Waking Mars bucks a few trends in its side scrolling approach to the exploration of Mars. For starters you’re not on a space base that turns into a launching pad for hell’s army, instead you’re in the peaceful inner caves of Mars with nary a demon to be found. You’re not trying to save a princess, instead you’re chasing an ever illusive wayward rover and hunting for biological research data. The aliens aren’t bipedal and don’t wield laser pistols, they mostly have roots, seeds and an aversion to acidic soils. It’s the Metroidvania genres response to farming sims and it’s much more fulfilling than waiting for Curiosity to beam back some grainy images of water molecules.
You play as Liang, a man perfectly suited to his job of observing the caves of Mars. So well suited is he that at the point where it becomes clear he is trapped beneath tonnes of martian rock unable to return to his base he simply shrugs and continues researching. Walking Mars has a sparse cast of characters; Liang the Astrobiologist, Liang’s annoying AI helper ART, and the cheerful Amani who is Liang’s only human contact, providing him remote guidance and assistance. The only other character would be the red planet’s subterranean ecosystem itself which grows and evolves around you as you delve deeper. Though the characterization is basic, short spurts of dialogue, there is quite a lot of depth to it, in particular the soft-spoken Liang seems much too keen to escape deeper into the caves of Mars and forget about the rest of humanity back on Earth. The exchanges also drive a subtle narrative that involves Amani’s hidden involvement and agenda with Liang’s work and the discovery of the life forms on Mars being more advanced than they originally appeared. The story isn’t an overt part of Waking Mars but it smoothly runs through the game, adding to the experience.
You progress through Waking Mars by increasing the biomass of the game’s caverns. This is at first a simple task; plant a couple of seeds and water them to open up the biomass membrane (or cerebrane as they are known in Liang’s research journal). A few caves in though and it’s a much more complicated affair, requiring you to learn how the different “Zoa” interact. Zoa is a catch-all term for Waking Mar’s life forms, some are plant-like and rooted in the ground while others will float or scuttle about at will. To create effective biomass producing areas it’s best to design them as properly operating ecosystems where a number of Zoa will be reproducing without your input. This may take some trial and error, destroying and replanting Zoa to get a good healthy mix for your cave gardens. The complexity ramps up over time and the later areas become almost puzzle like in their conditions. The system feels (unsurprisingly) organic though, never like there is only one solution or combination of Zoa and it’s a thrill to see a once desolate area transform into a thriving seed producing ecosystem.
Waking Mars has a great sense of exploration and wonder. There is always something new to discover, from new types of Zoa to exotic alien structures or fragments of data from the AWOL rover. You can’t blame Liang for being so into his work as it’s genuinely intriguing slowly working out what is going on in Mar’s hidden crevices. The game reflects Liang’s interest and excitement for scientific research and avoids the horrific or desolate tones we’re used to in sci-fi dealing with our closest planetary neighbor. This makes Waking Mars a calming rather than a tense, action wrought experience.
Waking Mars is altogether an interesting game and well put together game, even being a port from iOS doesn’t stop it losing any of its charm. It has a surprisingly intriguing story and one of the most subtly complex video game characters I’ve encountered, even down to the incredibly weird and slightly psychotic smile Liang flashes when he realizes there is more researching to be done. Floating around tending to an alien garden may not be what most gamers are used to but it’s an enchanting alternative to shooting things. Waking Mars is getting 4/5 sleeping planets.