39 Days to Mars review

39 Days to Mars review
39 Days to Mars review
The Good:
  • Large variety of challenge tasks
  • Albert and Baxter are enjoyable to listen to
  • Cute steampunk visual style
The Bad:
  • Cumbersome controls
  • Repetitive, glitchy scone preparation challenges are maddening
  • Timed sequences can be frustrating
Our Verdict:

Whimsical visuals, charming characters, and a wide assortment of activities are weighed down by clunky controls in the one- or two-player co-op adventure 39 Days to Mars.

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I grew up in the golden age of adventures. Back then I’d get together with friends and we’d while away the hours hanging out playing games. Naturally, only one person could actually “drive” the experience, with the other sitting next to them providing suggestions of varying degrees of helpfulness. I remember thinking how nice it would be for both players to be playing at the same time. Thirty years later, developer It’s Anecdotal has given us the 2D co-op adventure 39 Days to Mars and… well, it’s not quite what I was hoping for.

39 Days feels inspired by both From the Earth to the Moon and Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne, with its pseudo-Victorian steampunk feel. In it, you and a friend take on the roles of Sir Albert Wikes and Clarence Baxter, who decide one day, as gentlemen do, to travel to Mars. Albert is tall, skinny, and wears a top hat. Baxter is short, has a round head, and is useless without a scone and cup of tea. That’s the extent of characterization, as the game focuses more on the challenges the pair must overcome as they travel to the red planet – or rather, sepia-toned planet – in their homemade spaceship, the HMS Fearful, parked in the backyard.

During the journey, you do very little puzzle solving in the traditional sense. Instead, you are mostly confronted with various activities set up as discrete obstacles that need to be overcome. While there are a couple that fall into the puzzle category, needing some mental working-out, most of the scenarios make it obvious what needs to be done. The challenge comes in both players working together to make the interface do what needs to be done.

Prior to liftoff, Albert and Baxter need to chart a course to Mars. This is done by piecing together a torn-up sheet of paper. It’s a fairly typical task in adventure games, and one that’s usually quite easy to complete. Less so here. In 39 Days, when entering one of these close-up situations, both players are given a pointer to control, represented by a hand. To differentiate the hands, one of them has a wristwatch and the other doesn’t.

In this particular fit-the-paper-back-together puzzle, the pieces need to be rotated to the correct alignment. To accomplish this, one player must move their hand over one of the pieces to grab it. The other player then moves their hand over the same piece, grabs another part of it, and then rotates it about the first player’s hand. Once in the agreed-upon orientation, either player can drag the piece next to another piece and hope it connects. One snag with this is that the paper pieces can collide, bumping one another out of the way and altering their orientations. It all becomes rather cumbersome, especially when compared to similar challenges in single-player games. At any rate, this dual-hand system forms the basis for almost all of the situations encountered during the game.

The most awkward challenges you’ll encounter are also the ones 39 Days throws at you most often: preparing scones or tea for Albert. Once Albert and Baxter are on their way to Mars, a series of disasters begins striking the ship. Albert’s typical response to these is that they’re far too complicated to tackle without either a biscuit or a cuppa.

Unfortunately, preparing a scone is way more trouble than it should be. You are given a recipe indicating whether Baxter’s in the mood for one with strawberries, jam, a lot of butter, or some smorgasbord combination. The recipe changes with each scone you must prepare. The difficulty comes from being given a butter knife, which you and your friend must use to precariously lift chunks of butter and jam from a counter up to a raised plate. Each chunk is semi-physically modelled, meaning if you’re not careful and you bump the scone or an ingredient you’ve already set in place, you may set everything to tumbling. It doesn’t help that these sections, for whatever reason, tend to be quite glitchy, with one or the other hand suddenly spastically going off in a direction of its own, or higher-stacked ingredients spontaneously falling through lower-stacked ones, upsetting the delicate balancing act needed to mound up a scone to Baxter’s preference.

By comparison, preparing a cup of tea is much simpler, though not without its own difficulties. The main issue with the tea is that, depending on the recipe, Baxter prefers it at various temperatures: hot, warm, cool, etc. This is accomplished by filling the provided teacup with hot water and then either waiting for it to cool off or adding milk to hurry it along. Sugar can also be added if the recipe requires it. The challenge here is that the preparation is timed. Add a lump of sugar as directed, but take too long to finish adding the other ingredients and the sugar evaporates so the final mixture is no longer sweet. Coordinating the two hands is hard enough; it becomes just that much more frustrating once the time element is added in.

Between the fiddly bouts of scone and tea preparation, thankfully 39 Days does offer an impressive variety of other objectives. Throughout your journey to Mars, you’ll find yourself tending to an onboard garden, sending a Morse-type coded message, fixing leaky steam pipes, reconnecting an assortment of power cables, and manning the ship’s primary control panel, among other things. However, while the setups for all of these are different, they do tend to feel the same after a while, since all are dependent on the same co-op control method.

The close-up challenges are occasionally interspersed with scenarios that need to be dealt with in the hub environments of Albert and Baxter’s house at the beginning and the spaceship later on. These areas are viewed from a side-on 2D perspective that lets you see all the floors and rooms, and you move about them in typical side-scroller fashion. When you find a problem that can be worked on, you and your friend must both go to that area and hold down your respective activate buttons to access it.

While in these hub views, you must sometimes overcome different crises that strike, such as when small space squids start invading the ship. Here one player has to hit a button at the appropriate time to swing a butterfly net to catch nearby squids. Meanwhile, the other player is running around the ship with a spray bottle that is used to clean blotches of ink off the monitor so that your view of the attackers is not obscured.

The hub-based challenges require a degree of manual dexterity not typically required in the others, and usually incorporate some manner of timed element. For example, at one point the first player has to steer an EVA pod out into space while the other controls a mechanical arm attached to the pod to harvest passing asteroids for coal needed to fuel the spaceship. However, the EVA pod only has a limited amount of oxygen. Take too long to harvest the coal and the screen fades to black before placing you back at the start of the sequence to try again.

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Adventure games by It’s Anecdotal

39 Days to Mars  2018

Sir Albert Wickes and The Right Honourable Clarence Baxter are 18th century explorers who have been chosen to pilot the HMS Fearful on its maiden voyage to Mars.