Waking Mars ReviewPublisher: Tiger Style Games
UK Price (as reviewed): £6.99 Incl. VAT
US Price (as reviewed): $9.99 Excl. Tax
In the next two paragraphs I'm going to explain to you Waking Mars' plot and general mechanics. It might sound dull to start with, but bear with me because afterwards I'll explain why it's still a great game that you should definitely play. Here goes.
Waking Mars tells the story of botanist Dr. Liang, who is sent to Mars to research alien plant life that's been discovered by robotic probes. Once he arrives Dr. Liang ventures into the caves where these plants are found, but then accidentally causes a cave-in that traps him there.
Lacking any obvious exit, Liang explores the caverns, studies the plants and realises he'll have to use the plants to survive. Sure enough, he sets off to garden his way to freedom - researching the plants with the help of his suit AI, then planting them to open new caverns.
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So, why should you play a game that could basically be described as a gardening simulator?
Simply, because while there are a lot of games out there offer more bombastic experiences, Waking Mars is one of the few games we've seen which has something to say and which says it cohesively through every element it uses. It's a game about considering your purpose as just a part of a larger process, rather than the master of it and that's surfaced in everything from the emergent plant interactions to the role you're cast in.
Waking Mars isn't just peddling some ecological agenda either. You can complete the game fairly easily if you set your mind to it; just plant a single species of plant everywhere to raise the biomass level and you'll open the exit quickly. Doing that won't unveil Mars' secrets though and, as Liang himself says, just getting back to base isn't really what he's here to do. He's here to experiment; to understand through play.
Playing in Waking Mars' environment is
fun, but it's not fun in the same way that most games are. There's no combat or RPG system to master; there's just the plants and the world around you. The real fun lies in developing a through understanding of your habitat, not in dodging lava pits or killing Mars' one mobile plant.
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It's a difficult thing to articulate, really. Like reading a textbook instead of a Stephen King novel, Waking Mars is rewarding in all the best ways - but sounds strange when you tell your friends about it. Luckily, this textbook has jetpacks and aliens in it.
There are valid complaints to level against Waking Mars. Liang's is characterised to placidly for his situation, for example - and his AI companion rapidly moves from simply grating to wholly hated...but it doesn't matter.
Even despite these small flaws Waking Mars still stands out as a mysterious, meditative and quietly powerful game that brings up important questions without ever becoming preachy. For that it should be applauded, appreciated and - most of all - played.