It’s been ten months since the last transmission from Vita Base on Mars. Requests for status updates, damage reports, even simple acknowledgement that communications are being received have gone unanswered. Faced with no real idea of what they might be facing, and clearly having never seen the movie ‘Aliens’, Earth Control gathers a team of three specialists trained and equipped to handle situations like this. Kenzo Uji is a solid pilot and computer whiz–if there’s a technical problem Vita’s engineers are unable to solve, he’ll slap together a fix, and if it’s got wings, he can fly it. Diane Matlock is a fully-trained medical doctor and microbiologist–if the problem’s the result of some virus gone wild, she’ll get to work on a way to counteract it. Leading the team is Martin Karne, a security specialist and mining engineer who knows how to get rough when the situation calls for it.
Vita Base’s last transmission before they went dark made little sense to Earth Command: “If you send a manned craft, warn the crew: stay alone, stay alive.” The trio out to fix the problem will come to understand Vita’s warning all too soon. Welcome to Mars–the Trimorphs are waiting.
Martian Gothic: Unification was a criminally-overlooked title for the PlayStation, which is well worth playing but failed for a number of reasons. Most obvious is its release date today in 2001, mere weeks after Halo was sci-fi-ing the hell out of everyone’s console gaming experiences, mere days before Nintendo’s GameCube launch, and well over a year after the debut of the PlayStation 2, which had set the gaming world on fire. Being a console port of a PC game which hadn’t exactly burned up the charts didn’t help matters either, though this did allow Creative Reality to tweak a few aspects of the game and fix a couple bugs lurking in the Windows version. If you can handle the graphical downgrade, this is one of the few times a PlayStation port is superior to its PC counterpart.
It also wasn’t quite sure what it wanted to be. Martian Gothic apes earlier entries in the survival horror genre, especially Resident Evil, with its real-time combat system (and awful voice acting), but the puzzles it puts up to obstruct players are more in line with what PC gamers would expect from point-and-click adventure titles. Its unique aspect, that of charging a single player with controlling three different characters, swapping between them as needed, is a breath of fresh air when it comes to titles like this, especially when given the added parameter of ensuring none of your crew mates meet up. Part of the game’s charm, and initial frustration, comes from simply working out how to get Diane, Kenzo, and Martin out of their respective first rooms so they can start exploring and figure out what’s gone wrong.
Each of the three characters is essential to completing the mission; losing any of them results in an instant game over, so saving regularly and in multiple files is not only encouraged but necessary. Exploring Vita Base slowly opens more of the story, as characters read notes, files, computer screens, and diaries left behind by the deceased. And like System Shock and the later Doom 3, you’ll need to read everything in order to find those elusive key codes to expand the areas where you can travel. The characters also have special traits unique to them, and throughout the game you’ll encounter weapons, equipment, and items only usable by single characters. Often the character who stumbles across one of these special items won’t be the one who can make use of it. When that happens, a quick trip to one of the many vacuum tubes on the station will allow you to send guns, ammo, keycards, or other goodies to your teammates.
Swapping characters in this fashion isn’t exactly new, but Martian Gothic throws in a bit of a twist in that time doesn’t stop passing for the characters you aren’t currently controlling. Switching to a different member of your team leaves the other two as sitting ducks, so finding a safe place before hitting that Select button is essential. Trading characters in the middle of the duct system or while being chased by a Nondead (don’t call them zombies!) is a recipe for a quick and brutal disemboweling. So don’t do it.
And speaking of brutality, don’t expect a game which seems to have used ‘Event Horizon’ as one of its inspirations to leave you feeling fresh and clean as a whistle after playing. Blood, corpses, and grotesque bodily-modified horrors await our intrepid explorers as they venture onward. Unlike Resident Evil, where enemies can often be avoided and ammunition expenditure kept to a minimum, Martian Gothic‘s combat system requires you to murder nearly everything you come across. There’s only a small variety in the enemies you face, and while putting down the Nondead is a relatively simple affair, killing the Trimorphs is like ending Nemesis in Resident Evil 3 or the regenerating Necromorphs in the Dead Space series. Each Trimorph battle is another puzzle, requiring you to lure them into a position where you can obliterate them or trap them for good. Figuring out how or where to do that, however, is half the battle, and there will be times you crawl through a vent shaft or run through a maze of corridors with one of the nearly-indestructible things right on your tail, which is always good for the heart.
Martian Gothic: Unification is far from perfect. The textures are low-res, the controls are kind of clunky, and the voice acting as previously mentioned is squarely in the ‘so bad its awful’ camp. Some of the puzzles are major head-scratchers, and combat is neither as smooth nor as simple as you might hope for. The PlayStation version also suffers from a slight pause every time you switch characters which isn’t long enough to ruin anything, but is long enough to be noticeable after several hours of playtime. That said, the game’s also cheap as hell and extremely easy to find on the second-hand market. It makes effective use of mood and atmosphere to create a claustrophobic and solitary feeling, something you wouldn’t think is possible with three playable characters. But perhaps the scariest thing about Martian Gothic? It takes place in October of 2017. We’re apparently less than two years away from colonizing the red planet!
Adventure fans, horror junkies, and those looking for a different take on the sci-fi video gaming scene all owe it to themselves to give this one a try.