Waking Mars review - A Metroidvania experience for the iPad

It's not a secret that the point-and-click adventure genre is back on the iPad. Sword and sworcery was a teaser, Kickstarter projects got the money and games successful in of other platforms like Machinarium, Another World and Aquaria found a new life on iOS. 

In this occasion however, my latest iPad addiction is an original and exclusive title for the iPad from the pioneers that surprised iPhone owners with Spider:  The Secret of Bryce Manor. What could make a decent successor for those years of development as an introduction to the iPad App Store?

Waking Mars by Tiger Style is an sci-fi exploration puzzle adventure where you descend through Martian caves to find what happened to a lost Mars rover and discover new life forms nobody has seen before in the process. You're the only human witness of a phenomenon that appears to be intrinsically linked to your presence.  

Waking Mars sets you in the feet of Chinese astronaut Liang, a researcher who's mission is to follow the trail of the missing robot. At this point in time, humans have set foot in Mars, interact with computers with poor AI and use those machines to explore Mars caverns. The difficult conditions make you the perfect candidate to descend and follow the breadcrumbs before you. The adventure ahead is an epic jetpack journey with groundbreaking discoveries.

Imagine an underground world where species called Zoa, the native plants, can flourish only in certain conditions. First as an observer, then as a main actor, your main mission diverts, interrupted by the activity of a cave that seems to be alive.

The whole game is set on 2D environments that you navigate by simply tapping either left of right of the screen. While in Spider swipes were the core of the gameplay, in Waking Mars gestures are minimal. You can fly around, walk and crawl using the same controls. This is ideal for this type of game as you don't cover the display with your fingers, potentially hiding stuff worth looking at. 

As soon as you get some feet below the ground, you'll discover seeds of the Zoa. The initial levels introduce you to the environment slowing down the pace of the game. Once you're done, you're free to roam around choosing the direction you want to take. Every level so to speak is a cave locked by lifeforms called cerebranes. The idea is that you develop a self sufficient ecosystem to trick the cerebrane and move on to the next level. This works like your typical five star scoring system where you can move on with a minimum score, max out or return later. 

The slow introduction tutorials are a walkthrough the main species and their abilities, vulnerabilities and ways to use them to your advantage. There's nothing too crazy if you can get  in the sci-fi mood but they obviously require some imagination. The basic hydra produces water, keeping your habitat moist enough for other Zoa to thrive. A series of seeds can be planted on suitable patches of land. The puzzle element comes here, as caves with limited slots of terrain represent a challenged to raise biomass to the required level to continue. 

After a couple of hours playing you'll become naturally familiar with the benefits of every seed and have learnt to collect seedlings just like a Pokemon trainer will catch any species 'just in case'. There's always a reference guide to refresh your knowledge, but the selection of Zoa forms is small enough for you to remember — maybe not the names, but at least what they do. 

All the mechanics, reproduction and the Metroid-type exploration is tied together by an exciting yet predictable plot. The story and it characters are the less adequate area of the game — let me explain why. Your research companion Amani feels unnatural and completely awkward in this futuristic setting unless astronauts wear Fruit of the Loom t-shirts. The rest of the characters also fail to impress and develop any emotional relation with the player. 

Would Waking Mars be a better game with voiced conversations and video sequences? Probably yes. It feels either very old-school or maybe just too cheap. Would tis change the gamer experience in any way? Not really, since the motivation to progress further is there, but it's more about your own curiosity than having empathy with the main character. 

The game is extremely open in the sense that you can choose the order of the caves you visit. I have only played it through once before this review, but I guess different actions might change the final outcome and story ending. I always tend to complete every side quest games offer and Waking Mars was no exception. I  feel like I spent a substantial amount of time with those, but then, there's little indication of what's the main objective. You can, of course, load the last saved game and experiment with other endings as I felt I got to see the title screen too early with some interesting missions to be completed.

Waking Mars is a great adaptation of a genre that was growing stale on PC and that works fantastically well on touch screen devices like the iPad. The gameplay suits the more chilled out sofa gaming experience to the point that you can be talking to someone or listening to your favourite podcast while playing. The graphics aren't as exciting as some cave flying games with some 3D wizardry going on but they're correct. The textures and patterns are fine and the game has definitely have some strong art direction without falling into the retro pixel trap. It's sold as retina optimised although some edges get jarred with zoom in animations, not scaling up perfectly. I don't think this is an issue and the whole thing is pretty to look at anyway.

There are some performance issues with the new iPad when you get a lot going on in the screen, but I don't think the game was supposed to be played to ridiculously high biomass levels — it just doesn't have a limit to the amount of creatures on screen and the iPad cannot take it. Nothing that can't be ironed out in an update. 

Waking Mars is a fantastic example of original work for the iPad in the vein of classic games like Metroid and Castlevania. This is a relaxed, non-violent and not very punitive game that encourages you to use both sides of your brain: your imagination  and your puzzle-solving abilities at once.