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Waking Mars Review (iOS)

When you play games for a long time, there are certain events that you expect to occur in every game you play. For example, when you land on a strange planet, you expect to find alien artefacts, ancient evils, giant underground monsters and an army of evil non-terrestrials that you will have to kill with a series of increasingly big guns lest they destroy Earth. Waking Mars is very different. Waking Mars is…. nicer.

“Nice”, is a word that’s seldom used to describe games. At best it seems like you are damning a title with faint praise. At worst, calling a game “nice” would imply it safe and dull. Waking Mars manages to make “nice” a compliment again. From the wide-eyed wonder involved in the subject matter, to the cheery, light-hearted protagonists, Waking Mars is the space exploration equivalent of a warm hug and a mug of cocoa. Sure, there’s danger and even some suspenseful, tense moments. On the whole though, this is a game where you will be going “awwwww” far more than “auuuurrgh!”.

Before we even get to the games content, it pleases me to say that this is a game that controls really well on a tablet. As it’s a game about flying through caves on a rocket pack, there was significant scope for the developers to get this aspect of the game wrong. Despite this, somehow they have crafted that rare scheme; one that is both intuitive to use and offers the granularity of control required to play the game effectively. Essentially, you tap and hold where you want to go and your little space man sets off. There’s more to it than that, but essentially it’s so simple that you will have no issues understanding how it works and playing the game.

The plot of Waking Mars is fairly simple. You are an astronaut exploring Mars, which it turns out is teeming with life. This life is in a largely dormant form, but as you experiment with throwing different types of seeds and water you start to raise the levels of activity of these lifeforms. As a sole explorer, you follow the information that has been gathered from unmanned probes and delve deep into the caves under the surface of the red planet. While the aliens are interesting to look at and interact with, they are very different to your average videogame alien. Having far more in common with science fiction novels that speculate on what extraterrestrial life might actually be like, they have some similarities to plants and some to animals, but (as explained by your computer counterpart) are not accurately described as either. While they make make some strange and unnerving noises or behave in strange ways, they are never your standard videogame antagonists, and if they pose a threat to your safety its more often because you are interfering with their natural processes rather than being actively attacked by them.

The gameplay strikes a good balance between learning about the lifeforms of Mars and experimenting with them. With some life forms thriving in acidic areas, while others require water to thrive, you spend much of your time throwing seeds and water capsules around as you try to encourage lifeforms to grow. Most of the time your obstacles to progression are cerebranes; masses of alien tissue that block your progress until you cause enough lifeforms to grow. Your goal throughout then is to experiment with seeds, water and other collectibles and encourage life forms to grow by exploiting their reproduction and predation cycles to raise the areas biomass.

There’s some nice touches to the presentation, but on the whole there’s a real indie feel to the game. This isn’t neceassarilly a criticism; the game has a lot of character and there’s nothing else that looks quite like it. The story is delivered by still photographs of actors that play the main parts in the game, accompanied by static text. These seem a little out of place when juxtaposed with the main games somewhat primitive visuals. Its 2D sprites with decent enough animation throughout, but you never get away from feeling like you’re playing a Flash game. The atmosphere of the game meanwhile is excellent with great ambient effects, while the soundtrack is great when its moody and slow, but awful when they try and up the tempo for the more action-orientated scenes.

By far the biggest selling point of the game is the originality and presentation of the alien lifeforms. As you experiment with their different forms of reproduction, you fill in a journal about these life forms. Evidently the game devs have a good knowledge of evolutionary biology and phylogeny, because the detail that has gone into their descriptions and the amount of thought that has gone into their life-cycles is amazing. This represents the high point of the game by far. If you are a fan of theoretical extraterrestrial biology, this game is probably a must buy.

For anyone else, my recommendation would be more conditional. This is not a fast paced game, nor is it well paced at all. There were moments where I was unsure of what to do, and backtracking was both necessary and unwelcome. The subject matter is also a little staid at times and the overt ecological lessons it seeks to teach may be noble, but at times it can feel a little like leafing through a biology text book. In other words, its sometimes interesting, never awful, but rarely exciting. Its just “nice”.

6 (xeno)morphing times out of 10

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