Mare’s arresting palette and mystic atmosphere help it soar, even if it uses the shoulders of ICO as a launchpad. More in our full Mare review!
Now where did this come from? True, Mare was announced years back and has a few promising trailers to its name, but a long silence from developer Visiontrick Media left the fate of this VR adventure shrouded much like its mist-swept island setting. It’s quite a surprise to see it dropping at the start of 2021, then, especially on the Oculus Quest.
And what a pleasant surprise it is.
Mare is a breathless beauty of a VR game – simplistic in its progression perhaps but never anything less than astonishing to take in. There’s no beating around the bush; its stoic scenery, backed up by the ambiguity of its plot, owes an enormous debt to Fumito Ueda’s seminal trilogy of games. Ico’s crumbling castles and foggy vistas are almost directly lifted into VR and the rickety wooden walkways and monolithic constructs that pepper the game throughout would be right at home in The Last Guardian and Shadow of the Colossus respectively. The game’s enemies — if you can call them that — are a silent shadow race and your AI companion communicates in what sounds like a lost language.
But, obvious as its inspirations are, Mare just about circumvents imitation. You control a mechanical bird that hops between perches to guide your companion, a small girl no older than 10, across eight levels. The core of the game is tracing the correct path she needs to follow; if you fly over to one perch she might run into a dead-end but visit a different perch first and then return to that location and she may have climbed higher to reach a previously undiscovered spot. Occasionally you’ll need to shoot lighting to activate switches, encourage your newfound friend to make a move or defend her from mysterious forces.
As puzzle games go, it’s pretty light stuff with the most taxing of brain-teasers coming from locating collectibles that unlock a secret ending (and stretch the initial 2-hour campaign out to around 3 or 4 hours). Mare never wants to take your attention too far away from the sensory experience, and what an experience that is. ICO might be the launchpad, but it enables Mare to soar; I often couldn’t believe that the game’s stunning views, dense architecture and labyrinthine design had been realized on Quest. Its polygonal art direction favors style in substitute of exhaustive detail, but it often feels subtle when overlooking scenes that run for miles and even works to striking effect in certain moments such as the eye-widening opening.
So potent is this concoction of a moggy, marshy wonder that I found myself longing to inhale the freezing air that lingers heavily in every level, or to feel the whip of the ever-present wind that ripples cloth and clothing on my own face. And it has additions of its own, including a curious use of war-time imagery – flak bombardments are ushered in on weather balloons while the recurring use of flying aids reminded me of carrier pigeons that helped communications in both world wars. They do help restore some of the mysticism that the game loses in its close association with its inspirations, and I’ve found myself trying to pick apart these strands in the days after finishing Mare.
Particularly vexing is the thread of discomfort Visiontrick sews in the relationship you share with your companion. Undoubtedly, your goal in Mare is to aid the young girl that travels with you, but sometimes that protection comes at a heavy price. Forcing her to move by electrocuting nearby structures — at which point she’ll emit a piercing shriek — or even exposing her to the game’s shadowy enemies for prolonged periods of time never sits right, especially given the close and intimate proximity VR affords and I would warn that it might make Mare a sometimes unnerving play for some, even if that might be the point. On a more superficial note, she’s bound to repeat the same three or four lines over and over throughout the story, and it does begin to grate.
What it doesn’t quite do is reach a culminating sense of an epic. It’s too lean to ever achieve such status, never really giving you much time nor reason to grow a lasting bond between player and companion and it’s too similar to the ICO trilogy to ever really be considered quite as profound. But consider the fact VR doesn’t really have anything else quite so stoped in such archaic delight and it still gets points.
Mare Review Final Impressions
Mare’s adherence to its inspirations steals some of the power behind its pathos but, as a sensory experience, there’s nothing else quite like it in VR. Its light puzzling clears the way for a powerfully atmospheric and deliciously ambiguous adventure that is there to drink in more than it is play through. Immersing yourself in its breathless vistas and pondering its at times unnerving nature fills in for an otherwise lean and simplistic offering. Mare might not be the instant classic ICO and its ilk were, but it uses their shoulders to soar.
For more on how we arrived at this score, see our review guidelines. What did you make of our Mare review? Let us know in the comments below!