Welcome my curious indie-game enthusiasts to another installment of Games Abyss' Indie Corner, where we showcase the scene's finest, most entertaining releases. Sometimes the most gratifying videogame experiences come in small packages – and with even smaller budgets. Sometimes we want for nothing but the simpler things out of life, and our games. Enter Waking Mars, the lastest iPhone/iPad offering from Tiger Style Games, and the perfect salve for your indie pinings.
Get Your Ass to Mars: I'll be upfront, Waking Mars isn't fun like God of War is fun – it's a different kind of fun. Waking Mars is really all about exploration and farming. It's quite a change of pace of the kind of videogame fun you are used to, much like the times when the face-melting, heavy metal sound of say Iron Maiden is just a bit too much and all you really want to listen to is something a bit more refined, like Fredric Chopin.
Move Over Mars Rover: Waking Mars' main impetus is the exploration of intricate cave system on the Red Planet known as the Lethe Cavern. The begins atop the mysterious structure and as you venture further you recover parts for your busted robot, discover surface exits, and document new life. The narrative is told in rapid fire of cutscenes driven by scientific theory. The dialogue might be off-putting to those who passionately dislike biology, but the cinematic moments merely stand as picture frames for the portrait: exploration.
By means of jet-pack and good ol' fashioned walking, protagonist Dr. Liang manages through the Lethe Cavern to repair his bot, maintain signal, and gather seeds to continue exploring. You see, each advancement of the cavern is sealed off by a membrane and remains until a segment has reached a critical biomass. This is where the farming aspect comes into play.
Mass Horticulture: Farming is simplistic enough, almost FarmVille-like. You throw your seeds onto the ground, watch it sprout, and tend to it – like the diligent little gardener you are. At times the ground will be fairly moist, obviating the need to water your plants. Sometimes the ground will be fertilized, leading to a healthier, more robust crop. While simple in nature, the true nuance is more of a macro-level of farming: managing an ecosystem. And most farming games neglect such a crucial and basic detail.
Each 'room' of the cavern has a biomass requirement, and in order to reach that requirement you have to grow a decent amount of plants. Some plant types give more biomass than others, and some are not even not rooted to the ground. Some eat others, some heal you, and others may even attack you (mean green motha' from outer space, huh?). But even the ones that attack you can benefit from as specific species produce compost that can fertilize the ground. You often need to pause before you plow through any room and consider what you should plant, where you should plant it, and how it will all fit into the overall ecosystem. It's simple but surprisingly challenging. At times however, the ecosystems are not as nuanced as say, real life. And that's okay because remember, you are on Mars; you need to suspend your disbelief.
With a Soundtrack this Good, No One Cares to Hear You Scream: Waking Mars achieving something special for an iOS app, it features a truly memorable and haunting score. It's subtle, atmospheric, and cannot help but invoke an Alien or even Moon feel. It never feels out of place or obtrusive, but instead provides an aural foundation for the game. I'm no so skilled musical composition theorist but suffice it to say that for $4.99 its soundtrack alone is well worth the price of admission.
All Eyes on the Red Planet: Just as its sounds, the sights of Waking Mars are quite the treat. While the animation is simple, the graphics are somehow both lush and bleak. Mars is beautiful, stark, and bare. The beautifully rendered inside of Lethe Cavern is replete with whimsically designed and interesting plant life. There are plenty of colors, even if Martian red is prominent in the palette. Each plant has a variety of stages, offering you visual feedback on the health of your ecosystem. It's subtle and important, and Tiger Style Games has successfully managed to do so without the crux of bars or icons on the screen.
But for this gamer , the pièce de résistance is the awe-inspiring parallax scrolling through the cavern. The cave is as intricately layered as an artichoke. Your movement may be on a single plane, but a larger, out of focus plane scrolls by in the foreground all the while a further plane shifts in the background. Waking Mars is simply incredible to look at and is visual poetry in motion. And while this isn't the first game to use parallax scrolling, never before has it dredged up such levels of haunting perfection. As such, I highly recommend playing on an iPad rather an iPhone as the larger landscape of the iPad seems more suited for what this game is trying to achieve. You might get better control of the jetpack on an iPhone, but too much of the game is the obscured by a stubby thumb.
It's a Context Thing: When and where should you play this game? During that long commute to work? Waiting in line at the DMV? Well, instead of suggesting a specific location, I'd rather suggest playing Waking Mars to create a certain mood. Play the game whenever and wherever you please, but be in the mood for a calming, cerebral experience. This isn't a frag-tastic Horde Mode, you are planting seeds and cultivating life. So go ahead, have your moment of zen on your lunch break of while waiting for the laundry to dry. You'll find it very soothing amidst the frenzy of every day life.
Worth its Weight in Moon Rocks: With all these accolades, it almost seems silly that this game is priced at a mere $4.99. A step forward for iOS /mobile gaming, Waking Mars combines adventure exploration with farming mechanics for a beautiful cinematic experience. There's so much attention to detail that it's not hard to forget you're playing a game.