There are many ways to envision Mars. It could be a barren world, perhaps host to life once but certainly no longer. It could be a thing out of science fiction, teeming with hostile life we haven't yet met. Or it could be the future of our species, our best hope to leave a planet growing ever-smaller.

Tiger Style imagines a future that brings us to Mars to discover the truth. As the developers of Spider, The Secret of Bryce Manor [$2.99], the company has a lot to live up to, but they don't falter. In creating Waking Mars [$4.99], they have crafted another game built around storytelling. It is a brave game, one that is willing to think the best of us: that we could discover new life and seek to learn from it, not exploit it.

Liang, the star of the piece, is a Chinese astrobiologist who is part of a tiny team responsible for researching the red planet. This is done from a safe distance, with the help of rovers and computers. When the rover goes missing, it's up to Liang to recover it.

This means descending into Lethe Cavern, a Martian cave system that has only barely been explored. What should be a brief jetpack jaunt becomes an incredible journey. Liang encounters the Zoa, and begins to bring Mars to life.

The Zoa are Martian lifeforms, essentially plants. Tiger Style has researched and weighed every aspect of the Zoa ecosystem: each plant has its own dietary needs, soil pH requirements, vulnerabilities and biomass. Each contributes to the system in some way: one's seeds feed another, one releases spores that prepare the soil of others, one predatorily dines on lesser types. A careful balance is required at all times.

The caverns are protected by cerebranes, Zoa that react to nearby biomass. Just as many plants need to be pollinated or processed by other species to reproduce, the Zoa need Liang's help, and the cerebranes ensure he must give it. By raising the biomass in each cave, he can keep progressing deeper.

In practice, this means collecting seeds and planting them appropriately. ART, Liang's A.I. companion, keeps track of biomass, tracking it with a five star system. Three is often enough to pass through a cavern, but five is better for reasons that will become clear as you play.

As Liang travels deeper into the caves, a larger story unfolds. It's the story of the Zoa, and of Mars. It is not the story of Liang. He is stoic, quiet. He rarely discusses his own experiences. He is here to learn, to explore, and to complete his mission.

Aside from ART's occasional interjections, Liang has one more companion: Amani. She stays back at Base Camp, reaching out to Liang with encouragement and information.

If I have one complaint about Waking Mars, it is this: Amani's portraits don't feel appropriate. Where the art is otherwise excellent, Amani's is bold and out of place. Her portraits look a little too much like a series of stock photos. This is a small problem, but a jarring one.

But Amani herself is a welcome distraction. Early in the game, ART and Amani interrupt Liang's journey near-constantly, walking him through all the basics. As time passes, they pop in less and less. The solitude of the caverns is a wonderful thing, enhanced by the game's gorgeous soundtrack, but it's also lonely in there, deep below the surface of Mars. On those occasions when Amani's signals break through, it usually begins a much-needed moment of human connection.

Otherwise, Liang is alone with the Zoa, working to build enough biomass to continue his journey. Each discovery he makes is noted in a research journal, each cave he visits is marked on a map. The only thing left to remember is the composition of each cave. At first, resources are plentiful. Later, you'll need to revisit caves to find the seeds you need. 

Waking Mars is never truly difficult. Some of the Zoa are carnivorous and must be avoided, but there's no real penalty to letting Liang's health drop. Similarly, some of the Zoa are very vulnerable, and can be killed. Keeping them alive is rarely completely necessary, however, as most caverns can eventually be brute-forced into growing sufficiently with enough persistence.

In place of difficulty, Waking Mars has intelligence. A clever game, it pushes players to contemplate its mysteries while they solve its smaller puzzles of ecosystem and biomass. Most of your questions will be answered by the time the curtain falls; in fact, I'd consider this one of the most satisfying gaming experiences I've had on this platform. Most of that satisfaction is down to the story and its presentation.

In the end, you'll be left to decide the fate of the Zoa. Though the story can play out in multiple ways, there isn't a wrong answer among them. You can always reload your final save to try things out differently. This is a blessing, one that lets you find every answer before putting the game down for the last time. This isn't a game that will stand up to being replayed for most people, but at 6 to 10 hours it should provide entertainment enough.

Waking Mars has everything: a compelling story, beautiful environments, a gorgeous soundtrack and gameplay worth playing. Though it is, in some ways, less risky than Tiger Style's last game (though I'd argue a game about a Chinese astrobiologist studying Martian botany is not completely risk free), it's a worthy successor. Spider was an amazing experiment in storytelling; Waking Mars raises the bar on quality in long-form iOS games. Neither should be missed under any circumstances. Get this game. Whether you adore it as I do or not, it's worth experiencing.

TouchArcade Rating

StarStarStarStarStar
  • http://profile.yahoo.com/DF24Z4ZLRK4S5VDEIORPJHZZIA pho3nix

    This is an amazing game from Tiger Style. A well-deserved 5/5, an increasing rarity at TouchArcade...

  • http://twitter.com/back2this Sean Yuan

    Sweet review. Can't wait to play through the rest of the game when I find the time to in a few days.

    @back2this:twitter 

  • Rob Geeson

    An embedded HD Vimeo video that just disappears when you hit play on IPad.. Do I really have to fire up my clunky old laptop to see this?

    Update - forget that, tried it a few times and it works now - cheers!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Eric-Cummings/1088758055 Eric Cummings

    I have so much love for this game!

  • klszhang-friends

    Somehow I am not impressed by the graphic accpording to the video. Some of the animation like 00:40, 1:26 looks not really well polished. And I have purchased "Spider, The Secret of Bryce Manor" and have tried to love it (I finished the game) but I still don't get it why people like it. To me that is a pretty repetitive game.

    • farnsworth_pro

       I thought the same thing until I really started playing it. It's a fantastic looking game.

  • James Williams

    It's not that great IMHO. I've pretty much beat it because I didn't want to judge it before it was over, but alas.. It's a yawn. I'm a casual gamer at best and I love my artsy games but I constantly find myself hitting the map button and telling myself "eew, crappy graphics". Raising the biomass is pretty easy due to map traveling and stocking up on seeds in earlier areas then just map travel to the latest area you're on. After this repeatedly and making it to the bottom of the cave line and back to home base, I didn't care what the secret was anymore.

  • http://twitter.com/rafatwitts Rafael Larrea

    I loved the game... A real breath o fresh air. Is it just me or it reminded me of a couple of classics: H.E.R.O. and Pitfall II. I'm really enjoying it.

  • TheNurgrabber

    Coming from someone who beat but didn't like Spider: this game is an iOS revelation and should not be missed by anyone. It all just works, sometimes literally when you can get an area to continuously increase its own biomass. The animations fit the visual style perfectly. Like this fine review states, however, Amani's portraits look like they are from another, less verbose experience. The writing for each character is perfect; their personalities are revealed not only through what they say, but how they say it. This is a  remarkable achievement in gaming.
    This got a bit sprawling for a simple comment of praise, but everyone please get this game. So glad its Apple's Game of the Week.

  • famousringo

    The game is brilliant, filling the long-awaited xenobiologist game niche. Is it too much to hope for Waking Europa?

    One quibble with the review: It's not botany because ZOA ARE NOT PLANTS! : )

    • https://twitter.com/#!/NissaCam Nissa Campbell

      Spoilers. :)

      • http://profiles.google.com/yooooung Young !

        Is this the secret at the end? 

        I was reading the comments to determine whether or not I wanted to buy it, and am a bit disappointed if the ending just got spoiled for me. =/

      • https://twitter.com/#!/NissaCam Nissa Campbell

        No, not at all. It's just barely a spoiler, really. The secret ending is still safe (and great, imo).

      • http://profiles.google.com/yooooung Young !

        Thanks :) 

      • http://www.facebook.com/christopher.paris1 Chris Paris

        No, it's not a spoiler. You are told early on that the zoa are not plants, and if anything it's a running gag how Liang and Amani keep referring to them as plants anyway.

  • farnsworth_pro

    Absolutely incredible. I haven't found a mobile game so engrossing and deep in a long time. This is how it is done. Devs take serious note.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Quickmix Frank Quickmix Hassas

    Classic!

  • Haroldbrewer

    Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that
    counts can be counted

  • http://twitter.com/TheNinjaCEO Justin Shum

    This game is one of my favorites from the App Store. Well deserved 5 star rating.

  • http://twitter.com/MindJuiceMedia Ken Carpenter

    The graphics and trailer don't do anything for me.  I have no idea what the gameplay really is, but based on the massive number of people talking about this EVERYWHERE, I'll give it a whirl.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_2CUJHSQSQYTYT4DPZSKTVESYNQ B

    I don't know.  From the trailer it looks like one of those... I can't think of the name of the genre right now, but the kind where you're navigating a series of caves, you have a thruster that fires when you hit a button, and you go up when the thruster is on and fall when it's off.  So, you're constantly pressing and releasing said button to avoid hitting the floor, the ceiling, the walls, etc. etc.

    Is that the kind of game it is?  Because the story sounds intriguing, but I don't particularly like that kind of game. :-)

    • farnsworth_pro

       You can walk when on the ground. Neither the ground, nor the walls kill you unless they are a specific threat/danger (lava, stalactites etc) The thruster helps you get around, but it isn't as tedious to control as one might think.

      It's a metroid style game but with a map system to jump from location to location so you dont waste too much time going back and forth.

  • Lazyl

    What does the sentient want

    • http://www.facebook.com/christopher.paris1 Chris Paris

      Your money

    • eggsyntax

      True love.

  • http://twitter.com/Aghartastudio Alex

    I didn't liked the beginning of the game and was ready to drop it... but then it just became incredibly addictive (I won't spoil at when), can't stop playing since this morning (Chapter 4 here i am!) the sense of exploration and discovery , and the eerie look and feel of the game is really engrossing.
     We need more games like this on the appstore!

    • http://www.facebook.com/christopher.paris1 Chris Paris

      Agreed. The first few minutes were dull, but give it about 5 or 10, and you're hooked.

  • http://www.facebook.com/christopher.paris1 Chris Paris

    I agree about the Amani photos. Her expressions are too happy and a little goofy for the context. Pretty actress though.

  • Justin Wright

    I have to agree with James Williams.  The graphics are good but the gameplay is pretty mediocre.  I was really hoping this to be one of those true 5 star gems that only comes once or twice a year, but this wasn't it.  3/5 at best.

  • wildestnickel

    I dont know if its worth £1.49 because once ill complete it i will put it down for ages- what do You think?

Waking Mars Reviewed by Nissa Campbell on . Rating: 5