39 Days to Mars is a peculiar game. Developed by It’s Anecdotal, the game serves itself as a puzzle-based game with a light story woven through it to carry its pace along. Right off the bat, I’ll tell you that it’s a very short game, but it’s a game that’s developed to be played several times over. The game’s achievements support that too, being that many of the achievements are tethered to multiple actions for specific scenarios, meaning that you’ll need to tackle the game at least more than once, to unlock the majority of its Gamerscore.
Nevertheless, let’s get back on track and take this from the top. 39 Days to Mars is a puzzle game with a twist. That twist being the fact that you can play the entire game as a solo player, or via co-op (local) play with a buddy. Playing solo is arguably much tougher than playing with a friend, so much so that the game even suggests that it’s better to play co-op when taking to the single-player voyage. The major difference between the two is pretty self explanatory, but it does alter the fields of play quite dramatically in the long run.
The game’s story is set within an alternate reality, and is based roughly one hundred and fifty years in the past. Depending on how you’re playing, the game’s protagonists will either be two Victorian gentlemen (co-op play), or, one Victorian gentleman and his cat (solo play). The overall goal here is to guide these two characters to Mars through piloting an airship known as the HMS Fearful. That’s pretty much all there is to it. Granted, it’s a pretty silly story with heaps of silly moments, but then, the game doesn’t really aim to be otherwise.
Before boarding the HMS Fearful, players begin at the protagonist’s home. Here, you’re tasked with completing a handful of puzzles before setting off on the ship’s maiden voyage to the Red Planet. Let me make one thing clear. Playing this game in solo is a bloody nightmare half the time. More so if you, like me, struggle to multitask. Have you ever been asked to tap your head and rub your stomach? Well, picture that same concept here, and multiply its complexity by a thousand. Seriously, it’s a pretty damn tricky affair on solo.
One early puzzle had me using a fishing rod to fish up the house key. Sounds simple on paper, right? Wrong! Trying to navigate the maze-like screen whilst catering for vertical and horizontal movement, is sheer headache inducing. When playing in co-op, the other player will control whichever line of movement you’re not controlling. It certainly makes it easier, and arguably more fun. The same can be said about any other puzzle in the game. It’s clear that they’re designed for co-op, so why stuff in the solo play when it’s really not needed?
During the initial stages of the game, 39 Days to Mars does well at feeding you into the basics of play. There’s very little to keep track of as far as its controls are concerned. You’ll move around a small environment, interact with items and objects, trigger a puzzle, solve said puzzle, rinse and repeat, and that’s that. The gameplay couldn’t be any easier to pick up on if it tried. The puzzles, however, are solidly designed. My only gripe here is that, for many of the puzzles on offer, there’s next to no explanation as to what you’re expected to do.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not asking for help with any of them, but at least something to help players to understand exactly what they’re tasked with, wouldn’t have gone amiss. Oftentimes I found myself staring at the screen just trying to make sense of a puzzle’s structure, so that I could then understand how to overcome it. In the grand scheme of things, that’s a very small and subjective issue, but it’s one that stuck out for me on several occasions. I should note that, for this review, I played both the solo and co-op variations.
If I’ve not yet made it clear enough, the latter is easily the best way to play. I’m not suggesting that there’s no fun to be found in the solo aspects of play, but the amount of precise dexterity that’s needed, sees moments of fun chased away by bouts of frustration. With the fundamentals out of the way, how exactly does the game play? Well, once you’re on the HMS Fearful, you’ll notice a countdown that slowly charts (as with the title) your 39 days to Mars. That said, this isn’t going to be a fluid ride, nor is it going to be simple.
The HMS Fearful is an airship that’s made up of several rooms and compartments. There’s a library, a tea-room, a lab of some sort, and pretty much everything else that’s outlandish, that you can think of. At any given moment, something will screw up. Whether that’s your coal machine messing up, or an attack from a band of baby space krakens, you can guarantee something will go wrong, and often. This is where the puzzles come into play. Each and every frequent malfunction is typically a portal to a puzzle of some sort.
You’ll need to head on over to the area of the ship that’s fell victim to said malfunction, and then interact with it to pull up the puzzle. The puzzles, as alluded to above, are quite well designed and do take some time and careful planning to suss out. It helps, of course, that there’s a nice variety on show here too. In one moment you could be realigning wires to maintain an electrical current, and then in the next moment, you’re working out how to use Morse code to send a message. This is where the airship’s library comes into effect.
Players are often encouraged to check out the library to read up on solutions to the puzzles within. Taking the Morse code puzzle as an example, I had to first correctly align a set number of words to create a sentence that made sense, and then, I needed to beep these words through the machine. Heading to the library, which is essentially a screen with heaps of mumbled up paperwork on, I was able to locate a translation script, then head back to the puzzle to key in the correct combinations. Tedious, yes, but rewarding all the same.
One feature that I absolutely hated was the fact that the game’s flow is constantly interrupted by the protagonist’s need to eat and drink. This consists of either preparing a cup of tea, or preparing a scone. I’ll admit, I enjoyed this the first time around, but needing to do this for the tenth time, was far too irritating for its own good. What’s worse is that the controls seem to be way off balance during these sections, leading to several instances in which you fail and need to restart from the beginning, simply due to the poor feedback.
I suspect this system was introduced to stretch out the game’s longevity, but all it ended up doing was making me feel the need to put down the pad sooner than I would have if these additions were not as dominant as they are. Further to that, and I’ll not ruin the ending for you, there’s a sequence at the end of the game that is far too unforgiving. It’s also quite underwhelming when comparing it to the decent puzzle elements within. It’s fair to say that this is where the game falls short the most; when it drops its puzzles in favor of traversal.
On my play-through, I was tasked with collecting jellyfish from outside the airship, as well as being tasked with gathering coal soon after that. The problem here is that you need to do this whilst driving a small machine and navigating via a bicycle, respectively. For both, the gameplay was boring, and the controls sucked. I appreciate that the developer wanted to allow the player to experience more than just puzzle solving, but when these pace-breakers are so poorly developed that they’re nothing more than annoying, it defeats the object.
When all is said and done, this is a game that’s mostly going to appeal to the puzzle enthusiasts, and I suspect that this group is the group that will enjoy the game the most. Overall, the puzzles are indeed thought provoking and well designed, and they all come together in a way that makes sense. It’s just a shame that the filler is crap, nonsensical waste. There’s enough longevity on show here through replay value alone, though, if you’re a one and done sort of player, you might be left feeling a bit burnt after your run-through.
In regards to the visual and audio design, 39 Days to Mars does a good job. There’s a tea-stain-like, 2D vibe on show, grouped with some distinct environments that set the scene nicely. This comes tethered to your traditional English voice over, and a soundtrack that proves to be both soothing and laid-back. The bottom line in all of this is that this game isn’t a hard game to like. It’s just a hard game to stay committed to, despite its great puzzle variation, due to its unnecessary solo aspect and its poor attempt at breaking its pace.
Despite its short length, 39 Days to Mars is a game that certainly knows how to boggle the mind through its cleverly structured co-op puzzles. Unfortunately, these intelligently designed moments are frequently broken up by needless, senseless, and boring filler. This ultimately makes for a very hit and miss experience, one that will likely only be appreciated by puzzle enthusiasts.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.Want to keep up to date with the latest Xt reviews, Xt opinions and Xt content? Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.