Waking Mars

A Review

Explore the depths of the Red Planet in this unique side-scroller.

PC sidescrollers are not the most popular PC genre in the modern era but many are quite wonderful. Off the top of my head I can name several which are well worth a look including Super Meat Boy, Trine and Trine 2, and even Terraria. These games combine simple gameplay with nice and highly functional graphics to create an experience which is straight up fun. Waking Mars is a sidescroller in this tradition and has some stand-out merits of its own.

Waking Mars is set at the end of the 21st century, in which mankind has launched a manned expedition of the planet Mars. The player character is the astronaut Liang, who encounters alien plant life and a devastating cave-in at the onset of his Martian adventure. Buried beneath the surface of the red planet, Liang must find his way to the base camp and discover the secret of Martian life along the way. This is the sort of story I enjoy and it is told through character dialogs between Liang, his AI companion ART, and his teammate Amani. The characters are workable enough; Liang is stoic even in the face of aliens, ART is a less clever GLADOS without the malcontent, and Amani has some secrets to reveal, but none represented poorly. However their interruptions, especially in the first half of the game, are incredibly frequent and often stop the gameplay dead in its tracks.

Well I can classify you as annoying.

Waking Mars gameplay involves Liang creating the various alien life found under the Martian surface. Liang has various types of seeds which he can toss in designated patches of fertile soil to produce plants. These plants (all of which have strange yet forgettable names) provide more seeds or have environmental effects, such as healing or even eating other aliens. Each room in the game is its own small puzzle room, the goal of which is to cultivate enough of life (referred to as Biomass) to encourage the alien goo door at the exits of the room to open. Often this requires a careful balance and proper placement of both dangerous and beneficial plants. Clever players will find they can create working eco systems where plants can be placed in clusters to feed a farm of little alien spider bugs while keeping a cluster of firebomb throwing plants a safe distance away. The whole thing works very well, and players will often find ways to create interesting arrangements.

As mentioned before, the game is a 2D sidescroller. Liang is outfitted with a jetpack which never runs out of fuel. So much of the game takes place in vertical as well as horizontal spaces. The deadly plants and hazards of Mars can chip away at Liang's health, but healing plants are easy to create and I did not die once on normal difficulty. In many ways, the challenge of this game is not in its survival difficulty, but in how the player controls their environment. Often the two are connected and situations can get out of hand as firebomb plants begin taking over an area. However, most of the time players will simply be evaluating their placement decisions as they pertain to the eco system as a whole.

Sometimes I put plants on the ceiling, for science.

The game does a good job of showing players what sort of actions they need to take to complete an area but hides the necessary steps. This makes for very compelling gameplay which involves a healthy dose of jetpacking around a new area for an initial evaluation and analysis after each significant step. Satisfaction upon completion is very encouraging and rewarding. The game is a little short on content and I was able to complete the whole thing in about 8 hours, however not regretting a moment of it. The problem with puzzle games such as this is that they are not readily replayable and there are no real unlockables or treats to encourage a second playthrough.

The graphics in Waking Mars are 2D paper-like objects in a 2D game space. Also, being that this is Mars, most of these objects are tinted red. Especially at the start of the game, players can expect to be learning the boundaries of the graphical space as well as the game mechanics. Objects can sometimes appear to be part of the background or foreground but will block players unexpectedly. Many times I was surprised by a falling stalactite which I thought was part of the other uncollidable falling debris. This passes after a time and the graphics turn out to be very functional. However, the camera zooms in and out sometimes unexpectedly and can linger without panning with the character at some points which causes moments of doubt especially at small crawlable areas or pits.

I hope I don't find Lemiwinks down here...

The audio is functional as well. The dialog has decent voice acting and ART the AI has an enjoyable effect where his voice changes as he recites numbers and data. Liang sometimes seems to mumble and Amani sounds like she is reading from a script but there is no reason to hate the acting. The environmental sounds and music seem very synthesized but the entire game is presented very “gamey” in style so this doesn't significantly break the world that has been crafted. The one irritating audio component takes the form of an epilepsy inducing minigame of flashing shapes and colors accompanied by a high pitched whine. Luckily there are only a few instances of this activity.

Overall, Waking Mars is a very good game. There is very little to discourage fans of puzzle games or even just independent games. It sets a good standard for indie games with solid gameplay and presentation in a digestible bundle. I am happy to place it up with the likes of Super Meat Boy and others and it has in every way earned its place.

This game is a...slam dunk.

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  • will2k avatar
    will2k username pic Joined 8y ago
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    Map Critic
    Your writing/reviewing style is quite enjoyable, well done Tanuki. And the first screenshot caption made me LOL :)
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Pros & Cons

  • Solid and thought provoking gameplay
  • Good Presentation
  • A little short
  • Not much replayablity
  • Epilepsy minigame


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Tanuki Joined 10y ago
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