STAFF REVIEW of 39 Days to Mars (Xbox One)

Friday, February 8, 2019.
by Adam Dileva

39 Days to Mars Box art I love my puzzle games. I’m not always the best at them, but every now and then I need a break from my typical RPG’s, Shooters, Racers and Action games. Sometimes I want to just chill on the couch and use my brain to figure out some solutions. Sure, sometimes this backfires and I get more frustrated due to getting stuck, not being able to figure out the solution, but it generally brings an overall calmness knowing I’m not playing something violent or competitive. I’d love to say that 39 Days to Mars, developed by small indie studio ‘It's Anecdotal’, was that calming relief I was searching for, but man, this may have been one of the more confusing and frustrating puzzle experiences I’ve had yet, and it’s not even their fault.

Let me explain. 39 Days to Mars is designed to be a co-operative adventure puzzle game, hell, even the icon for the box art says co-operative. Unfortunately, my wife isn’t very skilled at using a controller, so I generally don’t have someone to come over and do the whole couch co-op with me much these days (thank you online multiplayer). Simply put, 39 Days to Mars is absolutely designed to be played with two players on the couch. Now, the developers were smart and did include a way for people like myself that don’t usually have a partner to play with, to still play and enjoy the game.

Set in a steampunk aesthetic, you’re going to need to use all your brain power to figure out these unique and interesting puzzles, even more so if you’re playing solo like I did. I’m generally terrible at trying to focus and do two things at once, which would explain why I’m quite subpar with RTS’s, but wow, 39 Days to Mars almost made my head explode at times, forcing me to not only solve the puzzle, but move the sticks in opposite directions and use the separate triggers simultaneously. Can you rub your head and pat your belly at the same time? This game is the equivalent to that.

You play as Albert, a classy gentleman who wants to make his inaugural voyage to Mars, alongside his partner, Clarence. Each player will control one character, but will have to work in tandem in nearly every single task set forth in front of you. The steampunk background suits the story and narration, as these puzzles won’t be your typical ‘square peg, round role’ type of deal. Instead, you’re going to have to make a correct cup of tea, or make a scone that he wants to eat, exactly to his recipe desires. Not exactly the types of puzzles you’re most likely used to, but it works in this setting and context perfectly with the Victorian characters.

The hand drawn visuals are really interesting and adds to the overall tonality of the gameplay. Set in a 2D world, a side cutout of Albert’s ship, you’ll have numerous obstacles to face and solve before being able to progress. The hand drawn visuals really makes it feel as if the game has more heart and was designed with love, but don’t let that lull you into a false sense of security; the frustration is coming shortly, so prepare.

Even being played with two players, that doesn’t mean you’re going to have an easy time. Each player needs to work in tandem with one another for a common goal. One puzzle for example has you needing to pick up and bring back and item in a crane-like game. One player controls the horizontal movement of the claw and line, while the other is in charge of the vertical movements. Naturally, you’re going to have to have some excellent communication if you want to work together. As they say, “teamwork makes the dreamwork”, and without it, you’ll never make it to Mars.

So what if you’re like me and don’t have a partner to rely on for half of the problem solving and controls? Well, you’re going to have to burden all of the responsibility for everything on your own shoulders. That crane example I gave above? You’re going to have to control all of the movements yourself at the same time, requiring both halves of your brain in use simultaneously. For some that might not be a big deal, for me though, I more than struggled throughout the whole experience.

Again, it’s hard to hold that against the game itself, as it blatantly advertises itself as a co-operative adventure, but I can only imagine the shouting and yelling me and buddy would have if we had to get through this together. Maybe playing solo was a good thing, saving a friendship from a lot of screaming at once another because he can’t do his portion of the task.

If you don’t have a partner to play with, Clarence will instead be taken over by Albert’s cat. That’s right, you’ll have a cat for a partner. That doesn’t mean it’s any easier with an AI feline following you around, as you’ll still need to control all aspects of the gameplay. Most puzzles have you controlling each character’s hand, and playing solo like I did, one of those hands were a cute little paw; a small detail that I appreciated.

For the puzzles themselves, they are bite sized and meant for quick sessions, though that’s only if you’re actually able to solve what you’re supposed to do, not even including how to go about doing so. There’s no real tutorial for each puzzle, as you’re simply thrown in to each one without any explanation of even the controls, so it’s a lot of trial and error of simply figuring out what the controls are for each.

The puzzles themselves are quite clever, as maybe you’re solving a problem in the electrical room, having to solve a puzzle about the system’s wires, or maybe you’re having to connect multiple tubes and hoses to the proper pipes, of which there’s only one solution. It may sound easy, but keep in mind each stick is used as an individual hand. So if you want to rotate a piece or object for example, you’re going to have to hold it in one hand with the corresponding trigger, grab it with the other hand (stick) and hold the other trigger while you rotate it with the hand. So you need to think with both halves of your brain, and doing so much easier said than done, taking lots of practice and even more patience.

Something I found very interesting is that it seems that it’s slightly different every time you play, as a friend was also playing at the same time at his place, so when I got stuck and sent him a picture of my vessel for help, he replied his was different and showed me a picture, and it was. The same goes for the puzzles. For example, maybe the scone I need to make requires a slab of butter and a strawberry, but the next time I attempt it, it will ask for something completely different. I do like that it switches time to time, but that also means it’s going to be near impossible to follow a walkthrough should you break down and require one.

What I realized a dozen puzzles into the game was that a good portion of them weren’t necessarily brain teasers, though some are, but many were much more dexterity based, given that two people are supposed to simultaneously work together for the common goal. Even though it’s not hard to ‘solve’ the tea or scone puzzles for example, actually doing it is a whole other ballgame in itself.

At one point you’ll have puzzles that will make absolutely no sense at all, like a massive garden with flowers and leafs with a simple checklist at the bottom corner. What you’re supposed to do is go to the library in a different room, organize the papers so that the right chapters are together, which again, isn’t hard to figure out, but to execute is the real challenge, and memorize those pages. I actually had to organize the pages, take a picture of them with my phone, then go back to the garden puzzle with the picture open, as my memory isn’t the greatest. It’s tedious, and I wish there was a better solution than my ‘cheating’.

Even though the game can technically be completed in under an hour, as there are achievements for it, I’ve been stumped on specific puzzles for well over an hour at times. Sure I became frustrated, but I never really got to the point of wanting to throw the controller through the window. Many of the puzzles suffer from simply not telling the player what to do, or how, which I guess is the puzzle in itself. Certain puzzles are repeated as well, making different types of tea and scones for example, which becomes annoying and seemingly a way to add some fluff to the short playtime. Every now and then you’ll get to a puzzle to attempt, only to be told that Albert is hungry again, so it’s back to the kitchen to solve yet another scone puzzle for the hundredth time.

Many of these puzzles also require very precise controls and movements, but the sticks aren’t always as sensitive as it should be, either moving way too slow, or making objects fling because it’s too quick. Many times I’ve had my scone just about finished, only to have the tip of my knife catch on a corner or something and flip all around, tossing my hard work into the air.

If you’re a puzzle fan, 39 Days to Mars is a short but entertaining adventure, even if it’s flawed in certain aspects. The aesthetic is appealing, especially to steampunk fans, and many of the puzzles are entertaining, but the controls is really what holds it back at times.

It’s a shame there’s no online co-op, as a friend and I would be all over this if that was possible. While you are fully capable of playing solo, I don’t recommend it in any way if you don’t have a partner, as this journey to Mars really should be taken with a good friend that you have no problem swearing at when he screws up making a proper scone for the twentieth time.

Overall: 6.8 / 10
Gameplay: 6.5 / 10
Visuals: 8.0 / 10
Sound: 7.0 / 10


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