Those of us who love RPGs are always looking for something new. There are only so many hours we can put into Skyrim after all. Mars: War Logs offers an action RPG with a sci-fi backdrop. And while the game has a few problems, overall it’s an enjoyable experience that’s unique enough to hold your interest, and cheap enough to make the investment worth it.
Created by Spiders Studios, the game takes place on Mars. It’s a time of war on the red planet, and with all communication with Earth severed, people’s loyalties are not to countries, but to water companies. You work for one of the smaller companies at the beginning of the game, and are captured and sent to a POW camp run by one of the bigger conglomerates.
At first, you might think that the story is about a boy named Innocence (the company you work for names everyone after a virtue) but he turns out to be the narrator for the game and the keeper of the diary which gives the title its name. The true hero, who is more of an anti-hero, is Temperance, who prefers to go by Roy. As Roy, you save Innocence from a welcome-to-prison rape, and the two of you become fast friends.
The game is played in third person, with the camera over your shoulder and back far enough that you can get a good view of the environment, which is important because melee combat is the emphasis here, and you have to be able to see the battlefield all around you in fight sequences so you don’t get surrounded. I found it kind of odd that a sci-fi game would feature fighting with clubs and Mad-Max-like axes, but at least it’s consistent. Some of the more advanced enemies in the game carry guns, but these are normally easy to kill once you close the distance because they don’t fire very quickly at all. You can get a gun eventually too once you leave the POW camp and get to Mars proper, but it has limited ammo, fires slowly, is activated more like a special ability, and is much less devastating that simply clunking someone on the head with your bone-tipped mace.
The combat interface is very simplistic, with only a few moves available to you. This is both a good and a bad thing. It’s good because it’s easy to master, but it’s bad because when the game overwhelms you with too many enemies, there are not a lot of options for what you can do to counter that. When fighting you can swing your melee weapon, kick or block as your three basic moves. Blocking is the most difficult to do correctly, though if you do, you are awarded an automatic counter. The kick is used to break an enemy’s block. You can also roll to try and get behind someone. Then there are all your special moves, which are things like firing your gun, throwing a bomb, tossing sand in an opponent’s face and, eventually, using magic-like powers called tecnomancy. These are done by selecting an assigned hotkey.
Early on, the combat is pretty hard, though eventually you reach a point where your special abilities are fairly overpowering. It’s nice to feel like you’ve accomplished something to get to that point. You get those special abilities by assigning perks to a leveling tree into three areas. These can give you powers like the ability to knock out an unaware opponent, block blows from any side, add bleeding damage to critical hits and stuff like that.
Adding the tecnomancy magic is pretty cool. It allows you to shoot lighting bolts from your hands like a dark jedi, put up a shield or temporarily add electric damage to your weapon. Upgrades to tecnomancy are bought on the third branch of the tree, which is available once you leave the prison. Given how powerful these are, it might be a good plan to save some upgrade points until that part of the tree opens up, so you can get a jump on becoming a kickass tecnomancer early.
You can have a maximum of one companion with you. If you have met more than one character, the others will wait for you back at a hideout or base camp and can be switched out at will. Companions are pretty worthless in a fight overall. The best thing about them is that they can distract some opponents for a while to let you concentrate your powers on a few at a time. In big fights, they almost always end up getting knocked out at some point. But they can’t permanently die and are good to have along. The most powerful seems to be a tecnomancer girl, but she has a tendency to fire off a bunch of area of effect attacks that end up damaging you about as much as the enemies. So pick your poison.
Graphically, the game looks pretty good, bringing the hardscrabble Martian slums to life in sufficient detail to give it all sense of place. It’s nothing really to write home about, but the world isn’t supposed to look beautiful. It’s the old ‘realistic rust on the wall’ argument for if a game looks good or not.
The sound isn’t nearly as well done as the graphics, mostly because there isn’t much too it, and everyone you talk with repeats themselves all the time. On the bright side, all of the major voice actors seem to be professionals, and bring a lot of character to their roles. For an independent studio (though one working with a publisher on this project) it’s a good effort that shouldn’t turn anyone off from the game.
Gameplay is typical of an RPG, with a main quest to follow and lots of optional side quests. The differences between the two are clearly marked in your journal. I found a few notable flaws in this area, mostly to do with side quest resolution. There are several side quests that can’t be completed until you reach a certain point in the main quest, though no indication of this is given. NPCs who are supposed to be in a certain area simply won’t be there (even if you are told they are) until you go and do something unrelated to advance the main story. Or, side quests will merge, and you can’t complete one until you’ve been asked to do a different one. The sad part is that a little bit of play-testing would have found these frustrating errors pretty quickly, which gives the game a bit of a rushed feel overall.
Another mark against the game is the story, not because it’s bad, but because there’s not enough of it. The marketing of the game seems to emphasize the fact that you are in for a much more in-depth RPG experience than say, something like Mass Effect offers, which for story-centric players like myself would be more than enough to overlook some gameplay flaws. But the stories in the game are never really followed. Case in point, you do everything in chapter one to try and escape the POW camp, and when you finally do, the war ends. So that storyline is complete. Then you arrive in town and find that your old corporation has become manipulative tyrants themselves. As least that is what you are told. There is almost zero evidence of this. No people being beaten in the streets. No bodies stuffed on pikes. No crying widows as their husbands are dragged off in chains. Life seems fairly normal. So when you meet the resistance, you are kind of like ‘so what?’
Then there are romance quests of a sort. You can choose to romance a couple different women from the game. But this is fairly ham-handed. You basically talk to the girls in question and then pick the one you wish to share a brief romantic cut scene with. There is no effect on the game and the romance quest isn’t revisited after the choice is made. The ‘losing’ girl who didn’t get a The-Bachelor-like-rose is still available for missions and holds no grudges. And the winner doesn’t really act much like a girlfriend either. And no, there are no homosexual relationships permitted either, though given how vanilla the romance is, this could have been easily done without offending anyone.
The light romance quest model seems to be used for the crafting part of the game too, in that there is a crafting interface, but there isn’t much to it. You can only use one main melee weapon, and the selection is quite limited, consisting of a couple different types of metal tubes which can be turned into axes or maces as you prefer. Upgrading a weapon increases the damage it does, and can also add special properties like bleeding or a critical hit chance as well. Crafting requires components, which can be found lying around the world. By about the middle of the game you should have about 100 of each type of crafting material in your inventory, which will allow you to make anything you want, though the limited type of weapons available means you will craft the most damaging one and be done with it.
There is nothing really bad about Mars: War Logs. It’s just that the developer seemed to try to put everything they could into the game: a deep story, romance, crafting, magic, stealth, melee, side quests, and the like, but didn’t really concentrate on any one of those areas. They kind of made themselves jacks of all trades and masters of none. So you end up touching all these cool things, but not really getting enough time with any of them.
The game takes about eight hours to complete, and I guess it’s a good thing that you will probably end up wanting a bit more. It’s on sale through Steam for $19.95, and I would say it’s worth that price, though there is almost no replay value to be had. My recommendation to the developers for future games in this series would be to concentrate on one area and try to do it really well. You aren’t going to out-dazzle Bioware. But you might be able to present a more compelling and memorable story.
As it stands, Mars: War Logs is worth the money. It may not become your favorite game of all time, but you will enjoy your time spent rumbling on the red planet. Mars: War Logs earns 3 and 1/2 GiN Gems.