App of the Day: Waking Mars

Open your miiiind.

Version tested iPad

If you simply cannot bear the thought of another match-three puzzler, or you think mobile games are good for littleelse but meaningless time-killing, then Tiger Style's Waking Mars has a quietly compelling argument to make to the contrary.

The game centres around an expedition that researches, experiments and then plays ecological God with the slowly waking life buried beneath the surface of Mars. After a mechanical rover disappears, your character Liang - aided by the surface-bound Amani - is sent down to investigate, but quickly realises he can only progress by increasing the amount of biological matter within each area. Doing so allows him to move past the strange membranes that divide each section from the next.

Your electronic companion ART keeps track of the research progress made on each species encountered during exploration - different types of soil welcome different plants, different creatures have different reproduction requirements, and so on. Understanding the gentle interactions between each life-form and nurturing the delicate ecosystem they represent collectively is essential for increasing each area's Biomass meter and opening the path ahead.

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Look at my face. This is my serious face.

When you're on the ground, pressing the left or right side of the screen sends Liang walking in that direction, while in the air it applies thrust from a jetpack and pushes you gently around the screen. The various seeds and supplies necessary to kick-start evolution are accessed from a radial menu that pops up when you tap the bottom right-hand corner of your device, and a further tap launches your chosen object in the direction you choose. Throughout all of this, the game employs some wonderful camera positioning to establish its atmosphere, from the far-reaching panorama on the surface of the planet to sections where Liang crawls beneath the rubble underground.

As you explore the caverns you grow to feel increasingly isolated and vulnerable, peeling through the layers of the red planet, toying with the indigenous vegetation and experimenting just enough to open up the path ahead. That all of this takes place in a mere flashlight of illumination adds a sense of uncertainty to exploration, and the darkness that surrounds Liang can be claustrophobic - no less so than when it's combined with the monster-around-the-corner minimalist electronica that throbs throughout.

It's a game hugely worthy of the high praise it's already received, and yet it's by no means a perfect one. Most notably, the game makes use of some utterly jarring stock photography whenever the characters' profiles appear during dialogue scenes.

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Don't jump near them though. They don't like that.

Picture the moment, if you will, at which man makes first contact with extra-terrestrial life and Amani appears on screen, gazing at you with her head resting on her hand, a great big insincere grin on her face as though you've just met her on a blind date and asked if she's ever thought about getting into table-top war-gaming. It's just not quite right at all, and lacks the care and polish evident elsewhere.

But while these make for awkward moments, they don't come close to taking the shine off a wonderfully original game. That the mobile platform makes such a suitable home for this eerie and personal title bodes very well indeed for the future, and there's more depth to it than I've alluded to here, too. It's one of those games where you should enjoy the surprises yourself.

App of the Day highlights interesting games we're playing on the Android, iPad, iPhone and Windows Phone 7 mobile platforms, including post-release updates. If you want to see a particular app featured, drop us a line or suggest it in the comments.

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