Deliver Us the Moon, the 2018 adventure-puzzle game that followed an initially nameless astronaut on their journey to seek energy for a dying Earth along with answers to what happened during a mission gone wrong, was a quiet triumph. While the gameplay was in many ways minimal, it boasted some thematically appropriate and clever puzzles, and a narrative that hit right where it hurt and masterfully built tension across its short runtime. Its sequel, Deliver Us Mars, follows on from the events of its predecessor and attempts to build in a host of new gameplay elements, more characters, and an even deeper narrative – but sadly, it’s somewhat of a case of shooting for the moon (or, Mars) and not quite landing among the stars.
While it isn’t necessary to have played Deliver Us the Moon to enjoy the story of Deliver Us Mars, it certainly helps. The game gives plenty of context for its setting – Earth is facing an energy and climate crisis, and though the game is set in the future, it isn’t hard to imagine it as a future that could easily be reality. After initially turning to the Moon as a new source of power, scientists are expanding their search to Mars, where they hope to find resources and set up technology that could harness the energy of the red planet. At least, that’s one version of the truth. At the end of the first game, it was established that as part of this mission to the Moon, three life-sustaining ARKs were created, designed to house humans as they explored space and provide a home while Earth wasn’t suitable. Without spoiling the end of Deliver Us the Moon too much, these ARKs have been lost, and it is up to the small and scrappy group of protagonists to find them and bring them home.
Though their journey to follow a distress call and track down the ARKs is undoubtedly tense and at times ominous, this time around the protagonist is not so silent or mysterious. Kathy Johanson, a young and promising astronaut is begrudgingly taken on the mission by the crew of the Zephyr, partly due to her stellar test scores and partly due to her personal connection to one of the members of Outward, the company who are responsible for the disappearance of the ARKs. Kathy’s relationship with each member of the team is nuanced, but the tension that builds between them as they attempt to complete their mission and face up against unexpected challenges is one of the game’s strongest draws. Some killer voice performances make these characters into people you’ll genuinely care about even when disagreeing with them, and though they’re let down by some less than great facial animations, their story is one that will stick with you.
I wish I could say the same for the game’s less pivotal characters, many of whom are seen only in holograms showcasing past events for Kathy to relive on her journey. The holograms tell many of the most important parts of the story, explaining the motivations behind what ultimately happened on Mars and amongst the inhabitants of the ARK, and when they feature only a few key characters, are excellent pieces of storytelling. Unfortunately, as soon as unfamiliar characters are added or there’s more than about two people in a scene, things start to get confusing. The characters are represented by faceless, generically-shaped and mannequin-like models, making it almost impossible to tell them apart. Some of them have accents, and the subtitles will usually try to tell you who’s talking, but matching the voices to the characters in the scene in front of you is almost a lucky dip. I wish they had been a little more distinct, to really foster the immersion that the dense narrative deserved.
Much of the game is spent walking (or occasionally floating) around abandoned ships or research facilities, switching between first and third person depending on the activity (and sometimes allowing the opportunity to change between them). Occasionally, this exploration will be broken up by environmental puzzles or platforming sections that start off interesting to complete, but quickly become repetitive. Puzzle-solving usually comes in one of two forms – directing beams of power towards receivers to open doors or activate machinery, or using Kathy’s AI called AYLA to reach new areas and unlock pathways or move equipment. In order to unlock holograms, AYLA will also need to do some decryption, which basically means swivelling around a circle until three pieces slide into place in a very particular way. The beam-puzzles were actually quite enjoyable, and I enjoyed the little spark of joy that came with figuring out the logic behind a particular setup. The hologram puzzles absolutely were not. If there was a logic to them, I couldn’t quite figure it out, and given the solutions were so touchy, I flinched every time I saw one of these puzzles in an upcoming room. If the scenes they unlocked weren’t so critical to the game’s narrative, I wouldn’t have bothered with them.
Then there’s the platforming. Deliver Us Mars adds a climbing mechanic not present in its predecessor, with Kathy using climbing axes (or piolets? I don’t know, I’m not a climber) to traverse cliff faces and semi-detached ship parts alike. Each hand is controlled separately, and successfully navigating a section requires you to be attached with one hand at all times, occasionally avoiding obstacles like pieces of metal joinery or vents. It’s finicky, inconsistent, and you will absolutely fall to your death many times for no reason, which is especially frustrating given it means being transported back to the beginning of the climbing section to go through it all again. The frustration that the jank of this climbing mechanic caused me is almost single-handedly responsible for this game getting a lower score. I wish it had been either removed, or a lot more time had been put into getting it right.
Of course, it isn’t the game’s only flaw. While it’s visually stunning in parts, what should be sweeping vistas are frequently ruined by environmental pop-in and slow loading of textures, or invisible walls around areas that should be accessible. Parts of it almost feel like the game is in an early state, and the player is being directed towards the demo-relevant parts of an area while developers work on polishing the final product – but this is the finished game. And it’s a real shame that aspects of it feel so unfinished, because it means they don’t do justice to what is really a thrilling and utterly compelling narrative that deserves to be experienced.
I wish I could sing the praises of this game, but the flaws were a little too frequent to ignore. The narrative is strong but the delivery of it often flounders, despite the convincing voice acting of some of the cast. Some puzzles fit right into the world and add to the immersion, while some feel like banging your head against a wall as you endure them. The environments are often stunning, but the shine is taken away when travelling through them reveals pop-in and an overuse of invisible walls. It feels like a game that’s almost there, and I wish it had stuck the landing.
Deliver Us Mars was reviewed on PS5 using a code kindly provided by the publisher.