The game (formerly known as Lost Mars) is based on an extraordinarily unlikely combination: Martian cave exploration and gardening. Just ... stare at that sentence for a second. Enjoy the cognitive dissonance.
All right, now that you've absorbed it. Liang is a researcher, following the tracks of a lost AI drone into the twisting subterranean expanse under the surface of Mars. Armed with a link to your base, research from the drone, and frequently updated computer analysis, Liang goes ever deeper into the caves, discovering a curious assortment of plant life.
In order to open "cerebrane" barriers and continue on your mission, you must increase the biomass of each area, by harvesting seeds from various exotic Martian plants and planting them in fertile spots of ground. The plants range wildly in behavior and properties, from ambulatory, seed-eating critters to water-producing vines, to aggressive plants that snap at you as you try to pass. Each one adds a different amount of biomass to your total, and growing the proper concentration and number of various weird alien flora forms an enjoyably light puzzle element.
For example, you will have to feed the little walking guys seeds from another plant in order to induce reproduction, and so to get the other plant to produce seeds, you need to plant a water-producing seed, then water the other plants to make them seed. The game gently, gradually introduces more varieties of plant life throughout.
Movement from plant to plant is done via jetpack, as you touch and hold the screen to point to where you'd like Liang to go. Most of the time, this is fine and allows you to focus on the beautiful, parallaxing red rock environments -- however, sometimes I found myself unable to avoid a falling rock or drip of acid because of haphazard jetpacking. The jetpack has never been a precision instrument.
Throughout, you get a dialogue-driven story, as Liang coordinates with Amani at the outpost topside, and with a somewhat loopy computer. The dialogue is believable, interesting, and often funny -- and delivered in quick text windows that don't interrupt the action for too long. I was going to call this the most interesting story I've seen in an iPhone game, but then I couldn't really remember any other iPhone game stories, so maybe that's faint praise.
I don't mind telling you that I haven't finished this game -- Portabliss is about recommending games rather than reviewing them, and I can already heartily recommend Waking Mars. Besides, I have a flight coming up, and I'm kind of saving this.
Waking Mars is available on the iTunes App Store as a universal app for $4.99. We're always looking for new distractions. Want to submit your game for Portabliss consideration? You can reach us at portabliss aat joystiq dawt com.