Waking Mars is a science fiction adventure that’s almost entirely built around gardening. Other games might despatch you to the red planet to reduce its caverns to shrapnel with sizzling laser bolts, but Tiger Style is more concerned with having you restore this arid landscape to full bloom, one well-placed flower-bed at a time. Coming from the developers of Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor, such an idiosyncratic approach to the genre should hardly be much of a surprise, of course. Neither should the steady unspooling of a quietly fascinating plot, or the elegant way it’s married to the gradual unveiling of a smart range of interlocking systems.
The intricate map may hint at an adventure filled with the gear-gating and ceaseless backtracking of a Metroid, but, for the most part, Waking Mars keeps things light and simple. Structurally, you’ll be progressing through the game one underground chamber at a time, and much of the fun comes from guiding your delicate spaceman through a series of viney doorways that only spring open once you’ve raised each room’s biomass to a target level. This is achieved by planting alien seeds in a range of plots and growing a selection of vast and sometimes dangerous plants. It’s a worryingly straightforward business at first, but as your access to Martian wildlife grows and the planet slowly returns to life, the behaviours of the game’s flora and fauna become increasingly complex too.
What you end up with is a puzzle game that has a strong hint of tower defence to it, as you survey the available terrain and then work out where to put everything. Which plants will work well together? Which need to be kept apart? Which have other uses – health restoration, say, or explosive projectiles – that may prove helpful as you work your way deeper into the planet? Within a half hour or so, you’ve gone from merely scraping by and ensuring that you have enough seeds to complete each room, to generating clever little ecosystems where plants behave in symbiotic ways; a desire for basic progress has been waylaid by genuine curiosity.
The separate pieces of the game all speak of care and craft. Movement is handled with wonderful economy as a swipe of the finger sees you jetting around even the most complex environments, while simple animations combine with old-fashioned storybook textures to build a peculiarly intimate view of this strange rocky world. Waking Mars is ultimately a game about ecological balance, but it’s the balance of a different kind – of art, narrative, and puzzle mechanics – that makes it so very satisfying to play.