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Mars Underground Review — Time Travel Shenanigans

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Games made with RPG Maker have unfairly gained a poor reputation. As an easy-to-use software tool for creating 16-bit inspired games, the program is a favourite with budding developers, resulting in online marketplaces flooded with undercooked first projects. In the right hands, however, the RPG Maker framework can be used to make something really special. Developed by Australian indie team Moloch Media, Mars Underground joins the likes of To the Moon and Always Sometimes Monsters by using RPG Maker to deliver a narrative-focused adventure game full of clever puzzling and personality.

The first day at a new school is always hard. Especially when the other kids are mean. Especially when one’s sister won’t leave them alone. Especially when the day won’t stop repeating. Prescribed a strange medication by a psychiatrist after an incident involving an exploded lab, teenager Mars is now stuck living the same day over and over. Exploring a strange town full of cult members, aliens, sentient toilets, and movies that change each time they are watched, Mars strives to find a way out of the time loop in order to understand the true nature of this place.

Mars Underground gameplay screenshot

Each day begins the same way, with a piercing alarm rousing Mars from his sleep. Initially too tired to get up on time without the aid of coffee, Mars falls back asleep until his mother yells at him to get up. From here on, Mars is presented with many choices, with knowledge and items gained from other repetitions of the day persisting through the loops. Unlike the bulk of RPG Maker games, Mars’s world is highly interactive, with scores of items to find and knowledge to obtain. Over the course of a day, the choices made will determine where Mars can explore. He can choose to pick a fight at school and get expelled, leaving him free to rummage through the house away from watchful eyes. His sister’s diary found in this hunt can be used as leverage to make her leave school, which in turn enables Mars to go into the wrong classes. Manipulating time travel to solve puzzles feels pleasingly powerful, and even the most uneventful of days may reveal a nugget of information to help with the next go-round.

The goal of each day is to find an anomaly; an action that will disrupt the loop. These often involve Mars dying in a horrible way, or discovering something strange. Some of these endings will come easily; stepping into the heavy traffic of the city centre is a quick way to take Mars out. Others will take some more thought and planning; finding a winning lotto ticket is a classic trope of time travel stories, but actually collecting the winnings is difficult due to Mars being a child. The game has fifteen anomalies in total to find, with each one adding charge to the Quantiser, a weapon given to Mars by a mysterious shadowy figure. Once fully charged, he is to shoot the Quantiser at Dr Kronus, the psychiatrist who started this whole mess. Whether or not this shadowy person can be trusted, however, is another question entirely.

The bizarre town of Phobos is a joy to explore, with many places to go and quirky residents to meet. The shadowy cult members are apparently fans of cooking, proclaiming “The souffle will rise again.” Donning a saucepan will protect Mars from aliens, allowing him to enjoy the sights of the extraterrestrial-infested Lunar festival. The game features a full day and night cycle, with shops opening and closing at different times and each character following their own schedule. The world is presented with simple but colourful pixel graphics, reminiscent of the similarly strange neighbourhood setting of Earthbound.

Complimenting the unsettling atmosphere of the town is the astounding sound track: a discordant experimental blend of chiptunes and crunchy EDM sampling. The music is confronting in all the right ways, and perfectly creates a sense of unease as Mars explores the town.

Mars Underground has thoughtfully taken into consideration the frustrating aspects of the old-school adventure game, and streamlined out all unnecessary actions. A button press shows all examinable areas in a screen, and items can only be used when applicable to the current situation, cutting out the busy work of trying to use every item on every person when stuck. Benches are placed amply around the town, which can be used to advance time when needed, and befriending the sentient toilets with a thorough cleaning creates a handy quick-travel system. While the puzzles do get complicated—the chain of events required to steal Mum’s car, for example, is rather involved—they always make sense within the game’s world. Hints for finding anomalies can be obtained from the fortuneteller for a gentle push in the right direction.

With such a focus on narrative, Mars Underground‘s lack of a clear conclusion is a disappointment. Each anomaly uncovered hints at a possible reason for the time-looping events, but at the end of the six-hour experience, the player is left with more questions than answers. Perhaps more information is hidden away somewhere in the extensive game world to aid in uncovering what was going on, but as it stands the true nature of the time travel mystery will remain unsolved for many players. An over-use of deliberate crashes to desktop during the ending sequence compounds the issue, so determining whether the game is truly over becomes difficult. While over-explanation is often a problem with these types of stories, leaning too far in the other direction results in a mysterious but unsatisfying ending.

A few small interface issues could also use some attention. When saving and exiting the game, reloading the save will jump straight to a fresh day in the time loop, rather than returning the player to the precise time and place they saved. With items and knowledge retained between days, only a little progress is lost, but this feature is annoying all the same. The quick-travel bathroom at the school would also benefit from being more conspicuously placed; many unnecessary lessons could have been skipped if it was easier to spot.

The strengths of Mars Underground, however, far out outweigh its weaknesses. Far from a fumbling first attempt at game design, this point-and-click adventure without the pointing and clicking features masterful puzzle design, beautiful presentation, and a cast of colourful characters. Mars Underground is simply a joy to play.

OnlySP Review Score 4 Distinction

Reviewed on PC.

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Review

SteamWorld Quest Review — Full Steam Ahead

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The SteamWorld series has a habit of refusing to be confined to a single genre. The first entry in the series, way back on the Nintendo DSi, was a simple tower-defense game. That title was followed by procedurally generated platformer SteamWorld Dig, and then came strategy action title SteamWorld Heist. Now, developer Image & Form has dived into the turn-based RPG with SteamWorld Quest: The Hand of Gilgamech.

SteamWorld Quest is set in the same universe as the previous SteamWorld games, featuring a cast of steam bots who speak in a rapid, chattering language, helpfully translated for the players by subtitles.

As usual for a SteamWorld title, the first thing to draw the eye is the lovely hand-drawn sprites and backgrounds. The game has a surprising amount of detail in these 2D sprites, and players may find themselves suddenly noticing a detail that previously escaped attention.

The first characters to be introduced are Armilly and Copernica, a wannabe knight and alchemist, respectively. The animation provides great hints towards the character personalities before they even speak, showing Copernica as being quiet and introspective, but with a strong will, while Armilly puts up a brave front to cover deeper insecurities. This depth continues through the game, with subtle character tics betraying plot hints and nods to backstories.

Players pick up new party members as the game progresses, first running into Galleo, a big green bot who acts as party healer. Other characters can also be recruited, adding their own skills in combat to the roster. Only three party members can be active at once, so getting the balance right is important.

Combat itself is handled by a card system. Each character has a deck of no more than eight cards, three of which can be played each turn. By using their entire deck, players utilise effects such as attacks, defensive spells, healing, buffs, debuffs, and so on. Pleasingly, the combat system is complemented by a captivating sense of style, with each card channelling old-fashioned computer punch aesthetics.

The developers are clearly fans of collectable card games, as cards can also be chained together into combos, which provide an extra effect on the completion. This effect is not as easy to achieve as it might sound, however, as some cards require ‘Steam pressure’ to be played. This mechanic brings in an element of deck building and strategy, as players balance building steam pressure with spending it. Therefore, players can spend a significant amount of time agonising over new strategies, trying to decide on an effective build for the limited deck size.

Getting card game elements in a video game wrong is easy, by having the mechanics too complex or unwieldy. SteamWorld Quest avoids the pitfalls experienced by games such as Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories by making the card-based combat relatively simple. New twists and complexities are added gradually, thus giving the player several ways to build a deck to suit individual play style.

Cards can be crafted at the travelling merchant, providing a use for the various materials players pick up on their travels. Cards can also be upgraded to increase their effectiveness, preventing useful early cards from becoming obsolete later. Players can add to their decks by finding cards scattered about the world, along with weapons and accessories to make characters more effective, emphasising the importance of exploration.

SteamWorld Quest is more story-driven than its predecessors, and a lot of time between battles is taken up with talking. The conversations never outstay their welcome, as the plot moves along at a pleasing pace, and the characters are engaging enough to keep the player interested. As players progress, more backstory is uncovered, and some scenes can be surprisingly emotional, with the fluid character animations underscoring the dialogue in a believable way.

The writing uses consistent characterisation that is happy to show the player about the world and the characters instead of spilling everything in a massive information dump. This writing style serves the pacing well. The only real issue is that while the game allows skipping of dialogue, entirely skipping a scene is impossible, so when players are re-exploring an area for hidden secrets, the same scenes keep playing out, even if they have been seen before.

The game has frequent nods towards world-building and backstory, which serves to draw the player in. Progression reveals that the problems in the world of SteamWorld Quest go deeper than invading Dark Lords and evil magic. The first time the player notices that the language the steam bots speak is like a more pleasant version of modem noise, implying that the characters are speaking in binary, is a nice touch. Other geeky references are scattered around, including an equippable book called an Octavo, a sneaky reference to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.

Despite the cartoonish artwork and often light-hearted dialogue, hints at darkness are ever-present in the universe of SteamWorld Quest—something that is underscored by the music, which starts off pleasant and whimsical. However, as players progress into more dangerous areas, the mood of the soundscape also shifts, providing a counterpoint to the action and dialogue while never being obtrusive.

The gameplay flow is easy to get into once the basic controls have been established, though toggling the ‘speed up’ option in the menu is a good idea, as otherwise players need to hold down the right trigger to speed through enemy turns during combat. SteamWorld Quest shines when showing off the amount of depth that it offers in crafting cards, building suitable decks, and deciding on party composition for each area, with each enemy encounter tip-toeing delightfully between the exploitation of strengths and weaknesses. Boss battles, in particular, can be challenging unless chain combos have been mastered, which can itself be tricky if the character decks do not have the right balance.

SteamWorld Quest: The Hand of Gilgamech is a wonderful, fun RPG adventure that has a lot of depth to delve into, secrets to explore, and story to uncover. The game looks beautiful, sounds brilliant, and has a smooth and absorbing gameplay flow. SteamWorld Quest, is surprisingly easy to get completely sucked in to, with the card game elements providing an impressive amount of complexity to the combat. Any RPG fan should give serious consideration to adding the title to their Nintendo Switch library and fans of previous SteamWorld games will find a lot to enjoy in the art and lore, too.

OnlySP Review Score 5 High Distinction

Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.

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