To say much more about the story of Tiger Style Games’ latest than we did in our preview would be like spoiling The Abyss, but suffice it to say this one will have you literally Waking Mars (Out March 1, $4.99)! Before I go on to explain how awesome it is as a game, I want to take a moment to praise its writing. Waking Mars’ high concept premise, polished dialogue, and gradually unraveling mystery add up to a more compelling story than we get in most movies and TV shows nowadays — this is definitely a step forward for games as a narrative medium, and after such a good showing here I’d love to see Tiger Style try their hand at something even more elaborate one day. Like the original Star Trek series, Waking Mars is a piece of media that’s so worthwhile, NASA engineers should drop what they’re doing right now and experience it.
Waking Mars is decisively pacifist in its gameplay approach, but that doesn’t mean it’s lacking anything in the fun department! Advancing through the Martian cave network requires the player to generate entire ecosystems starting with just a few seeds — an open-ended goal that can be accomplished in just about as many ways as there are players. If you came away from our interview with the Tiger Style team thinking you’d have to constantly pause and pore over research logs to get the job done, I can put you at ease: all the organisms interact in ways that are surprisingly intuitive. Each chamber has a carefully calibrated logic that the player can exploit for maximum efficiency: lob the right seeds into fertile soil high up in a vertical shaft, then you can sit back and watch life cascade down that entire section in short order. Even if you don’t have that spark of insight you can push through with some elbow grease, making Liang zoom around to collect and unleash seeds like a pollinator of alien life.
Naturally a question arises: is there any way to lose at this game? The developer knew players would want a little more to do than just plant things, so the usual action gardening sequences are well interspersed with areas where the goal is mere survival. These serve up plenty of hazards to test the player’s life bar, and some quick thinking is needed to distract creatures that won’t hesitate to swat the jetpack-driven Liang right out of the air. If you happen to run out of seeds in Liang’s inventory during these or the gardening areas, there’s no need to break a sweat: you can make a scavenging run through previously conquered territory in the blink of an eye via the world map, no backtracking or warp room shenanigans! A smattering of simple minigames are even on tap to further break up the player’s experience.
I also want to stress that many of the same skills you’d use in a typical action adventure or platformer still come into play in Waking Mars. The seeds really do handle like grenades – one type essentially is – and getting a good bead on a fertile wall while you’re jetpacking around is just as fun as targeting something for annihilation would be in any other game. Functions that would be more or less automatic in a typical action game are more visceral and interactive here. There are no med kits on Mars, so if Liang has had a few too many close encounters you’ll have to grow and properly evolve a health-restoring creature before it’s Game Over; likewise, all his defensive tools have to come out of one of the gardens you’ve left behind in previous areas. It’s a real show of game design genius, resulting in a product that’s just as suitable for biology class as it is appealing to casual and hardcore gamers alike!
Another thing that most impresses me about Waking Mars is how it builds in replay value. Aside from Liang’s central mission, there are a series of optional sidequests that would appear to have some bearing on the game’s ending but require a more thorough understanding of its ecosystem mechanics. Whether they actually do result in a different ending or just flesh out the game’s reference encyclopedia is a question I can’t answer yet, but I’ll say this: I definitely want to fire up Waking Mars for a second journey and see what happens if the player performs perfectly!
My one complaint is the way the dynamic camera interacts with the game’s gesture-driven user interface. You have to hold onscreen level with or below Liang to make him run around, and drag above him to get his jetpack going and guide him in flight. Therefore, the appropriate areas of the touchscreen change depending on where Liang is relative to screen center — a nuisance if he happens to land in a pocket and the camera centers below him. I’d like to see an option to let the touchscreen response areas remain static in updates, but for now a quick trip to the world map gets the player out of a jam in the few areas where Liang’s at risk of getting caught. Otherwise Waking Mars sports one of the most robust non-cluttering UIs I’ve seen yet, and the camera placement issue is well blunted by the fact that all ecosystem progress is saved when you travel via world map. Speaking of which, that little fact makes Waking Mars perfectly suited to short spurts of play — if you can settle your curiosity enough to tear away from the game before you finish it! Those seven or eight hours fly by fast once you dig in.
You’d think a bunch of rust-colored caves would be the blandest possible environment to set a game in, but Waking Mars will prove you wrong. There are far more wondrous sights waiting in the bowels of the Red Planet than I’ve dared show in our review screenshots, but even run-of-the-mill caves close to the surface inspire awe when viewed in all their parallax-scrolling glory. Liang is one of the more pliable characters we’ve seen in 2D gaming, adjusting his posture to suit whatever he’s walking on, stooping under, or crawling over. An eclectic and dynamically shifting soundtrack perfectly sets the mood for every situation Liang finds himself in. As far as game soundtracks go, it’s second only to Super Metroid’s in the sense of wonder it invokes in my reckoning.
iFanzine Verdict: Boasting a compelling story, accessible-yet-challenging gameplay, and incredible production values, Waking Mars is one of the most awe-inspiring titles to hit the App Store yet. Unless you absolutely must shoot things or have a complete aversion to 2D, you won’t be disappointed here!