Ask most explorers why they set off for uncharted lands, and they’ll say something like “because it was there”. 39 Days to Mars, a co-op puzzle adventure game from It’s Anecdotal, is definitely there – but is that a good enough reason to blast off for its red-sanded shores?
You and a pal take on the roles of Sir Albert Wickes and The Right Honorable Clarence Baxter: two refined Victorian explorers who decide to build a steam-powered, coal-fuelled and utterly ramshackle spaceship so they can explore (or at least drink tea on) Mars. As you do.
The gentlemen tackle this foolhardy feat by jogging around the steampunk spaceship itself or the gents’ home base, solving a series of puzzles and minigames. At first, these are about actually getting the craft off the ground, but as the game’s titular 39 days tick by, you’ll find yourself putting out raging fires, fending off the odd tentacle and making about 6 billion cups of tea.
The first thing you notice is the gorgeous, reddish-sepia art style. The hand-drawn illustrations are packed with character and detail, with touches of animation bringing the whole world to life: whirring cogs, puffs of smoke and trees swaying rhythmically in the breeze. The music is equally striking: the solo piano score moves elegantly between wistful and stirring, and the whole package is beautifully atmospheric.
Based on this first impression, I was all set for the kind of charming, light-hearted experience promised by the term ‘coffee-break adventure’. But as it turned out, my feelings were a little more complicated.
First things first: the startup screen warns you the game is best enjoyed with two players, and it’s not joking. There is a solo mode, but it is not for you. It’s not for me. It’s not for anybody, and you should leave it well alone.
In short, it’s no fun to take command of both sets of controls at once. It took me precisely one puzzle to realise I definitely needed to round up a partner to give this one a fair shake. So grab one I did, and we set off.
Most of the initial puzzles involve tactile little minigames, where each player uses a hand-like cursor to grab, twist and manipulate objects. One of the first involved piecing together a map, with both players needing to grab and twist the same map pieces in order to move and rotate them into position.
But we quickly found this a frustrating exercise with Xbox 360 controllers. Even when we knew what we had to do, we struggled to actually get the pieces into place. When most of a puzzle’s challenge comes from unwieldy controls, it’s not a great advert for what’s to follow.
Many of the early puzzles follow a similar pattern: even understanding what we had to do, we faced a battle with the controls to actually do it. Weirdly enough, these puzzles felt better suited to a touchscreen: there’s a lot of pinching, dragging and zooming. I was surprised to learn 39 Days to Mars isn’t actually a mobile release; it’d be a natural fit.
Happily, though, the game picks up significantly in the latter half. We were delighted to find the final stages moving away from fiddly pop-up puzzles and towards what I really expected from a game like this: physical, environmental challenges where you actually control the game’s characters, rather than disembodied hands.
While these puzzles are still prone to fiddliness, crucially, they’re much more fun. At last, the game’s striking art and characters work together with the puzzles – and an increased sense of peril raises the tension. But at the same time, it’s actually more forgiving.
Indeed, even though we messed up the concluding sequences, we still reached a satisfying ending on the red planet itself – the game quite graciously lets you see the credits roll whatever happens. That’s a stark contrast to some of the earlier puzzles, where the only option when you’re frustrated is to give up.
It’s just a shame that the more interesting bits come in the second half. I wouldn’t mind having another crack at those final scenes, but I’m not sure I’m ready to go through those earlier puzzles again to get at them.
That’s a bit of an indictment considering that the game played out, frustrations and all, in less than 80 minutes. There are some parts of 39 Days to Mars that really shine. But with limited replayability and inconsistent quality, it’s hard to recommend at its relatively hefty (and oddly precise) price of £11.39.
Perhaps, then, this is one for a pair of intrepid puzzle fans to pick up on sale one wet weekend – or if it ever makes its way to the mobile market. But for me, for now, it doesn’t quite land.