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.
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.
Reviewed on PC.