Martian Gothic: Unification is a third-person action-adventure game that's highly reminiscent of games like Alone in the Dark and Resident Evil, both of which established the popular survival-horror subgenre. As such, Martian Gothic must adhere to two basic rules, just like any good copy of a successful game. First, it must reiterate the best elements from the original - the stuff players like and expect from the genre. And second, it must innovate and push these conventions in enough unprecedented ways to keep the experience challenging and unpredictable.
Martian Gothic actually does a fine job on the second rule by infusing the often-simplistic survival-horror genre with more substantial puzzle-solving. But unfortunately, it fails to deliver the simple but critical pleasures of the genre's classics - good action, suspense, and tight pacing. In striving to emulate the success of those games, Martian Gothic gets it about half right. For every welcome addition it brings to the genre, it never quite executes the feature well enough, or it otherwise neglects some other critical gameplay element.
While some of Martian Gothic's gameplay is the genre's standard third-person shoot-the-zombie fare, the game also attempts to have a hard science-fiction sensibility. Extrapolating from the controversial reports that scientists discovered microfossils on a Martian meteor in 1996, the game's story takes place on a manned base on Mars in 2009. When communications with the base mysteriously cease, a search-and-rescue team sets out. Following the base's last cryptic warning to any possible rescuers ("Stay alone"), your three characters, Karne, Kenzo, and Matlock, search the base separately as they swap objects they find via vacuum tubes around the halls in order to solve the game's many puzzles. In addition to its interesting puzzles, another one of Martian Gothic's good features is that it lets you switch between the three characters at will. Kenzo may have to saw off a dead zombie's body part in order to vac-tube it to Matlock so she can solve a puzzle in another area of the base.
Most survival-horror games are more shooting than solving, but Martian Gothic moves the genre decisively into the adventure category by letting each character hold 18 items at a time, all of which are needed to get beyond the usual assortment of broken machines and locked doors. In fact, since your team can be collectively carrying more than 40 objects at a time, the puzzles in Martian Gothic can be daunting. The game might stump you at several points, which could get frustrating. But at its best moments, when you're assembling several obscure items to fix a computer or to revive some lab equipment, Martian Gothic is effective and enjoyable.
Unfortunately, most of the puzzles lack variety. They often involve finding pass codes or colored passkeys. The pace picks up only in the final stages (you need a rainbow-colored key by then), when some of the stranger items you've been lugging since early in the adventure come into play, and the mystery of the dead base finally unravels.
Adventure gamers may not be thrilled at the prospect of frequent combat sequences, but even fans of the genre's action elements will find Martian Gothic's execution of the action cumbersome. Best suited for control with a gamepad, your polygonal character in Martian Gothic walks, runs, aims, and shoots with all the poise and flexibility of a $10 action figure. Your character can't even crouch or quickly turn around. As in Resident Evil, your character gets into firing position and then simply spins in place very slowly as he switches targets, often so slowly that a zombie will have ample time to glom on to his neck and let spew geysers of survival-horror blood out of his jugular.
Slow-moving zombies litter the rooms and halls, and they require five or six rounds to take down. Later in the game, crablike monsters will fuse with your face if you aren't careful. Martian Gothic tries to add kicking, grapple-break, and side-leap moves, but none are well implemented. The kick is thoroughly ineffective, while most of the settings are too cramped for evasive maneuvers anyway. And the zombies regenerate relentlessly, making them seem like gratuitous obstacles. What's worse is that the game's controls are as sluggish as the characters.
Since its action is uninspired and isn't suspenseful, Martian Gothic relies entirely on its puzzle-solving elements. Aside from getting bits of the story through recorded messages from the dead crew, you find very little story progression until the last quarter of the game when one member of the landing party finally descends briefly into an alien area beneath the Martian surface. But for the most part, the game's cutscenes are few and far between, as are its plot twists or surprising perils. Given the clunky mechanics, it's probably best that there aren't any battles with boss monsters in Martian Gothic.
That might be because about two-thirds of the gameplay occurs in the areas on the space station that the three characters opened up early in the adventure, so far too much of the action involves finding and swapping articles among static, uninteresting sets. While the 2D backgrounds are nicely detailed, it seems that little imagination went into their design beyond painting the walls with blood. In games such as Martian Gothic, each new area ought to reveal something odd and interesting. But in spite of its poor pacing, at least the game's voice-acting and dialogue are a cut above the genre. The taped diaries of the dead base inhabitants have strong character detail and nuance, and they alone compel you to keep finding those passkeys. An uppity computer, aptly named MOOD, provides a nice break from the tedium of hunting and gathering as well.
For adventure gamers, who don't have much to choose from in the current market, Martian Gothic is just competent enough to tide them over. However, Martian Gothic is a missed opportunity for those hoping for a good blend of action and adventure elements, let alone a revision of survival-horror conventions. The designers seem to have started with a few good ideas, such as multiple characters and more complex and satisfying puzzles, but they drove these ideas into the ground rather than mix them into a balanced and fully satisfying gaming experience.