Waking Mars full review
The second game from the team behind sublime arachnid-simulator Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor was always going to one to watch, but the move from spinning webs in a dusty mansion to spelunking on the red planet was a surprise.
You play as a near-future astronaut/scientist, exploring Mars for signs of ancient life with the help of a jetpack. With input and cheery chatter from a smiley colleague on videolink, you end up delving into vast caverns deep beneath the surface and discovering Earth's neighbour isn't quite as lifeless as it appears. In a refreshing break from the more fanciful breed of science fiction, Waking Mars steers clear of out and out aliens in favour of ambient plant life.
It's your job to find and plant seeds that spread vegetation around the caves, which in turn (and admittedly rather spuriously, via the concept of certain levels of biomass causing organic barriers to give way) opens up pathways to new subterranean areas. There, secrets and increasingly strange beauty awaits.
It's essentially a puzzle game with a great concept and touch of action. You're initially limited by which seeds you can find, but over time the caverns come alive with the life you've planted, generating new seeds and even occasionally landing one in fertile ground and thus growing a new plant by chance. As a sort of cosmic gardener, it's your job to manage what does and doesn't grow.
For instance, the basic, seed-spitting plant is perfectly safe but doesn't generate much biomass. So you could grow one with a big snappy mouth that chomps at you if you fly near it - but it does mean a whole lot more biomass, which gets you closer to accessing the next cave. Ultimately, you're juggling the likes of plants that fire water or acid, ones with deadly dangling trap-vines, ones that lob explosives and scuttling, stupid insects that increase in number by eating safe seeds.
Most of these interact with each other in same way, whether it's to alter their growth or treat them as dinner. Or you, for that matter, which is where the action comes in. You'll need reasonable hand-to-eye coordination to save yourself from plunging into acid pits, being hit by lava balls or sucked into the belly of a carnivorous plant, but rest assured this a game about creation rather than destruction. Once in a while, you'll need to kill off a plant to make room for another form of plant, but there's no shooting men in the face here. This is a celebration of life, not the usual action game odyssey to eradicate it.
With your help, the barren caverns eventually become botanical carnivals of movement and explosion, with self-sustaining ecosystems of growth, prey and rebirth. Waking Mars indeed. It's a fine sight to behold, especially generously-proportioned screen of an iPad, and the only real flaw in the design is that increasingly becomes a numbers game. You'll get to a certain level of biomass, but to finish the game (and if you're a completist) you'll need to be minutely tweaking, destroying and regrowing even as the biomass count fluctuates wildly due to the plants' ambient construction and destruction of each other. It's thoughtful and, at times, intense enough not to be frustrating, but there's a certain irony in a game based around the concept of organic growth being so dependent on mechanical number-crunching.
The stop-motion photographs used to depict the dialogue between your stern explorer and the smiley scientist are also a possible wobble, as after the initial charm of seeing real, facially charismatic people wears off, you'll find yourself seeing the same pictures again and again, and often the expressions won't match the tone of what's being said.
Don't let that put you off what's a true original of a game, though - not to mention an incredibly pretty one, providing you're not turned off by the admittedly unusual side-on, almost paper cut-out art style. It's the landscapes that really make it, your character a tiny spec against dramatic sweeps of red rock, vast, open skies and, eventually, gigantic crystal formations. It's a far more attractive and pleasant affair on iPad than iPhone, however, as it really needs room for broad gestures in terms of controlling your hover-based movement and firing seeds off to distant patches of earth. On either device though, it's a game that's truly thought about what touch control can offer, as opposed to trying to force them to fit something that suits them.