Review: Jupiter and Mars (PS4/PSVR)

There’s no mistaking Jupiter and Mars‘ purpose. “There was a time when the color had faded, when the machines of the earthwalkers blew poisons into the sky and covered the land with their neglect, when everything was thrown into the seas and the underwater world was filled with the remnants of a dying civilization,” says the narrator in the opening moments, against the backdrop of a pristine blue sea. “Eventually, an endless millenia of takig from this life-sustaining planet became too much to bear; when the Earth had nothing left to give, the earthwalkers eventually disappeared.”

There’s no ambiguity;  right from the outset, Jupiter and Mars  makes clear that this is a game that wants people to think about how modern human life impacts on the oceans and the wildlife that live within it.

To that end, Jupiter and Mars is a post-apocalyptic game, but it’s far from the usual tropes of that genre. Humanity has been wiped out entirely, and the natural world is slowly reclaiming the planet from the ruins of human society. Sea life thrives amid the relics of “ancient” human cities that now rest beneath the ocean’s surface. Or, it mostly thrives—humanity’s leftovers still mean that critters sometimes get caught in plastic or old fishing nets, and old machinery still sometimes poses a threat to animals that get to close.

It’s against this backdrop that you play as Jupiter, one of the pair of titular dolphins who have been chosen to be the ocean’s saviours. Initially, your goal is a simple but important one: to navigate the submerged ruins, saving crabs, fish, and other such sealife that have gotten trapped, and shutting down any machinery that you come across.

Echolocation helps you to find objects you can interact with (as well as creating a cool visual effect), and certain obstacles can be destroyed by sending Mars in to ram it. In keeping with the theme, you’ll never kill anything other than machinery; jellyfish and the like present hazards, but rather than eliminating them, you push them out of the way with jets of water so that you can safely pass through.

It’s a simple game loop, but a significant one in terms of the message that Jupiter and Mars is trying to tell. Long after humanity’s extinction, all the non-biodegradable shit we dumped in the ocean will still have an impact, so here’s a game about picking up those pieces.

That set, it’s not an overly bleak game—it’s not here to distress you with desperate imagery. The art style is cartoony and heavily stylised, with neon patterns giving every creature an otherworldly feel and the underwater landscape feeling bright, colourful, and welcoming. But that helps drive the message home: the ocean is a beautiful place, and the art style is a celebration of that.

Still, Jupiter and Mars has its affecting moments. The first area is the sort of rocky reef you’d expect from and a game set under the sea, but the first time you stumble upon a submerged human city—collapsed skyscrapers, crumbling subway networks, a mostly intact football stadium—it’s hard not to get taken aback. This is what we left to the world, and this is all that’s left of us. We could have avoided all of this if we just lived in harmony with nature, and if we took actual proper action to prevent climate change, but we didn’t.

Were this all that Jupiter and Mars was—a simple game loop tied to a powerful, important message—it’d be a remarkable achievement. Unfortunately, it falls into the common trap of trying too hard to be a game, and in the latter half especially, the message ends up getting lost in unnecessary gaminess.

Rescuing animals from plastic and taking in the juxtaposition of beautiful oceanscape and ruined cities gives way to exploring temples from classical mythology and fighting a kraken. That gives way to navigating high-tech, futuristic facilities where you have to avoid patrolling robots. You’ll collect different upgrades that let you swim faster, dive deeper, and break through obstacles that you couldn’t before.

These are all things that, on paper, make for a more “fun” game. To some extent, that’s true of Jupiter and Mars, too—there are puzzles to solve, and plenty of collectibles to find when you return to old levels with new powerups. But all this comes at the cost of the message that the game so clearly wants to convey; it starts to be about weird science fiction and fantasy nonsense, instead of confronting the reality of humankind’s impact on the seas—something the early part of the game did so well. 

That said, Jupiter and Mars is still worth a look. It’s a beautiful game to take in, especially if you choose to play in VR mode, where the dreamlike setting and sense of scale are at the ir most impressive. And it still has an important message to share: as a species, we can’t just keep doing what we’re doing, dumping stuff into the oceans without a second thought, and taking and taking from the planet until it has nothing left to give. I just wish it had kept that message in mind the whole way through, instead of setting it aside for the sake of making a game that’s more “fun” to play.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.