You know a game is going to take its lore seriously when it includes a fully fledged encyclopedia system on the pause menu. That statement is the most effective way to sum up my early experience with Surviving Mars. My first forty or so Sols (the Mars equivalent to days) on my first save file were spent struggling in every way. Sure, I set up my game conditions to be as manageable as humanly possible to start with. I decided to colonize a portion of the planet that was touted as being ripe with resources and light on environmental dangers like dust storms and meteor strikes. I figured out fairly quickly how to land a rocket, ship out transport trucks and scan anomalies. That was the easy part, but that’s not even the effective starting point of Surviving Mars. That’s just the pre-prep work. Once the conditions were right, I had to start preparing for the founders, would be colonizers that want to inhabit the Red Planet. And that’s where it went sideways.
Surviving Mars is a micromanagement simulator of epic proportions, letting players build, manage, and effectively colonize Mars for human life, but developers Haemimont Games have taken micromanaging to an entirely new level. The nature of living on Mars means that players have to keep an eye on literally every life sustaining need of the colonizers, including the creation of oxygen, the mining of water, and finding new and effective methods for food production. It is not enough to simply build a bubble like dome and move in people, no. You must first build a complex grid of MOXIE stations and atmospheric vaporizers connected to a pipe system running from a power grid of solar panels and wind turbines that can all fail disastrously before the first human even sets foot on the planet. And that’s where the power of the aforementioned Encyclopedia came into play. After spending a disgusting amount of time building a power, oxygen, and water grid, I still couldn’t figure out how to so much as bring colonizers to the planet.
The struggle finally got to me, eventually I conceded and opened up the encyclopedia that was tucked inside the pause menu. I spent literal hours reading through the encyclopedia making notes, but I learned everything I needed to actually manage this micromanagement sim. My constant frustration at broken down and deteriorated buildings came to an end as I discovered I could direct the automated drones to perform maintenance, keeping my precious power grid from collapsing under the weight of the awful red dust that coated everything. I discovered I could request additional rockets bringing technology, food, and other rare building supplies from Earth, giving me a leg up in building important infrastructure so my colony could become self sufficient. I figured out how to research vital technology that would improve life on the red planet for my colonizers. Ultimately, I scrapped a 56 Sol save file in favor of starting over with all of my new knowledge, and with just half the time on the second attempt my founders were already celebrating the first human baby to be born on Mars.
It was that moment that I became acutely aware that there’s so much more to Surviving Mars than managing rolling blackouts and empty concrete deposits. It was important to make sure that every member of the colony had a home, and meaningful employment that wasn’t stressing them out to the brink of alcoholism and suicide. Materials that kept the lights on and the oxygen flowing were vital, sure, but so was providing reasonable work shifts and adequate means of relaxation. It’s not enough to keep an active workforce in your colony, but to be selective about the applicants you accept to minimize strain on your community. One applicant may be a spectacular Geologist, but if he’s an alcoholic hypochondriac who eats double rations when he’s stressed out then maybe he’s not the best guy for the job.
Its when you attempt to manage the populace of the colony itself that the clunky nature of navigating menus really stands out in Surviving Mars. Nearly every menu option is mapped to LB or RB on the controller. At the bottom of the screen is a row of icons representing any vehicles or colonists that you can interact with, and tabbing LB or RB allows you to scroll through them. Tab LB enough and eventually you can highlight the notification menu in the top left, but this was by far the most difficult menu item for me to access on a regular and predictable basis. The tab just generally didn’t want to go to the top left, no matter how much I hit LB. Clicking A on an icon or a building brings up a menu on the top right that allows you to see how your colony is doing at a glance. If you need to order maintenance on a building, or assign a colonist to a new residence or job, then you have to have brought up that menu in the top right, then use right trigger to actively move to that menu, then you can interact with the buttons to carry out whatever task. The menu system is clearly designed with a mouse and keyboard in mind. When you have an emergency, such as a malfunctioning power cable or pipe leaking oxygen and water you need to be able to navigate to maintenance quickly.
Surviving Mars is not content to be a mindless simulator, opting instead to allow players to integrate a story line into their game from a selection of mysteries. These mysteries are entirely optional, and you can choose to play one specifically or allow the game to throw a random one in on you when it decides to do so. Mysteries add a bit of sci fi flare to the Surviving Mars ecosystem, allowing players to experience everything from medical emergency inducing plagues to visits from otherworldly life forms. Mixing and matching mysteries with various technical developments that you can research and develop such as mind control or reanimating the dead means that there’s hundreds of hours unlimited scenarios to explore on the surface of the red planet. Just as long as you’re willing to check out the encyclopedia frequently and fumble your way through the menu system to do it.