Indie gaming is in a bit of a rut at the moment. If one were to look at the indie section of any gaming store’s front of a Steam link, one is not exactly spoilt for choice where genre is concerned. Another platformer, another Minecraft, another survival game, et cetera. Here to bring us another puzzle game is solo developer It’s Anecdotal with its debut release 39 Days to Mars. It’s another story-driven game, too.
The game starts off with a very simple premise. Upon selecting the not-recommended singleplayer campaign, the main character exclaims he’ll take a trip to Mars. Not long after your friend reservedly sheds his tearful goodbye, you find yourself at home with your cat prepping for your eventful journey. You’re supposed to take all you can carry, which really is nothing more than a hat and a teapot. The teapot will come into play later and acts as your only source of entertainment once you arrive on Mars. Oh, spoiler alert, you make it to Mars in 39 days.
What the game lacks in any kind of tearjerking story, it makes up for in its apparent charm and character. I say character, singular, because there’s only the main character, a stick-man I hesitate to call the playable character since all you do is make him walk left to right. He acts as the game prompting you to do everything in its proper order and fashion and is thus as far removed from you as you are from his cat. Despite this, I found myself charmed by the simple soundtrack both in and out of the puzzles. The art style, though not as original as maybe one would prefer, is nevertheless serviceable and even pleasing. Endearing is another word I’d use for the game’s presentation.
The gameplay, as mentioned, consists of you moving stick-man from left to right to various interfaces, often if not always disguised as objects in the world of the game like an escape pod or a teapot for example. Once you interact with these interfaces, the music changes to a different track and you’re presented with a simple puzzle to solve. The game did recommend I play it with an Xbox controller, which I did, and was thus asked to move objects in the puzzle with both the left and right analog sticks. This took a little time getting used to, but ultimately worked fine enough for the smaller, simpler puzzles. I specify the type of puzzles here because there is a very special kind of puzzle that I will talk about later on.
Once the puzzle is solved, the game’s story moves forward. The story of going to Mars consists of preparing for your journey, going on your journey, and then arriving at your destination. Only two of these operate in this way of solving puzzles. One puzzle solved means one more step taken on your journey to Mars. At home, you can do all of the puzzles right away and embark on your journey. On the rickety spacecraft (again, charming), however, you need to sit patiently until everything goes wrong in a specific order. Things blow up and you hurry your way over there to fix the damage before waiting patiently (very patiently) for the next thing to inevitably blow up. And this is where the game introduces the tea making gameplay mechanic, a phrase I wish I was only using in jest.
See, before stick-man decides to let you fix the ship’s structural damage, he asks that you make him a specific cup of tea first. So you run to the table with the teapot and make him a tea based on some specifications that are different each time. He may wish to drink cold, warm
or hot tea, with or without sugar and with or without cream. Once a good cup of tea is made, stick-man will say “that looks like a good cuppa!” signalling his contentment with the tea you made and the fact you are now able to fix the ship, if you haven’t already died of oxygen deprivation of course.
Again the game shows its charm when it asks you to do this, but it also shows its biggest flaw of not caring about delivering a consistently enjoyable gaming experience. Making tea for a demanding stick-man before doing a new puzzle is fun and quirky once or twice, but you ultimately find yourself repeating this same mundane puzzle too often for any sort of charm to shine through. The act of making a whole bunch of tea is, in itself, the midway point for the game as a whole. Despite the fact that there are still more puzzles to come and minutes to spend in the game, you are now forever aware of the overly simplistic nature of every puzzle, painfully so. The lack of instructions on every puzzle, though every one is a different task to solve, only helps to hide this fact up until the making of tea, after which the puzzles become shallow and chore-like, ultimately culminating in the coal-mining puzzle.
Very near the end of the game, the focus shifts from performing puzzles to keep everything moving to performing tasks in the overworld to progress the story forwards. The first one of these is the act of mining coal just outside your spacecraft where you need to break apart rocks and find three pieces of coal in order to continue to power the ship. This sounds simple enough, and should really be, but the game insists on a breathing timer that runs out after a simple 20 to 30 seconds. Who’s counting, I know, but there really isn’t any time to fly out and take all of the three pieces in one go. Worse still, the mining unit requires the use of both analog sticks to fly around in a way that can only be described as clunky. Add to that the fact that not all rocks turn into coal chunks when you break them apart and you’ve got yourself a reason to use the word “grating” in a review of a debut title that did its best to charm you earlier.
If making tea wasn’t the revelatory experience for you, then surely mining coal will be. You understand that the purpose of every detail in the gameplay isn’t to provide complex puzzles for which the challenge is its own reward. Rather, the complexity is a veiled inanity that instead aims to prolong the experience for as much as possible to somehow make it seem more worthwhile. Making it to the very end only takes 39 days after all. “39 days? It felt more like 39 months,” the stick-man says at the end of the game. “More like 39 minutes,” I reply. Imagine my consternation when I find I finished the game in 77 minutes.
Ultimately, 39 Days to Mars isn’t at all a terrible way to spend an hour of your day. Instead, it’s an endearing little interactive puzzle system. I just wish there was more to see. Once you fall down from space onto the surface of Mars, your final tasks consists of reclaiming the precious teapot and sitting down for yet another good cuppa. And then the game just ends. Despite the preposition in the title being “to” and not “on”, I somehow felt cheated out of a satisfying journey. That’s really it? An hour of playtime, half of which with mandatory tea breaks, only for it to just end? Again, I find myself returning to the language used. The developer’s name is It’s Anecdotal, after all. It almost seems unfair to expect the game to last an afternoon. But at 15 dollars retail price, it’s hard to consider myself the villain for expecting just a little bit more, and from another puzzle game and story driven experience, no less.
39 Days to Mars launches on April 25 and is available on Steam for $14.99. At launch, the game will be discounted by 20%. The reviewer received a review copy beforehand, for which he is grateful.