With all the attention given to Mars lately – the Curiosity rover, the fantastical colonisation program that is floating around the Internet – it’s not a stretch to imagine a time when humans are not only living on Mars, but perhaps waging civil war across it.
Such is the situation in third-person action-RPG Mars: War Logs, the opening of which shows that ongoing hostilities between two factions have scarred not only the landscape of the red planet, but also the lives of those who inhabit it.
The game's narrator is the aptly though unsubtly named Innocence – a young, fresh-faced boy who was forced to join the army and now finds himself on his way to a prisoner of war camp somewhere in Mars' desert wastelands. Unfortunately for Innocence, a gang of thugs led by “The Fat Man” are waiting in the showers, ready to take his “innocence”. Cue the game’s smart-mouthed protagonist, Roy Temperance.
After saving Innocence, Roy hatches a plan to escape this sandy hell, an objective that takes him all over the POW camp and beyond. The narrative promises an ambitious game, with hints dropped about mysterious relics buried under Mars, as well as a savage long-held vendetta against Roy by an apprentice Technomancer at the POW camp. Unfortunately, War Logs drops these story tendrils early, and opts instead for the most obvious and predictable of plots.
The game’s tutorial system feels somewhat lacking in information, but its controls and combat commands are relatively streamlined and will be intuitive for regular RPG players. Character development comes in the form of a skill tree system similar to that of The Witcher, as well as via special unlockable skills that grant things like bonus experience points for kills. Along with dialogue options, these offer some amount of character progression, even if it is obvious from a particular locked skill tree where the plot is headed.
Resources are scarce on Mars, so obtaining a new Rusty Metal Pipe or Ripped Prison Uniform is an unusually exciting achievement. The game's environment of desperation and oppression is further reinforced by a distinct lack of heath packs or other supplies. However, weapons and armour are both upgradeable using bits of scrap metal or bone found around the world in gently glowing supply boxes or rubble piles, as are items such as health injections and ammo.
Combat is simple and fun at first, but thanks to a very steep difficulty curve it soon becomes somewhat comical and frustrating. Tackling groups of thugs or monsters head-on becomes suicide, so in order to survive Roy must spend entire fights rolling around in the dust past enemies, resorting to hit and run tactics. Frustration compounds when the player is forced to battle enemies in narrow spaces like corridors, as Roy has a habit of getting stuck on environmental assets, and the camera refuses to face the action when he steps anywhere near a wall.
Luckily, most large fights occur directly after an auto save masquerading as a door-opening sequence, which is just as well as the companion AI is pretty unhelpful. Although their tactics may be adjusted by the player (“Attack ranged opponents first”, “Attack closest opponent first”, and so on), companions rarely stay conscious until the end of a fight, their signature move appearing to be “Get mobbed by enemy, pass out”. Once combat is over they do resurrect, but they never level up and their weapon and armour cannot be upgraded, which feel like sadly missed opportunities.
The graphical component of War Logs is very impressive given the small budget Spiders had to work with. Faces and clothes have been treated with care, and the landscape is richly imagined despite the necessity of a red sand palette. Unfortunately, the game’s voice acting is mainly monotone and listless, and there is a preponderance of clones, who have a tendency to flock together.
It’s unfair to compare a small downloadable title with similar triple-A productions, but what can be said is that perhaps in crafting such an ambitious title, Spiders Studio simply bit off more than it could chew. While some aspects of Mars: War Logs are outstanding by any measure, it stumbles on the finer points of storytelling, character development, and overall polish. Perhaps more time or a larger budget would have made the difference here.