Waking Mars is about exploring an alien world. You play as an astronaut making his way through intricate Martian caverns, learning as much as he can about the planet’s geography and cataloging its alien plant life. Over radio, you’re accompanied by a fellow scientist who’s monitoring your progress from a base station on Mars, as well as an A.I. computer program that helps you identify and classify the new flora you discover.
On the surface, it’s a fairly standard sci-fi story, although its fiction is way more detailed and well constructed than nearly any other game on the App Store. But what really sets the Waking Mars apart is its atmosphere. As you make your way deeper into the caverns of Mars, you’ll come upon beautiful vistas and strange formations. You’ll also find a good deal of diversity in the organisms underground, from plants that hurt or heal you to primitive lifeforms that gather seeds for food. They’ve created a magnificently realized world here, with its own internal logic and beauty.
We’re not in Kansas anymore.
You control your character by placing your finger in the direction you want him to go. This works quite well, because he’s wearing a jetpack that allows him full freedom of movement. In general, you want to guide him away from lava, acid, and falling stalactites, and towards areas of fertile soil, which are marked by different types of grass.
Here’s where it gets weird. The caverns of Mars are sealed off by thick membranes that can’t be breached until a certain amount of biomass is present in the cave. This effectively breaks the game world into a series of sprawling rooms. To progress, you have to bring life to each room by flying around and planting various kinds of seeds in the fertile patches of ground. Each species of plant has different properties, so some produce more seeds, while others dangle harmful tentacles from the ceiling or emit spores that heal you.
Once you bring forth enough life, the room-sealing membranes dissipate, allowing you to progress. Passing through some rooms isn’t so straightforward, however, and you’ll be assigned different goals from time to time. The further you get, the more details you unearth about the overarching mystery of what, exactly, is going on on the Red Planet, and the more you’ll want to keep playing.
A different kind of mushroom kingdom.
Adding to the game’s atmosphere are the graphics. It looks less like a videogame and more like a painting you might find on the cover of a pulp sci-fi novel from the 1950s. The animations are smooth, and the music and otherworldly sound effects add to the lonely, alien atmosphere.
If there’s anything to complain about in Waking Mars, it’s that the bulk of the game is fairly easy, but when the challenge kicks in, it quickly becomes frustrating. Achieving the required biomass in later levels requires lots of patience, and lots of seed gathering. But this won’t ruin your experience, and the game’s numerous positive aspects more than make up for any shortcomings.
Like the developer’s earlier game Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor, Waking Mars evokes a sense of wonder and mystery that will stick with you long after you’ve played the game. On a platform known for its kid-friendly casual titles, Waking Mars shows there’s plenty of diversity out there– you just have to be willing to explore.