Mars: War Logs Review: High Expectations, Moderate Results

After watching the trailer and listening to some of the banter in the office relaying nothing but excitement for this title prior to its release, I had high hopes for Mars: War Logs going in. But after beating the ten hour campaign and experiencing much of what the game has to offer, I can say that developer Spiders bit off more than they could chew when creating this sci-fi RPG.

The game stars Roy Temperance, a prisoner of war at Camp 19 during a power struggle between two factions, Aurora and Abundance, over the limited amount of water available on a colonized Mars. After a new batch of captured soldiers are delivered to the facility, Roy befriends one named Innocence by beating senseless a thug that tries to rape him. With his new-found partner, the two attempt to escape prison and survive the battle-scarred world outside the camp.

And that’s the only part of the story I could really follow. The narrative gets confusing halfway through when more factions are introduced and the government and political affiliations come into play. Near the end of the game, I didn’t even really understand who I was fighting or exactly why, only that they stood between me and my end goal, which, looking back, I didn’t understand what that was either. The story felt like a cheap excuse to have players beat up enemies, and, at times, the character dialogue was nothing short of perplexing. For instance, take the opening line of the game, narrated by Innocence: “I never thought I’d end up in the middle of the war, but I didn’t really understand how.” It’s nonsensical elements like this that make up a large portion of the overall story, resulting in my lack of interest in the narrative by the end. It didn’t help that the voice acting is sub-par either. On top of that, nearly every character in the game is named after some personality trait. Besides Roy Temperance and Innoncence, I ran into Charity, Faith, Courtesy, Sobriety, Honor, Serenity, and several more. The reason characters are named this way is never explained and only furthered my confusion.

Possibly worse than the dialogue and story is the character development and progression. Without spoiling anything, on more than one instance, I met a main enemy at the beginning of a 30-second cutscene only to have them ask to partner up with me and join my cause by the end. The transition characters experience of going from one end of the spectrum to the other in terms of their relationship with me was jarring and felt anything but realistic.

MaryThankfully, the game features some redeeming qualities that make it a bit unique. The game offers plenty of significant choices Roy must make throughout the narrative, changing the story in interesting ways. This adds plenty of replay value to the game, but I wonder who will care enough about the story to run through the game more than once to see how their choices affect the story’s conclusion. After defeating enemies by knocking them out in combat, Roy can either leave them alone or finish them off by absorbing Serum from their bodies with a special tool. By finishing them, players can use extracted Serum to craft what are essentially health and mana potions, but your reputation worsens with every kill, affecting how characters react to you. Forcing players to choose between instant gratification or long-term benefit sounds great in practice, but the only real drawback to slaying your foes is that merchants will sell items to you at a steeper price. In my experience, the pros of taking the Serum of fallen foes to craft some much-needed health injections far outweighed the cons of having some salesman be upset with me.

Concerning RPG elements, you’ve got your typical leveling and crafting system. Upon gaining a level, Roy can put two points into one of three skill trees highlighting either combat, rogue abilities such as stealth, or Technomancy (which is essentially magic). Tiers in each tree unlock independently as you progress, forcing players to choose their skills carefully. On top of that, Roy gets a single feat point every level gain, which players can use to enhance non-combat skills. The crafting system is pretty straightforward; you can recycle unwanted items for parts to craft new items and armor, letting players customize their offensive and defensive gear. While the leveling system worked well in true RPG fashion, the crafting system would have been more fun to use if the user interface wasn’t so tedious to navigate. It’s not fun to craft when you have to click through three menus to create a single item at a time.

What doesn’t work so well is the combat. In a near-future cyberpunk setting on the red planet, you would think most weapons would be high-tech firearms like plasma guns or something. Not in Mars: War Logs. Everyone–including the military; you know, the guys that fight in wars–beat each other with clubs and steel bars like dystopian cavemen. Prepare to experience more melee combat than any sci-fi RPG should ever contain. When you do get a hold of a firearm, it’s a semi-automatic nail gun. That’s right; when trained soldiers aren’t smashing each others’ skulls in with tire irons, they’re taking pot shots at their enemies with power tools. The whole outdated combat mechanic feels out of place when you’re playing a futuristic game located on Mars, of all places.

CrossbowThe combat itself feels solid when it works, but sluggish and clunky when it doesn’t, which is most of the time. When taking swings at a bad guy, I felt like Roy’s attacks were always a move behind my input. Nearly every time I died I felt cheated, like it was the game’s fault I was killed and not my own. It doesn’t help that your AI partners aren’t worth anything but to use as bait to distract one half the opponents while you deal with the other. Using your electric Technomancy powers is fun, but when shooting a metal nail at someone damages them more than a bolt of lightning, you can’t help feeling disappointed. Using the lock-on camera to deal with a choice opponent sounds like a good move to make, but the system is so finicky that I often died trying to get it to work before I could lock on to anyone. I’d stay away from it.

For all my nuances with the game, I think Mars: War Logs’ most redeeming feature lies in its aesthetics. The animations, graphics, and overall visual style look and feel great for a game with low production values, a testament to Spiders’ artistic skill. At a glance, it would be easy to mistake this title for a AAA game. While the lip synching animations could use some definite work,  the game as a whole has a visual polish to it the developers should be proud of.

In the end, I wouldn’t say Mars: War Logs is a bad game. But it’s not much of a good game either. That’s not to say it couldn’t be one. The developers clearly have a lot of talent, but the pieces of this puzzle didn’t come together in the way they–or I–hoped they would. If Spiders can improve every faulty facet of Mars: War Logs just a notable amount, a sequel to this game could be one worth paying attention to.