While video games are a helpful escape from reality for some, it can also be a powerful tool for giving the player a dose of reality — to see the consequences of some ethical or political dilemma up close. Indie developers in the last decade or so have led the charge, bringing diverse subjects to our attention. Not many have directly targeted the growing problem of plastic in our oceans, but Tigertron have chosen to dive into the issue with debut title Jupiter & Mars. But with such lofty intentions in terms of sending a message to the gamer, many projects forget to make sure that gamer is still having fun. Jupiter & Mars wobbles on that particular tightrope but ultimately ends up being a brief but engaging ride beneath the waves.
The first thing that is striking about the game is its visual design; unfortunately, it's not a pleasant strike if you choose to start the game in your VR headset. Despite its real-world message Jupiter & Mars has a relatively low polygon count and a limited neon colour palette, rendering its ocean world into a strange sci-fi cyberscape reminiscent of Disney's Tron. It's an odd choice, perhaps chosen due to a lack of resources. Optimised for even a simple HD television, the effect is still quite appealing, but inside the headset the experience is sadly lacking. PlayStation VR takes away too much of the game's crispness, and with an art style that is all edges and no substance the result is a pretty blurred and uninspiring view. While it's certainly worth trying the game out in VR if you have the equipment, it's certainly not essential. I would personally suggest switching to the TV screen once the initial excitement wears off.
That initial excitement will come from the enjoyable concept of embodying a dolphin, bounding about under the water as you work to rid the oceans of humanity's pollutants, long after they have left Earth behind. Although the controls are fairly basic, there is an undeniable joy in exploring an underwater world — especially as your dolphin persona means there is no breath gauge to worry about, unlike most notorious water levels from across video game history. In VR, you can choose to tilt your head to turn your dolphin left and right; it's not recommended, as while the concept is somewhat immersive you will definitely get a stiff neck from it. Outside of the headset you can just pilot the dolphin with a very rudimentary but satisfactory flick of the analogue stick. There's just one speed to move in and often one direction to head in — it'd be a walking simulator if you didn't have flippers for legs.
If that sounds disparaging, it shouldn't — freed from overcomplicated swimming mechanics, Jupiter & Mars is easy to understand and navigate compared to its contemporaries such as ABZU. Unfortunately there's a distinct lack of things to do in the game to offset its simple mechanics. There are precious few puzzles throughout the game's five short levels — all of them amount to hiding from a lethal spherical pulse from a machine until you can smash its generator — and the only other tasks amount to basic collectible hunts. That just leaves more space for the message and the story, but while the former is important and well presented, the latter just doesn't amount to much. We are compelled to care about a relationship between two apparently magical dolphins, but with too much emphasis on voice-over storytelling rather than emoting through animation, the tale's impact wears thin fairly quickly.
The most interesting aspect of the game is seeing a civilisation brought to ruin beneath the waves. Each of the game's locations equates to a famous city, and you will come across haunting landmarks from the surface that have since submerged. Again the impact is slightly diminished by the lack of realistic textures, but the neon echo-location gives these familiar locations an eerie alien quality, in some ways more impactful than the abstract locations of a game like ABZU. The passion of the developers and the charities that support the game is clear in the way humanity is presented, despite there being no human characters in the game. Your way is often blocked by floating bottles and plastic bags. Your collectibles are sea creatures to be rescued, covered in oil or tangled up in ribbons of plastic. It's here where the game excels, and though these moments are too brief and maybe too on-the-nose, they certainly gave me enough pause to look into the game's supporting charities and see what there is to be done about the real-world issue. Though the game itself is fleeting and a little basic, it certainly succeeds in delivering a message.
Trophies-wise, you are in for a short but slightly mind-numbing collectible hunt. Unfortunately navigation around the levels is a little tricky with no real mapping or path-finding — not a problem for those rushing to the end game but a big one for those looking to hunt down dozens of clam-shells in the hopes that some of them contain shiny but meaningless objects. With a video guide it would likely be an easy completion, but without you may find yourself going in circles. Ultimately the trophy list reflects the gameplay — a little too straight-forward, but accepta service to something more important.
SummaryJupiter and Mars is a short and simple game that won't linger long in the memory due to a lack of engaging content, but the environmental message is strong. Best played on a TV rather than in a VR headset, your adventures underwater will let you see a fantastical version of a fairly plausible future, in which entire cities lay submerged beneath plastic and oil clogged oceans. It's a promising if insubstantial start from a young studio, and while there's certainly room for improvement, we're looking forward to seeing what other causes Tigertron might choose to champion in future projects.
The reviewer spent 5 hours splashing about in the ocean, earning 26 of the game's 39 trophies. A PlayStation 4 digital code was provided by the publisher.
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