Planting a garden is an exercise in resource management. What goes where? How much room will everything take? Which plant needs how much water? It's a constantly evolving puzzle that plays out over long periods of time. Speed things up a bit, and you're starting to have the makings of a really engaging game. Now put the garden on Mars. Good! Now we're getting somewhere.
There does seem to be a running theme with plants lately, doesn't there? My last Gaming App of the Day was Eufloria HD, a game all about the brutal, cold real-time strategy of natural selection. This time around it's Waking Mars, which tells an altogether different story of plant life and growth. Despite its outwardly cold appearance, it's a warm, charming, and smart game, with a surprising amount of depth both to its gameplay and its story.
Waking Mars tells the story of a researcher on Mars named Dr. Liang. Armed only with a space suit and jetpack, Liang is exploring the surface of Mars, looking for traces of a missing drone. He is helped along by his assistant Amani, who communicates with him from his shuttle, as well as a humorous artificial intelligence named ART.
I haven't finished the story, which by other reports clocks in at six to eight hours, but already the game has revealed a surprising amount of depth. You see, it turns out that Mars is not bereft of life—Liang navigates the caverns beneath the planet's surface by planting various seeds, which quickly grow into large plants. The plants must be combined to form a series of mini ecosystems, each of which has a different result—some plants open doors, others nullify hazards, others heal you. The map is open and ever-changing—in essence Waking Mars is an open-map "Metroidvainia" exploration game with plants in place of missiles and throwing daggers.
The key to success is balance, which is one of the game's central themes—by keeping plant-life in balance, Liang is able to move onwards. Controls are simple—move your finger, and Liang goes there. Choose a seed, aim it, and he'll throw it.
The smooth controls bring back welcome memories of developer Tiger Style's fantastic iOS game Spider: The Secret of Brice Manor. While Waking Mars by necessity lacks Spider's understated elegance, it displays the same smart and engaging puzzles and elegiac yet hopeful vibe.
Having recently attended Tiger Style's Randy Smith's talk on the development of Waking Mars, it's all the easier to understand how much thought went into the planning and integration of the multitudes of plant responses. Many successful iOS games are built around a single fantastic mechanic—knock down the pigs! Jump across the rooftops! Slingshot yourself higher! Cut the rope!—but this one is built on a fantastic system.
That does mean that Waking Mars is a good deal chewier than your average wham-bam-thanks for the the cheap thrills iOS game. But it is entirely worthy of your time—I'm not finished, but I plan to keep on playing until I am. Players looking for a smart, deep, and evocative mobile game should look no further.
The soundtrack is killer, too.
Waking Mars [App Store]