The developers of the Kickstarter-funded Mars Alive would love for you to imagine The Martian, the 2015 Ridley Scott film that pits stranded astronaut Matt Damon against the inhospitable Red Planet. Both the game and the film begin with a catastrophe — in the case of Mars Alive, it’s an act of eco-terrorism — that sets up a story of survival in an alien landscape. While the film is absolutely packed with incident, struggle and heroism, Mars Alive is a tediously slow and rarely exciting game that will mostly place demands on your patience, with little reward.
Mars Alive is a survival crafting game for the PSVR, and instead of being washed up on a beach or stranded in the jungle, you are more or less alone on Mars. You trudge through the barren and lifeless landscape, looking for energy bars, water, oxygen tanks, spare parts and ore that you can mine. You make your way to a series of habitats where you can rest, recharge, and craft items using a 3D printer (for which you need to spend hours scavenging materials). Eventually, you can start to grow your own food and will have access to a slow-moving and underpowered rover, which makes exploring slightly less tedious than on foot.
While you must pay attention to your hunger, thirst and oxygen levels, there is so much detritus conveniently strewn across the landscape that there is rarely any real tension around your vitals. You have a scanner that helpfully highlights where everything is and although it might mean several long, real-time minutes of walking to pick everything up, going hungry or thirsty is uncommon. Back in your habitat, you communicate with a fellow astronaut, Jane, who fills you in on the story and gives you clues and locations to move to. At some point, the developers give you a little bit of a break and allow for some fast travel between habitats via transporters (a sci-fi technology that undercuts the “realism” of the game’s premise).
Because Mars Alive is a VR title, one expects some extra level of immersion and there are a couple early moments that effectively communicate the vast and lonely Martian landscape and the feeling of being very small and alone. On the whole and up close, however, Mars Alive is made up of flat and primitive textures, constant scenery pop-in (even on a PS4 Pro), and a general feeling that there is really no reason the game needed to be in VR, which is never utilized in a unique or particularly interesting way. While some VR games minimize the screen door effect through clever use of color and art design, Mars Alive has a limited palette and vast swaths of unbroken dark colors that seem to draw attention to the screen door problem. Controls and movement range from awkward to adequate and although there is a day and night cycle and some weather effects, the visual presentation is just generally disappointing. The aural landscape is equally barren, with a generic sounding design and only occasional and very ambient music. You will hear the footstep sample thousands of times.
Around the time The Martian film came out, there was a free-to-play, text-only game that had a much more engaging and well-written story than Mars Alive. There are so many excellent examples of survival crafting games that simply substituting a nearly featureless desert for a forest or undersea world isn’t enough to hold our attention, and the absolutely glacial pace of exploring and crafting doesn’t help. The game’s trailers suggest a much more action-packed, epic and graphically complex product but the reality is entirely different. The biggest survival challenge in Mars Alive is its hours of repetitious and slow gameplay.