Whoever said there’s no life on Mars didn’t dig deep enough. Mining industry execs thought they’d strike it rich on the Red Planet, and now they’ve opened up a rather large can of worms — scary looking ones that belch plasma, pulverize rock, and otherwise like to chew up drilling equipment. That’s why the mining industry has called on the 22nd century equivalent of Terminix to send in weaponized rovers and exterminate all the Vermes on Mars (Out Now, $0.99)!

As we mentioned in our recent hands-on preview, Vermes‘ greatest asset is its unique squad-based style of play; shoot ’em up fans are in for something entirely different if they pick this one up, and in a good way. A live tutorial shows the player how tapping to direct the robots under his or her control is different from using swipes, but it could do a better job explaining just how critical this difference is to conducting the missions. The Vermes being such a new threat, nobody’s thought to create a Verme detector yet — that means the player will have to draw them out with the bots themselves, swiping wide arcs over the touchscreen so they’ll fan out and trawl the Martian soil for hidden burrows. The tap functionality comes in handy for cautious movement in a tight ring or to make the rovers regroup when too many Vermes get drawn out.

Once some Vermes have arisen, it’s time to switch the rovers from movement mode to firing mode and commence with the extermination. Aztlan offers some options here. The player can set the game to use double taps for the switch or reserve the left and right edges of the touchscreen for this purpose. As determined as I was to rely on double tapping, I found it all too easy to confuse the game with the excited input that can happen during a heavy firefight. Let your finger lift just a bit while commanding the bots to fire at targets and it could be interpreted as an order to shift gears during a most inopportune moment. The screen edge method is silky smooth by comparison, and easily won me over once I tried it. There’s just one problem in the release version: when you set the game to use the touchscreen edges for mode switching, it loses its ability to detect the two-finger swipe needed to move the player’s field of view. Players will definitely appreciate a fix for this in updates, as the screen edge method makes for a much improved experience!

All the gear shifting will wear down gamers looking for pick-up-and-play simplicity, but those who don’t flinch at the difference between manual and automatic transmission in everyday life will find plenty to love in Vermes‘ content. Its forty levels do a great job of throwing curveballs in the form of ever larger and more dangerous Vermes. The key to success is learning the behavior of each species and prioritizing their destruction when more than one are onscreen; better to focus on the giant quake-causing worm that can bust up bots in seconds once it closes a distance than the little nuisance already chewing on one of the rovers at the same moment. Later stages toss out temporary special weapons and restorative items, which can be held in reserve until the player really needs them.

Any one of the player’s four bots falling in battle may be good cause to manually abort a mission, depending on how many reward credits the player’s invested into it by that time; replacement rovers must be upgraded from scratch. While Vermes appeals most heavily to shoot ’em up fans for all the lasers being traded around onscreen, its upgrade system should appeal to RTS and Castle Defense vets looking for similar depth in an unconventional package. Every ten levels or so a new type of rover becomes available for the player to swap in, adding to the already noticeable changes in firepower and vehicle endurance that a good stock of cash can produce. As expected of a strategy-heavy gameplay formula, success doesn’t necessarily ride on just filling the ranks with the most advanced bot; each has a different type of primary weapon, so the player will want to experiment with different combinations and create a balanced force.

Vermes‘ Martian setting may set low expectations for its aesthetic presentation, but Aztlan surprises with how many different vistas they’re able to stuff into the game’s levels. Alexander Panknin lends standout audio tracks heavy in industrial synths, and these combine with distorted voice clips to create a suitably eerie atmosphere. Whoever’s barking confirmations in response to the player’s commands doesn’t exactly sound human…just who did the space mining companies contract with to take care of this problem, anyway?

iFanzine Verdict: An unconventional title that’s difficult to categorize neatly into any one genre. Vermes on Mars should greatly appeal if you’re open to a sci-fi action game that’s got plenty of meat on the bones and requires methodical real-time strategizing. While touch friendly, its controls are best appreciated by gamers who don’t mind a little complexity in the interface department.