Crafty, mysterious

Mines of Mars is a genre-bending journey to the Red Planet that starts off like a cross between Minecraft and Metroid, but slowly morphs into something far more intriguing. It could stand a little more polish, but even with the occasional bump in the road, it’s the kind of thing I can see myself playing for a long, long time to come.

Mines of Mars describes itself as a “procedural atmospheric mining game” inspired by games like Metroid and Motherload. It actually gives off a rather dark sci-fi adventure vibe at first, as the cinematic opening follows a grizzled miner forced to take work on Mars for reasons unknown. But things take a turn for the lighter following a rough landing on the planet, as he – that is, you – makes contact with the oddball commander of the Mars mining installation and a peppy robot who’s eager to please.

Mines of Mars

It’s an unexpected and rather sharp turn in direction, although it has very little impact on the gameplay, which very quickly struck me as a sort of 2D Minecraft – although in hindsight a comparison with Rust might be just as apt. You take a portal from the base to the mines below the surface, excavate dirt, minerals and gems, bring them up top, use the resources to craft better equipment and weapons, then head back down to do it all again.

It’s a fairly familiar gameplay mechanic these days and, I have to admit, one I don’t find particularly compelling in and of itself. But my attention focused very quickly when I struck my first metal wall and then followed it around to discover a sort of hidden vault. This is where Mines of Mars kicks it in gear: The mining and crafting is the core of the game, but there’s a point to it all, as the equipment you create will enable you to dig ever deeper beneath the surface and successfully fight off the hordes of enemies who will beset your path as you work to uncover the secrets of this strange sub-Martian realm.

The mystery, like the mines, deepens rather quickly. I don’t want to spoil anything by revealing too much, but I will say that after just a few hours of play I found myself questioning virtually everything, including the true motivations of my mysterious, haiku-quoting benefactor. As you progress downward through the tunnels that criss-cross Mars, you’ll very quickly realize that there’s a lot more going on than just a simple mining operation.

Mines of Mars

Unfortunately, while it’s undeniably intriguing, the adventure elements take a definite backseat to the mining and crafting, which is ultimately what the game is all about. If you want to solve the mystery, you’ll have to mine the resources, which is a very simple but unavoidably monotonous affair; and because your jetpack and your carrying capacity are both quite limited at the start of the game, you’ll be making many trips back to base to unload your haul and refuel; hardly the most exciting part of any videogame.

It can be mighty frustrating, though, because Mines of Mars offers no map or pathfinding equipment of any sort, making it awfully easy to get lost. If you run out of fuel, you’ll be automatically beamed back to the surface but without any of the resources you’ve mined. The jetpack controls – an invisible virtual D-pad on the left side of the screen – aren’t terribly precise either, and it’s easy to burn up fuel trying to execute a simple maneuver like entering a horizontal shaft carved into a vertical wall. It puts a real damper on the urge to explore, especially early on.

Combat suffers from similar issues: A virtual D-pad on the right side of the screen controls aiming in a 2D arc around the miner, but it’s sluggish and inaccurate, especially when you’re moving. The field of vision beneath the surface is also quite limited, and you often won’t even see a monster until it’s right on top of you. Death isn’t a big deal – you awaken on the surface as a clone of the “original” you, with no penalty beyond lost time and inventory and a bit of sass from Cronus, the base commander – but it’s still an aggravation.

Mines of Mars

There are a few bugs as well. The message window at the top of the screen sometimes fails to clear before a new message appears, rendering it a useless jumble of mangled characters. More importantly, the virtual D-pads occasionally stop working altogether, rendering the miner unable to move or fire depending on which one quits, and the only way to regain control that I’ve been able to figure out is to exit to the main menu and then restart.

But these are issues that can, and hopefully will be, addressed in a future patch, and the underlying game is really, really good. The graphics are lovely – there’s a day/night cycle on the planet’s surface that doesn’t have any practical effect I’m aware of, but that’s very nice to just look at – and the soundtrack is absolutely gorgeous, the kind of thing I’d give serious thought to paying for separately from the game. Even the voice acting, while very sparse, is surprisingly effective.

It demands patience, and I’m not a huge fan of the”mine it/craft it” style of game to begin with, but Mines of Mars has me, if not hooked, then at least giving serious thought to lunging for the worm. The rough edges are irksome but not insurmountable, and in a way they’re also a testament to the overall quality of the game: I wouldn’t be so bothered by it if Mines of Mars as a whole wasn’t so good, and so close to being great.