Mars: War Logs opens with narration from a young soldier named Innocence, explaining the colonization of Mars and the subsequent battle for resources, getting shipped off to a prison camp across the Red Planet. He discusses the horror of war and fear that pervades the citizens of Mars. Once he arrives there, he is accosted almost immediately by an overweight man best known for raping the new inmates. However, Innocence is saved in the nick of time by Roy, the player-controlled character of the story and intimidating longtime member of the prison population. This narrative bait-and-switch is the first of several excellent ideas of Mars: War Logs, and one of the only ones executed with perfection.
The worldbuilding of Mars: War Logs is handled quite well. There’s no overt exposition, nor does the game dabble in excessive cutscenes spoon-feeding dollops of story to the player. Rather, the universe is steadily unearthed through the natural flow of the story. The overarching narrative involves factions warring over water on Mars, and the aftermath of a large-scale conflict between them. Their enforcers, the evil Technomancers who derive magical abilities from their own essence, take a particular interest in our protagonists as they make their escape from the prison camp and begin forming a resistance.
The actual narrative flow and plot progression of Mars: War Logs is charmingly corny, painting broad archetypal strokes in such a manner that it’s not entirely clear whether it’s reverential or derivative. Characters have “virtue” names such as Innocence and Temperance (with the main character of course casting off his title in lieu of a real name, Roy). The actual dialogue is generally good, well-acted, and has a sort of endearing B-movie feel that makes the experience engaging enough to see through to the end. At times, the “less is more” approach to the narrative gets pushed a bit too hard and it would have been nice to see just a little bit more in that department.
An action/RPG with elements borrowed from Knights of the Old Republic and several action games, Mars: War Logs manages to pull together a lot of different ideas in its gameplay, with varying levels of success. The actual combat system is serviceable, if not groundbreaking. Roy can attack with his weapon, perform a guard-breaking punch, or use a variety of Technomancer powers including blasts of energy or electricity. The system is fairly fast, and feels exciting when the combatants get into a good groove of blocking and counterattacking. There’s also the ability to slow down the game as the skill wheel comes up, so you can call forth various abilities or issue partner commands on the fly. Developer Spiders has some very talented animators on hand, as these combat sequences stand out as some of the best-looking in the game. Roy also has the ability to throw sand into most enemies’ faces (excluding, in a good twist, enemies wearing goggles or masks) to help with crowd control. However, it’s when the Technomancer powers enter the mix, a few hours into the game, that things get really exciting. The powers look great, feel badass, and are a solid addition to the combat sequences.
There is a crafting system in place where weapons and armor can be upgraded with scraps of material found around the world, and it works out, adding cosmetic as well as stat bonuses. Health and Fluid (basically mana) injections can also be crafted, but they come at the cost of Serum, which has the dual role of both the life force of Man and the currency of Mars. Unfortunately, there aren’t nearly enough cool items to actually upgrade, so you’ll be spending several hours with one weapon or outfit because nothing else comes along.
There are also branching dialogue systems, which for the most part are executed well. There is that aforementioned corny dialogue, which, again, contains no shortage of charm. Whether it was intentional or not, most of the conversations are pulpy and entertaining, particularly when Roy gets truly creative with his threats (including something along the lines of attaching an explanation to his foot and pushing it so far up the other man’s rear it comes out of his mouth). Sometimes, reacting negatively to a character will halt quest progression until you can sweet-talk them into opening up again, so always take caution in a potentially volatile situation, even if 90% of vocal confrontations can eventually be resolved through fighting.
There is a bit of a Karma system in place, though it’s not altogether noticeable and doesn’t seem to do a whole lot. The biggest way to affect comes after an enemy is defeated, when Roy has the option to harvest the man’s Serum. While harvesting Serum from enemies will pay dividends, it has the long-term effect of making Roy an evil character. This does seem to open up different dialogue choices, new story beats and even grants some bonuses, but it didn’t feel like there was enough feedback from some of the other characters, particularly Innocence.
Finally, this wouldn’t be an RPG without skill trees and leveling up. There are three separate trees here: one for combat, one for Technomancer skills, and one Renegade tree which contains things such as health, stealth, and sand throwing. Each separate skill has another three tiers. For example, the Parry skill’s first tier allows for parrying, while the second and third widen the attacks that can be parried or increase the time-window for doing so. Some of the skills aren’t that great, but several are a lot of fun to use, particularly when it comes to Technomancer powers.
Mars: War Logs boasts a strong art style that becomes neither too excessive nor elaborate. Character models look sharp and distinctive, and the settlements of Mars look grungy and well-worn without appearing to be trying to do so. It’s restrained in its style, but does enough to feel different. The Silk engine doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it looks clean, runs smoothly and isn’t hard on the eyes.
The recurring problem of Mars: War Logs is not due to technical issues (which are largely nonexistent) or poor design (because it’s not). It’s the fact that some of the best ideas stop just short of true innovation. This results in a slightly underdeveloped feel; there is a solid crafting system in place, but not very many items to craft; the stealth system feels like an afterthought; locales are artistically expressive, but feel empty for the lack of interactive NPCs. The reach of developer Spiders seems, just slightly, to exceed its grasp. The ambition is impressive, and it would be very interesting to see where a sequel might go.
Mars: War Logs is generally pleasant and unoffensive, but also unmemorable. On paper, this game has a lot of really cool ideas, but they’re framed in generally derivative game design and gameplay elements that just don’t seem to go far enough to be truly compelling. On the other hand, it’s built a great foundation for a potentially stellar sequel. As it stands, Mars: War Logs is a good-quality game worth a look for the budget price. You just might not remember it a year from now.
Mars: War Logs was developed by Spiders and published by Focus Home Interactive. A PC copy of the game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.