Growing up isn't an easy task, especially when there's interplanetary family drama and puzzle solving involved.
Deliver Us Mars, a fresh entry from KeokeN Interactive released Feb. 2, brings us the Red Planet with a view from rookie astronaut Kathy Johanson. It features stunning cinematics and an interplanetary mystery to Mars that carry the space game along for its approximate 10-hour gameplay. But the puzzles and control movements may frustrate younger, less experienced or less agile players. Still, it's an early contender as one of the best space games of 2023.
Dutch creator KeokeN Interactive has already released a similar adventure-puzzle game in space: that would be Deliver Us the Moon, a sort of prequel to the Martian sortie that released in 2019. A love of science fiction is abundantly apparent in both games. There's world-building, there's conflict. There's advanced machinery and a little bit of terraforming.
It's in these story-building elements that Deliver Us Mars really shines. The launch sequence was tons of fun even for me, who has been watching fictional space launches on video or in games for 25 years. The technology is plausible, if somewhat far-future (the game is set in the 2060s), featuring robots powered by artificial intelligence and real-time presence communications systems. I'm glad the story was fairly strong, as I struggled to maintain control of my character at times.
Believe me, I'm all for looking around at interplanetary landscapes or vast fictional control centers in awe, but in gaming mode you need to design differently. If your playable character has a task to do, some wayfinding is a huge help so you're not literally wandering in circles.
Without meaningful pointers, I hit a wall on the first puzzle while using my PS5. I was supposed to repair a communications dish on a huge platform. I cut the first obstruction with ease. Then I needed to restore the power. But how? I was on a vast steel structure with ladders and stairs and jumpable areas. Even when I struggled to the right area, how to connect the power hubs was not explained. I eventually had to find a video playthrough to show me how to do the thing, as no other guidance was available.
I am an (elder) Millennial used to banging my head against the wall with puzzles during the Myst series and that Classic PC franchise, Space Quest, but those were from a different generation. Allowing I might not be the sharpest tool at problem-solving despite my experience, I then encountered another obstacle: jumping and climbing puzzles. Again, with no apparent way to go it was easy to lose myself in storage rooms or (much later in the mission) on ice walls. More direction would certainly make exploring less frustrating.
Leaving these frustrations aside, however, I quickly found myself entranced by the potential of the future. My favorite bits were controlling a little robot pal to peer through grates or doors, or to fly through conveniently placed vents and eavesdrop on people trying to keep secrets from me.
I also loved actually being in control of a launch sequence, tasked with throwing some buttons at my commander's behest; I did find the controls much easier to use here as the buttons were clearly marked on the panel. The Martian base is also well worth wandering around to see all the little buildings and support structures they have set up, although you won't get there until a third of the way through the game. Be prepared to be patient, although you will explore some fun spots well before.
There are few nods to real-life space tech within the game, although clearly there was European Space Agency support. There's a neat scene near the beginning where you walk into a beautiful building; outside, the front entrance has a circular plaza surrounded by flags, all flying the ESA logo. The glass-fronted building has a sleeker and more modern look than its Paris headquarters, but the fictional HQ is similarly curvy. I wonder what kind of construction we could use for buildings on Mars.
Plenty of world-building moments await the patient, especially if you're a completionist like me who likes clicking on things and checking off items; indeed, at one point in the game there is a literal check-list of things to go through, space-style. Some of my favorite moments came from exploring a fictional space museum that illustrates the fictional, in-franchise decades of exploration before the Mars settlement.
My PS5 had no major issues with running graphics or animations, which mostly went pretty well. The graphics are not completely cutting-edge, but from an indie studio you can be forgiving of such things. The landscapes really make up for the jagged edges you see in characters close-up, and the great voice acting from each of the astronauts allowed me to ignore any technical imperfections.
Overall, Deliver Us Mars is a fun romp into Red Planet exploration as long as you can be forgiving with the controls and the wayfinding. In playing it and exploring the events in the storyline, which deal with injustice on the family and corporate scale, I found myself thinking about the mistakes we made in history when it came to exploring new lands: colonization, slavery, wrecking Indigenous communities, extracting resources for profit and so on.
A single game shouldn't be taken as representative for how to do better, but naturally a good start is listening to a wide range of voices. I'm glad the game takes Kathy's skill and sensitivity seriously, despite her youth, and makes some attempt at showing diverse communities. Because if we're going to make it to Mars, we'll need all the helping hands we can get.
Deliver Us Mars is available now on Windows, Xbox One, Xbox X | S, Playstation 4, Playstation 5, Steam and the Epic Games store.
Elizabeth Howell is the co-author of "Why Am I Taller?" (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book about space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.
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Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace
Thanks for this article Elizabeth! I just started playing DuM recently (on PS4, meh) but haven't gotten to Mars yet. Will mentally prepare myself for some ice climbing and falling now. DutM was a wonderful game and I can't wait to see where this studio goes with their games next. For anyone new to these titles, I'd definitely recommend Deliver/Moon first and then Mars. Seems like the first story shapes much of the second. Space games FTW!!Reply