- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Apple’s magical tablet takes a junior researcher to the caverns of the Red Planet on a mysterious mission of discovery in Waking Mars (Tiger Style, reviewed on iPad 2, rated 9+, $4.99).

Set in 2097, this side-scrolling science-fiction adventure ties puzzle and platforming elements to controlling Global Space Agency’s astronaut Liang Qi as he explores Mars’ subterranean ecosystem.

After a quake causes a cave-in, a player must help Liang escape from below with some assistance from a computer (that’s suffering from language problems) and base-camp team member, Amani, while relying on problem-solving skills and logical interactions with indigenous species.

What’s odd is how this group of supposed scientists demonstrates such disregard for maintaining the purity of the environment and dives right into messing with its creatures. (It certainly doesn’t imitate “Star Trek’s” Prime Directive, which prohibited interfering with the internal development of alien civilizations.)

Although not quite the lesson I want to teach my tween, it’s riveting for the player as he gets to uncover some dazzling plant life called Zoa and use a variety of its seeds to build life-sustaining environments.

First, to maneuver among the beautiful Lethe Cavern of mazes, simply touch the screen while tiny Liang follows your finger.

Our space-suited researcher also wears a jetpack and will rise and fall depending whether the player moves his finger up or down or sweeps around to look at some glorious, often amber-tinted, structures, including magma rivers, acid pools, water pockets, eroded rock formations and crumbling stalactites.

Navigating through the caverns ultimately will require collecting the correct type of seeds and replanting them to increase biomass in an area (denoted as a number), causing biological reactions.

For example, when a tubelike structure called a Cerebrane blocks a path, a player needs to find patches of fertile terrain to reproduce Zoa such as Halids and Hydrons to generate higher levels of nutrients in the air. The Cerebrane digest the nutrients and will retract in later stages of its growth cycle, clearing the clear the path.

Planting feels like using a slingshot as, with Liang holding a seed, the player pulls an arrow toward an area and launches the seed.

Tiger Style has done a great job of creating a complex assortment of bizarre, bulbous and tentacled life forms that look as if they were plucked from a H.R. Giger sketchbook.

Data is slowly acquired on each life form as the player experiments on their reactions to stimuli, including food or touch. An encyclopedic Rolodex is built with an informative abstract breaking down topics, including vulnerabilities, healing properties and water response.

The player even can automatically tweet reports on any of his findings to pals back on Earth.

Heck, if it were a real ecosystem, it would be quite educational.

Although often-passive alien encounters are found, species such as the Larian (with a glowing tendril) will trap and drain the astronaut’s health bar while others (such as a hydrated Halid Zoa) can heal human tissue.

The story of survival comes to life through a combination of pop-up illustrations and text that conjures up the days of hanging out in biology class circa-1970 and watching a slide-projector presentation on the potential of Mars. Liang also reminded me of 1960s action-figure star Maj. Matt Mason. All that old-school design is not bad, just retro cool.

I’ll admit life below is fun and fantastical for about the first three hours (of the six-hour or so experience), and then the action felt a bit more laborious than entertaining.

It made me pine for the possibilities of Amani dropping in a rocket launcher or a mini turret gun to help Liang skewer some of these pests, or to blow out a dazzling rock formation impeding my path.

However, the imaginative and affordable Waking Mars won’t disappoint space junkies looking for a fresh take on the action platform and puzzle genre.

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