Waking Mars commits to its scientific roots from the get-go. Dr. Liang has no weapons, just a trusty jetpack, and his goal is to explore a series of caverns on Mars. Instead of fighting, you spend your time navigating and dodging hazards such as acid, magma, falling stalagmites, and the testy fauna, all so that you might better map the area and perform basic experiments on the pods springing to life around you. The clever conceit here is that research is accomplished by testing out various things with each pod, and much of the game takes a hands-off, trial-and-error approach that fairly resembles the arcade equivalent of the scientific method. At first, you can only grow harmless green seeds into “Halid” stalks that contribute to your overall biomass score; later, you’ll start getting seeds that can only be planted in acidic soil (with explosive or aggressive effects), and spores that can change the soil from neutral to acidic (and back). Figuring out what eats what, which plants contribute the most biomass, and how to get the “enriched” soil is all very clever, as is the overall structure of the game, which begins quite linearly and then opens up around the fourth chapter. Like Metroid, there’s more to each zone than simply getting from A to B, and some multi-area puzzles (repairing the reservoir, caulking a hole in the atmospheric pressure, helping out an alien species) keep things from growing tedious.
That said, beyond that initial research, the constant testing and retesting quickly grows frustrating, especially if you’re trying to get the best ending, in which you must max out the biomass for each room. If every type of seed were available in every room, or if the world map provided a key denoting which areas you could fast travel to for some hasty seed farming, the various tests wouldn’t be nearly as frustrating. But exploiting certain late-game breeding techniques or attempting to reverse soil types so as to ensure that you’re not blowing up the biomass that you’re attempting to harvest often feels like more trouble than it’s worth. I’ve always believed that once you can map out the solution to a puzzle, you should essentially have finished in. In Waking Mars, you’ll spend precious minutes building an inventory of seeds and then several more minutes actually putting everything in motion. These solutions are also largely the same by the time you’ve gotten every seed: there are very specific steps required for maxing out the biomass in the fastest amount of time, and the execution isn’t nearly as challenging as the ingredient collecting.
At its best, Waking Mars reminds me of The Dig, minus all the point-and-click adventuring. At its worst, Waking Mars is guilty of putting the gamer to sleep, with redundant room design and tedious obstacles to clear. (If I never need to push a Ledon Zoa’s floating seeds through the air, it’ll be too soon.) If you picked this one up in a bundle, consider giving at least the innovative first half a try to see if you enjoy the mechanics. Otherwise, there are more consistent games to spend an afternoon with.