In 2007, caves were found on the planet Mars, and nearly 100 years later Earth has sent its best to see what’s inside them. What is uncovered is more than just life, but an entire network of caves with deep secrets. And after a rather nasty cave-in, we find out what is really within those caves far below. Let’s just say Waking Mars is more than just a title to this 2-D adventure game, it’s the subject of it all.
Our protagonist is Dr. Liang, supported by his computer AI companion ART and Armani, another scientist at the main base on Mars. Liang is a highly-educated character that makes very astute observations, and trades some wittiness with his compatriots on his journey. Despite there only being only three characters in Waking Mars, the interaction and dialog was well-done and entertaining. The dialog between Liang and Armani hint at a romance or a friendship that wants to be more, but it’s never an over-powering subject that gets in the way of the overall plot: the caves.
I’d call Waking Mars an exploratory adventure game with a good amount of puzzle-solving goodness. When you discover that the caves are host to an ecosystem that has a variety of fertile patches of land that can grow plants and other life. This is where the puzzle-solving aspect comes into play, and if you’re into gardening or plant life ecosystems, Waking Mars is for sure up your alley. Each cave section has a biomass level that must be reached for cerebranes (membranes that act like doors) to open to allow passage to other cave sections. To reach this biomass level, Liang must pick up and plant seeds of various alien plant life to reach it.
Now it isn’t just about throwing down any seed and calling it a day, there are several different types of seeds that grow into plants with certain attributes and behaviors that can be a hindrance or benefit to the that cave’s ecosystem/biomass. For example, the halid seed is a plant that will spit out more halid seeds, which are also food for the mobile phyta creatures. They eat the seeds and multiply asexually, each spawn offering a few points to raising the biomass. There are hydra plants that have water seeds that grow halid plants to produce more biomass, and there are prax plants that will feed on phyta and other mobile creatures to create seeds, and so on. You’ll be playing an active part to keep the populations under control, since the phyta creatures not only reproduce quite quickly, but they’ll skitter about stealing seeds you need to collect for other caves.
This gameplay aspect is definitely a challenge to get through in some of the larger caves, but can sometimes feel like a chore. During those times I just wanted to progress to the next cave and plot point rather than go through the trouble of dealing with planting. As you and Liang progress through the game, the ways to plant the seeds and to discover new ones open up additional challenges. Additionally, you have an encyclopedia that will continually update as you discover eat plant and seed’s attributes in case you become confused, as well as need clues on how to progress and raise a cave’s biomass level.
The overall plot is an enjoyable experience and actually has variable endings depending on your actions. I did find myself getting more and more intrigued as I travelled farther and farther down into the cave depths – how did this plant life get down here? Was it natural? What caused the cave in? Where the hell is OCTO (your rover buddy that has elusive properties)?
Controlling Liang can be done with a controller or a keyboard and mouse. Both work extremely well in terms of navigating the caves and planting or throwing seeds about. I recommend a controller over the keyboard and mouse because of the ease of using dual joysticks to move and aim, and it was generally easier on my hands. Liang has a jetpack that never runs out of fuel so you’re never limited to your mobility, which is a plus when there are no real rush.
Graphically as a 2-D side-scroller, Waking Mars does have an indie charm to it that lends a cut-out look to it but also a living feel to the whole thing. The character interaction is told through static character panes which fit with the theme. There’s nothing entirely flashy in the graphics – it doesn’t need to be. There can be some trouble if some of the plant life overbreed and you get a bit of slowdown in frame rates when you have seeds and phyta and floating creatures flying about, but that is few and far between.
Sound is just average, as there isn’t really a lot action to show a diversity in sound quality. The music is deep and atmospheric and sets the mood well as you explore each cave. The voice acting is good; Liang comes off as highly-intelligent scientist, Armani is incredibly friendly and helpful, and ART is a bit of a know-it-all. Their mannerisms shows and their banter between each other don’t sound forced or wooden.
Are there any complaints about Waking Mars? Some, but not ruinous. The larger caves with the higher biomass goals can be annoyingly frustrating when you don’t get the balance just right, and can feel repetitious after going at it for a while. There is a health system in place, but there’s never a real threat to your game or a feeling of danger to necessitate it.
Overall Waking Mars is a fun, but average experience. Amateur scientists, gardeners, space fans, and the like will more than likely get a kick out of it. There’s a very consistent auto save system that allows for easy gameplay of dropping in and out without worry, which is a big plus to habitual savers. There is an iOS version available, but the desktop version is your best bet.