- Feeling of getting your ass to Mars
“I never thought I’d end up in the middle of the war, but I didn’t really understand how.”
That nonsensical example of poor translation you see above? Yeah… that’s the very first spoken line of dialogue you’ll hear in Mars: War Logs.
At that point, all signs point to an unremarkable or even miserable experience ahead. You’ve shaken your head at the game’s uninspired title, ignored the spotty trailers and pressed on only to be greeted by that line, one that’s delivered rather poorly at that. It’s apparent from the get go that this is by no means a AAA title, having been developed by a French studio under a tight deadline and with a budget that can only be called ‘speck of a shoestring’. Things seem pretty dire.
But you know what? Stick with it and you may very well be surprised, because despite Mars: War Logs’ low production values, uneven story and occasional gameplay oddities… I kind of love it. Read on to find out why.
Mars: War Logs is set on a futuristic Mars. Surprising, right? After some disaster presumably sent Earth packing, the red planet is now a colonized steampunk-esque world where people are named after abstract virtues, mutants live among society, the only firearms are nailguns for some reason, and corporations have risen to governmental power and control the most valuable resource – water. Aurora and Abundance are the two most powerful of these groups, and they’ve started a series of ongoing wars against each other that have effectively divided the people.
Still with me? Alright. In the midst of this conflict is Innocence Smith, a young and naïve solider for Aurora who’s just been captured as a POW. Sent to Prison Camp 19, where the guards are somehow ok with prisoners carrying melee weapons, he’s quickly noticed by a mysterious man named Roy Temperance, who has a plan to escape. In an interesting story device, Roy is the playable protagonist while Innocence, taking the role as his sidekick, is the narrator of the story and records the events in a diary called a ‘war log’. Aha, I indeed see what they did there.
By all accounts, the setup here sounds like some hackneyed premise behind a Z-grade sci-fi TV series, which is why it’s an outright miracle that it not only works, but is remarkably engaging and interesting. The world here is well fleshed out, sporting pre-established lore that is intriguing but never force-fed. There’s the elitist Technomancers who are Mars’ equivalent to the Jedi and Sith, scruffy-skinned mutants who act as the racially shunned minority group, several scattered resistance efforts, underground gangs, and other facets of the world that make it feel relatable and cohesive. Rather mature themes are dealt with, such as racism, politics, class warfare, prostitution, and drug use, some of which are tackled with surprising ethical depth.
However, it’s the characters that succeed in drawing you in, each of whom have a distinct and well defined personality and a believable role within their world. Roy, for example, transcends the usual grizzly tough guy trope by being genuinely charismatic and funny while also housing an underlying layer of guilt that stems from his dark past. Other characters like Innocence and Mary have the frameworks of solid character arcs behind them that, while admittedly not fully realized, go a long way toward making Mars seem like a living, breathing place.
It’s true that the voice acting and dialogue are all over the place, being impressive in some points and downright woeful in others. Special mention must be made of characters Fatso and Jey, whose actors I’ll give the benefit of the doubt and assume were on some sort of post-surgery anesthetic. However, given the vast array of characters and the fact that the game had to be translated from French, these hiccups are understandable, and you tend to tune out the weaker stuff after a while anyway. Thankfully, the characters are still conceptualized well enough to be likable, and when the acting and writing do take a turn for the better, they’re sometimes witty and emotional enough to rival some of the bigger RPGs out there.
But you know what? It’s nitpick time. Let’s start with Innocence; he’s not given nearly as much to do as the story suggests early on. His narration and dialogue are sadly infrequent, and seeing as he’s supposed to be the crux of character development here, that’s a problem. While the characters kept me invested throughout, a lot of them tend to come and go rather quickly, leading to some cases of abrupt introductions, vague motivations and, as mentioned above, arcs that don’t feel complete. The villains are especially guilty of this, and we don’t even meet the primary antagonist until near the end of the game.
Also, you never really do learn about Roy’s oh-so mysterious past that the game keeps bragging about. Who exactly was he back then, and what did he do that he’s so ashamed of? Hell if I know. The final mission seems to set up some sort of reveal for this, but it never comes.
In fact, the game’s final chapter is when the reigns of the time and budget constraints are truly yanked back, making the story feel rushed. The game abandons almost any sense of logical plotting as Roy is continually whisked to drastically different locations in between cutscenes for reasons that are increasingly poorly explained. Plot threads and conversation options start springing up that seem as if they were supposed to be introduced in missing earlier chapters, and to top it all off, the ultimate ending (at least the one I got) consists mostly of narration explaining the final outcome of certain characters and subplots. It’s sloppy for sure, but it at least ties up all the loose ends while still leaving room for a possible sequel.
And really, I’d love nothing more than to see a sequel – one that expands upon this rich universe and tells more stories within it. I’m not kidding when I say this is easily one of my favorite settings in any RPG, one with the potential to spark an entire franchise. Yes, I am a steampunk nut and love pretty much anything to do with Mars (Lego Racers 2, anyone?), but it’s the confidence and creative effort that Spiders put into the world that really brings it to life.
From a structural gameplay standpoint, the easiest comparison to make would be Bioware’s Mass Effect series. While you’re free to explore the game’s world, it isn’t as massive and seamless as that found in the Fallout or Elder Scrolls games, nor can you customize your character’s apperance to any real degree. There are really only three areas in the game, each comprising a chapter and consisting of a tightly connected web of rooms, hallways and courtyards broken up by doors that act as obvious loading breaks. That said, they’re stuffed with enough sidequests and loot-able crates and debris piles to make exploring them a pleasure, even if you’ll spend a fair amount of time backtracking.
However, you’ll spend even more time in melee combat, which takes cues from God of War and Batman: Arkham City and is of a more reflex-based nature. The dodge move is your best friend here, capable of evading any attack in the game and making the combat feel refreshingly involved and frantic. Unfortunately, while it’s challenging, it’s not particularly difficult (yes, there is a difference), thanks in large part to the lack of enemy variety. Most foes don’t deviate much from the standard soldier and mutant mole types, and with enough patience, the ‘dodge, hit, dodge’ strategy will get you through even the game’s most large-scale encounters. It can make skirmishes feel repetitive, especially towards the end, and it doesn’t help that a lot of encounters take place in enclosed areas where the camera has trouble keeping up. Because of this, I’m hesitant to call the combat absolutely exhilarating, but it’s still fast paced and fluid enough to hold your interest the whole way through.
Of course, this being an RPG, you should expect some sort of player choice to be present. Thankfully, the game has an extensive skill tree that’s broken down into three categories. In the beginning, you’ll likely want to spend most of your points on melee combat simply because you’ll be in such situations so often, though acquiring skills and upgrades for stealth and Technomancy can help you avoid battles or add some variety to them. It’s regrettable that the stealth mechanics weren’t a bit deeper or more polished, though I was hardly expecting the next Thief or Splinter Cell.
The equippable weapons and armor here are nothing out of the ordinary for an RPG. There are very few of them, though, and the armor that I got halfway through served me until game’s end, albeit with a few attached add-ons every now and then. That’s right, there’s also a crafting system in place, which allows you to use gathered materials to craft upgrades for your gear or to craft your own health packs, bombs and nailgun ammo. While not the deepest thing ever, the element of resource management is welcome, and there’s some flexibility to the armor options, seeing as there’s no ‘best’ upgrade. Do you go for shoulder pads that give you more physical protection, or ones that give you health and mana (actually called ‘fluid’ for some reason) regeneration bonuses? Up to you.
The game brags about the aspect of player choice extending to the story, though it’s disappointingly limited here. The apex of narrative decision-making comes two thirds of the way through, when you’re asked to side with a specific faction and ultimately determine the ending. Otherwsie, the story progression is quite rigid. You’re allowed to pick a variety of responses to some of the questions, ranging from sincere to asshole-ish, but they don’t affect the plot in any major way. You also supposedly have the option of romancing the game’s various ladies, though outside of one arbitrary and rather immature opportunity for some shagging, the game is incredibly vague regarding how you go about forming a relationship.
It’s even more vague about its morality system, however. You have a morality meter that can be shifted toward ‘good’ or ‘evil’, though making it budge at all can prove difficult. One of the game’s more interesting features is the ability to extract Serum, the game’s currency, from downed enemies and kill them in the process. Doing so will align you with ‘evil’, which makes sense. Surely the easier, ‘quick and dirty’ path through life is more deplorable, right? Unfortunately, the game is easy enough that you’ll probably never need to do this. You can loot materials and items from unconscious enemies anyway, and because combat never evolves and you’ll probably get enough regen bonuses later on, even health and fluid packs lose much of their usefulness. I chose not to extract from a single person and picked more of the pleasant dialogue options, and yet I still carried the ‘neutral’ disposition for most of the game, until one perplexingly random point near game’s end where it suddenly changed to ‘good’.
So yes, the game feels strangely incomplete in some ways. You’ll run into your fair share of invisible walls, a few conversation options are missing their animations and simply skip to the next person’s response, and citizens won’t react in any way to fights going on just a few feet away from them. Amazingly though, the game is still entirely playable, devoid of any notable bugs or broken features. Although the game may have its low points, none of them become much more than mild annoyances or oddities, and in terms of gameplay, the journey is a smooth ride from the first minute. Before long I was absolutely hooked, scouring every corner for item crates, laying the beat down on alien moles and driving to get ‘just one last level up.’
Surprisingly, the game looks fantastic despite its shallow pockets, both graphically and artistically. The consistent steampunk look of the world oozes style and attitude from every corner, and it’s helped by a robust lighting engine, detailed texture work and some decent animations of both the body and facial variety. Little touches like the patter of Roy’s footsteps, the subdued soundtrack and the wind continually sweeping dust from the surface help to sell the game’s atmosphere. Mars felt tangible enough to lure me in, which is why its runtime of 12 hours or so left me longing for more. Not necessarily because it was short (it wasn’t), but because I wanted to learn more. Where do the Technomancers train and get their powers? How did the mutants come to be? How many other ironically named characters can the developers think up? All of these and more are questions that I’d love to see answered in a return trip to the red planet one day.
Mars: War Logs is a classic case of a game whose ambitions overreached its budget. The game has more cut corner than an OCD kid’s sandwich, ranging from spotty voice acting, underdeveloped gameplay features, and rushed story progression, all of which constantly remind you of the unfulfilled dreams of a dev team that simply didn’t have the time and money to make their lofty vision a reality.
But you know what? I was captivated nonetheless. A truly charming game, Mars: War Logs is so unabashedly confident in its goals and brimming with genuine effort that it’s easy to overlook its stumbles and focus on what it does well, namely its fleshed out world, endearing characters and fluid combat. It’s a completely playable and enjoyable game, one that I fervently recommend to anyone interested in the premise and which I hope will see its rich setting continually explored in future games. It may be rough around the edges, but bite through that crust and you’ll find a warm, gooey center within that will suck you in like one of Mars’ tornadoes.
Simply put, if you’re an RPG fanatic, go ahead and get your ass to Mars.
(I also look forward to the prequel, Mars: War Blogs, wherein the original space race to colonize Mars was fought by internet celebrities and their legions of blog followers.)
(Reviewed on PC. Review code provided by Focus Home Interactive. Many thanks.)