Within its opening moments, Waking Mars makes it very clear that it isn’t merely a game. With imagination and flair, the developers at Tiger Style have gone far and beyond to bring us an immersive, creative, and incredibly interactive experience in exploration that’s truly remarkable all around.
Waking Mars puts players in the space boots of Liang, a pensive astrobiologist on a mission to investigate suspected life forms on Mars in 2097. Liang is joined by Amani, the team’s base camp operator, and A.R.T., a quirkily helpful AI. By crawling, running, and soaring with unlimited jetpack fuel, players are tasked with exploring the Red Planet’s underground caverns and researching undiscovered species of flora and fauna. Very early in the game, players discover the presence of strange seeds that can be cultivated into various life forms and used to access deeper areas of the cave. As more of the planet’s mysteries are revealed, it becomes evident that the team isn’t dealing with simple microorganisms.
One of the most extraordinary aspects of this game is the sense of wonder and openness that it evokes from beginning to end. Just as the early stages of the game approach a linear feel, the underground world of Mars starts to really open up. New species are constantly becoming available for research, and players quickly learn that all of them interact in a living, breathing way. The world that Tiger Style has created for Waking Mars actually feels like a biological environment. As the title suggests, players are given the power to bring Mars to life. Let me give you an example:
Around the third or fourth chamber I explored, I encountered a strange, rock-looking object (I’ll try not to spoil too much). “Must be some sort of tree trunk,” my character thought, and I continued to plant seeds. After planting one seed too many, the previously motionless object was up and growling. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t genuinely frightened and immediately jetpacked away. Upon closer examination, however, I discovered that the creature was actually afraid of ME. As it turned out, the type of species I had found was a passive one. It wasn’t until I observed and interacted with the species that I understood its role in the game world. Such encounters are what make Waking Mars so remarkable.
If I absolutely had to categorize this game, I’d place it somewhere between platformer and puzzle game, though it doesn’t quite fit in with either. Jetpack maneuvering makes up a large portion of gameplay, but there is no real penalty for missing a targeted platform. Instead, players would simply wind up in a lower part of the cave chamber, which is also open for exploration. In the game’s latter stages, once all of the types of seeds have been discovered, certain areas begin to require clever seed placement to unlock. While I suppose these elements more or less amount to puzzles, the game makes them feel organic and fluid.
Story wise, Waking Mars is more than adequate to keep players interested (and I don’t mean under the subtext of “for a mobile game”). The three characters work well together, and there’s plenty of well-researched technical dialogue to go around. For those seeking food for thought, certain themes of the game touch on the ethics of scientific inquiry, philosophy, and what it means to be human. Overall, I was very pleased with the narrative here.
Other highlights include a detail-heavy art style, fantastic level design, and a soundtrack that’s one part A Space Odyssey, one part Radiohead, and every bit appropriate. The game has quite a bit of content, too. As is the case with many creative indie games, I expected a chapter or two at most. That wasn’t the case with Waking Mars; it’s definitely a full game.
As much as I loved my experience with this game, I have to admit that the control scheme could be better. Sometimes I had trouble jetpacking through narrow passageways or over certain spires. Other times, when the camera zoomed out, I was stuck at the top of the screen with only a few millimeters available to propel my character upwards. Once I got used to the scheme, though, it didn’t noticeably detract from my gameplay.
All in all, I’m ecstatic to give Waking Mars a full five stars. A game like this one offers more than just challenging entertainment on the go. It provides an imaginative outlet for creativity and pushes the boundary of what a video game can be. I couldn’t be more pleased to have it available on iOS.