed a couple of those seeds I’d simply travel back there and wait.
Indeed the way I completed that level was by simply sitting there and watching the reactor in progress as there really is no limit to the amount of times those little buggers can reproduce. It can also backfire horribly on you as they run away when you get near them and the collision detection gets a bit wonky when there’s 100 of them together, usually resulting in a mass suicide that drops hundreds of biomass in a second. I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was hilarious though because seeing them all explode out only to fall over and die is pretty bloody funny.
Past a certain point however the puzzles start to feel very samey as you’re just repeating the same motions over and over again. Once you’re in the big chamber you have pretty much unlimited access to all the seeds you need which makes most of the harder puzzles moot but at the same time it also means you’re forever trucking back and forth between locations in order to get the right materials ready in order to progress through. This might not have been as much of a problem if I was playing it on my smart phone since I’d only be playing it for 10~20 mins at a time (and its broken up perfectly for that) but sitting down and playing it for a couple hours means the repetition gets to you and doesn’t make for compelling game play.
The story is also semi-interesting although it feels like it was lacking any direction. Your motives seem to wander from investigation to getting back to base camp to investigating random signals at different points on the map, all without a clear sense of direction. There’s heaps of additional objectives to do but there’s no driving force, either in upgrades or in terms of the story, to push you to do them. Again this feels like an artefact of its mobile origins where it was designed to be picked up and played for a bit and then put down again until the next session.
Waking Mars is fun and novel, exploring an idea that all my fellow space nuts would love to be true. The core game mechanic is certainly refreshing after all the exploration/puzzler games I’ve played of late but after a while it starts to look all the same. The so-so story that has troubles with direction and pacing doesn’t help this either but that doesn’t stop Waking Mars from being a game that’s worth a look in. I’d probably recommend it on Android or iOS as it seems to be well designed for that and whilst it doesn’t translate badly to PC I still think you’d have a better time elsewhere.
Waking Mars is available on Android, iOS and PC right now for $4.99, $4.99 and $9.99 respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC with 3 hours played and 47% of the achievements unlocked.