One look at Mars: War Logs, and you wouldn’t be blamed for dismissing it immediately as a low budget, cliche ridden knock off of much better sci fi RPGs like Mass Effect. Certainly, the game goes out of its way to establish that illusion- from the low budget graphics, to the horrible voice acting, to names for characters that wouldn’t be out of place in the cheesiest JRPG (such as Innocence and Morality- no, really), to hell, even the name of the game itself, you can’t be blamed for thinking this isn’t a game worth your time.
The problem is, appearances can be very deceiving. Mars: War Logs is not a great RPG. It’s not even a good RPG. It is, in every sense of the word, thoroughly mediocre. However, what it does have is ambition, lots of it, and a whole lot of potential too. Playing Mars: War Logs is an exercise in heartbreak, as you see so many great ideas, and just wish that the developer had had a bigger budget to be able to fully realize its vision.
Take, for example, the story of the game. Whereas the immediate narrative of the game is quite the collection of cliches, rife with prisoners of war, shady characters with ambiguous motives, and a giant organization you thought was good, but turns out to be evil, the actual lore of the game is brilliant. I would not mind reading a science fiction book set within this game’s universe, presuming it was well written, because the lore is just so imaginative and well thought out.
The game takes place on the surface of a war ravaged Mars. Some time in the past, there was a great, cataclysmic event referred to only as The Turmoil, which resulted in Mars being cut off from Earth. The planet’s population, now abandoned, lives in a state of perpetual warfare (or the potential of it), given the alarmingly dwindling scarce water resources of the planet, controller by four guilds. The guilds are at war with each other a lot (including during the game, when Aurora, the guild the main character comes from, is at war with Abundance, the oldest water guild on the planet).
It’s an interesting setting, and an interesting idea. Nothing here is new, of course, per se, but this specific amalgamation of ideas is certainly something that hasn’t been seen before. It also opens up a world of exciting possibilities for storytelling, with a lot of political intrigue and exposition to boot. The sad part, then, is, that the game itself never actually delivers on the promise of its initial ideas. What we are left with is a rather run of the mill story of trying to take down an organization once thought benevolent, but revealed to be evil.
It’s not like the characters themselves are any better either. Roy, the main character, feels like a derivative of Marcus Fenix, a prisoner of war with a mysterious past, while Innocence, his NPC companion and the narrator of the titular War Logs (referred to in game as War Diaries), lives up this name, and again, recalls Japanese character archetypes.
Bafflingly enough, these JRPG stereotypes are completely at odds with a game that is trying to be as ‘western’ as possible, in everything from its dialog, its insistence on explosions, a story that is trying to shock the player using twists that are supposed to make the player think, and the battle system itself.
The battle system… the combat at the heart of this game is brilliant, another of those sparks of genuine greatness in this game. The battles are heavily reliant on melee, which is just as well, because it feels great, and every attack feels like it has the sufficient amount of heft and weight behind it. This great melee, and the game’s inclusion of some staple RPG conventions like a Tactics menu, and of course, a set of Dungeons and Dragons inspired Feats, leads to battles feeling pretty good.
They’re promoted from being ‘pretty good’ to ‘a whole lot of fun’ because of Technomancy. Technomancy is this game’s stand in for magic. Roy, the main character, was once a Technomancer, and a whole lot of your enemies are Technomancers too. They can use a full range of Star Wars like electric attacks, that bring on the pain, and they can even put on melee blocking shields, that require a change of tactics. The enemies are also pretty brutal and ruthless, incessantly making your life difficult, and making you roll your way around, trying to dodge attacks and land in a blow. You get access to Technomancy yourself, although it is not available to you from the get go.
As hectic as things can get in battles, and as harsh as the enemy AI can be, it’s pretty good then that you don’t have to look after your NPC companions. They don’t die in battle, they are just knocked out and return fully recovered once the battle has ended. This means that that’s one thing less you need to worry about, and you can just focus on the battles without worrying about the companion AI dragging you down.
Combat genuinely feels visceral and fun, and it gets better, as you craft increasingly better (and more and more improbably makeshift) weapons, by bolting on parts on top of your base weapons. The combat has heft to it, it has genuine weight, and it just feels great.
It’s just as well then, that most of the game is combat. A large part of the time will be spent just battling enemies, although if you ever do get tired, stealth is a (not altogether viable) alternative.
There’s a genuine spark of greatness in Mars: War Logs, but the game as a whole is let down by its poor story and characterization, by its confusing morality system that is altogether ineffective, and on the whole, by a budget that clearly wasn’t enough to do the game’s vision justice. Whereas casual players should probably stay away from this one, RPG veterans should check the game out and give it a spin, if only to see the genuinely brilliant ideas at the game’s core. Mars: War Logs isn’t exactly a good game, but I have hopes that the next one, if there is a next one, given more time and a bigger budget, will be able to realize all the potential and promise oat the heart of this game.
This game was reviewed on PC.