Added to the lair: 3/4/21
Martian Gothic: Unification
Stay alone... stay alive...
I love survival horror. You could probably say, fairly, that I have a proclivity to give these games a bit of an upward nudge in how I rate them purely for falling into the genre. I wouldn't deny it. What can I say? These games just do it for me. From its earliest beginnings with games like Project Firestart to the 90s renaissance with titles like Silent Hill and Resident Evil to modern masterpieces like Amnesia: The Dark Descent... I like muh spoopy vidjergames.
Martian Gothic: Unification was Creative Reality's final game. 6 years prior they released Dreamweb, one of my favorite point-and-clicks of all time. MGU is not as good as Dreamweb, but it is quite enjoyable and fairly underrated. It's certainly no Silent Hill, but I'd place it above say... Bioforge. The latter of which is probably an apt comparison since they're both, somewhat atypically, sci fi survival horror. Haunted Houses are a dime a dozen in the horror genre (both games and film) but for some reason science fiction is a realm that they don't delve into nearly as much as you'd think, other than on the most basic and throwaway level - "Because mutation..." etc. I've always thought this strange, and frankly kindof a shame since it seems like a match made in heaven (hell?). For every Alien or The Thing there are dozens of abandoned mansions and insane asylums. Thankfully, MGU shoots a little higher. It doesn't hit every mark, but it hits quite a few.
Something I really appreciated about the game was that they give you plenty of lore to dig into if you take the time. There's a lot of worldbuilding going on here. This is something that really hearkened back to Dreamweb for me, and something I think these guys were quite adept at. Some of it is a bit info-dumpy at times, but... it's science fiction, that kindof comes with the territory. The story is actually quite good, I would say. I'm not going to into any detail here because I think it's probably the game's strongest asset and I don't want to ruin it. I also liked the fact that they incorporated some real-world events into the narrative in an interesting way. There's a pretty heavy reliance on the tried and true audio-logs here, but I actually have zero issue with that - many great games have done this like System Shock and I'll be honest, I pretty much always love it. It lends a ton of atmosphere which is, again, something Creative Reality were quite good at.
Unfortunately, some of the voice acting isn't quite up to snuff. Matlock and Karne (two of the three playable characters) are decent enough, but I found Kenzo's voice acting to be pretty dreadful. It's extremely monotone which I suppose you could argue kindof fits with the background of the character (which I won't go into) but I'm gonna be honest - I don't think it was a conscious decision, I think he's just bad. Most of the voice acting in the audio logs is pretty good, though there are a few outliers there as well (generally in the form of some clearly fake accents). Overall I'd say it's "Just okay" with some bright spots here and there, but when one of the main characters is so grating to listen to it brings it down a peg.
On the topic of main characters, the game employs a fairly novel concept in the genre of requiring you to control three different characters in order to progress through the game, which you can switch between instantly. The characters have been given the explicit instruction to "Stay alone, stay alive" prior to their arrival at the mysteriously silent Mars base, which means that the characters are separated through the journey, communicating over radio and swapping items through vacuum tubes spread throughout the base. This leads to some obvious puzzle-solving situations where one person gets access to an item that another character needs to get through a door or other obstacle. The promotional materials tout this as a means of producing non-linear gameplay but honestly that's pretty misleading - the game is still fairly linear, it just means that you'll have to periodically switch between characters and progress until you can't anymore and then switch to another who will inevitably have the only means for the other character to progress further. I don't have a problem with this in theory - in fact I'd even say that I think it's a cool idea - the problem is that it leads to constant confrontation with what is likely the game's largest single issue - inventory management. Another element that hearkens back heavily to Dreamweb is the existence of a significant number of useless (for puzzle solving) items which is kindof a problem when you have limited inventory space. It's certainly not as extensive as what you see in Dreamweb, but having to constantly wonder "Do I actually need this for anything" is definitely reminiscent of that game. There are a lot of item combination puzzles in the game, but thankfully they're generally pretty logical. Most of the time when you find an item you're going to realize what you need it for pretty quickly - it's the fact that some of them don't actually do anything that causes a problem, as it leaves you wondering if you just haven't encountered the object that it needs to be paired with yet.
Gameplay takes place through character models placed on top of pre-rendered backgrounds with fixed cameras and tank controls. This is a combination that I've never had a problem with (and would actually go as far as to say that I like it) but I know others would disagree. If you don't like it in early Resident Evil games, this isn't going to sell you on it either - it didn't bother me one bit though. The character models themselves leave a bit to be desired - certainly not the worst I've seen but not great either. Some of the zombie and creature models are pretty rough. The pre-rendered backgrounds I actually think look pretty good. There's a pretty decent variety of them over the course of the game and I think they hold up fairly well (at least as well as such things can).
Combat is very basic. You get some guns and ammo, you press a button to raise your weapon and another to fire. Fire a couple times and an enemy goes down... and then they get back up a few minutes later. You have to be careful and smart so as not to do too much backtracking as you'll end up running out of ammo in the process. Thankfully, you can usually mitigate damage from the basic zombies by simply pressing left and right directions quickly. Later enemies... not so much. It can be frustrating at times, but not really more so than other members of the genre (and certainly much less so than say the Alone in the Dark games). One interesting element to the combat is the fact that other members of your team can be attacked while you're not actively controlling them, which prompts a big warning sign on the screen and an alarm sound. I actually liked this quite a bit, probably in part because it reminded me of the second level in Aliens: The Computer (1986) for C64 where you would have to switch between 4 different (separated) marines as they navigated the base and any of them could come under attack at any time.
Sound is extremely important to horror and, unfortunately, MGU is a bit of disappointment in this regard. The sound effects are... okay but pretty basic. The music is... alright but way too restrained. By that I don't mean it's not bombastic enough (which can be equally damaging in this genre) but simply that very little of it evokes anything, fear or otherwise. It's the horror game equivalent of muzak. It's just kindof there. The single greatest source of terror in both games and film is sound. You can take the creepiest scene in the world and put it to Benny Hill music and no one is going to be scared. Flip that around and show us a serene meadow but play some of the creepiest, awful sounds like something out of the bowels of hell and you will be creeped out. MGU fails pretty hard in this regard, unfortunately. It's not that any of it sounds bad, per se, but it's not doing its job, which is to scare you.
Overall I enjoyed Martian Gothic, the story is actually quite interesting and the game takes place in a fairly unusual setting for the genre. Some of the voice acting and the sound in general leave something to be desired, but it's still fairly enjoyable, especially if you're a fan of this genre.