While there is no shortage of fantasy RPGs to choose from, there are scant few sci-fi based action RPGs currently capturing mind share for gamers. Ask any gamer to name an action-based RPG set in space and you’ll likely hear Mass Effect as the only response. With Mars: War Logs, the development team Spiders takes a crack at telling a compelling sci-fi story spun from its own unique mix of characters, conversations and combat.
In past games like Of Orcs and Men, Spiders has not shied away from mature themes. Mars: War Logs is no different. Initially set in a prison camp, things kick off right away with Roy Temperance defending a young soldier, Innocence, from being sexually assaulted by a grossly overweight prisoner. Setting the tone with this early encounter, Roy and Innocence form a unique friendship and begin working together to plot an escape, while fighting off rabid dogs and angry “friends” of the fat guy. A larger explanation of the world unfolds as Roy and Innocence talk to various inmates and prison guards and set actions in motion for their escape.
Gameplay is a mix of quests, which are offered via conversations with various NPCs in the world, and action based real-time combat. Quests range from collecting items, resolving conflicts, and learning more about certain members who join in the cause. Item fetching quests are generally simple to fulfill because anything worth picking up has a glowing shimmer to highlight it from the rest of the environment. Most conflicts that require resolution allow players to choose from a good or bad option. Being able to make choices is always good in an RPG, but one disappointing aspect to the morality system here is the fact that some actions don’t necessarily inform the player whether or not a good or bad resolution has been made. Learning more about certain party members is based upon the actions you take in resolving conflicts. While some party members want to see your character perform honorable actions, others seem to open up only after you act like an evil jerk.
Not knowing whether further conversations will open up with a party member based on good or evil actions is a bit frustrating. While I played through the game trying to be good, I found that at one point my reputation had gone from good to neutral and there was no indication in a quest as to which of my actions lowered my reputation. To add to the confusion, nothing is clearly explained as to what can be done to increase the reputation again.
Aside from completing quests, the game focuses squarely on combat. During battle, opening a tactics menu allows players to slow the action and utilize special abilities not mapped to an open/unused button or key. Unfortunately, tactical options aren’t as robust as one might expect from this type of game. Abilities can’t be chained together and control of the other party members is limited to four basic commands: attack nearest enemy, attack ranged enemies, hold defensive posture, or attack Roy’s target. Combat consists of a mix of melee brawling, firing a nail gun and, after the first act of the game, casting Technomancy spells. Adding bonus variables to combat can be done by modifying weapons and armor. Learning how each enemy type attacks is key in combat as, for example, some enemies can only be defeated by attack from behind. Stunning enemies and dodge rolling away from attacks allow for most enemies to be dispatched with relative ease.
Combat is further enhanced by a three-way skill tree which branches out from melee/ranged combat, stealth and Technomancy. Unfortunately, though, once a skill has been selected there is no way to reset it and even though two skill points unlock each time Roy levels up, there is no way to effectively put points in more than one skill branch without losing some of the better bonuses that become available deeper into the skill tree. To add to the problem of choosing the best skill tree to put points in, Technomancy doesn’t even become available until a third of the game is complete. The game almost punishes choice by either forcing a player to put points in a skill tree that doesn’t offer much help until all points are spent in that tree, or not spend any points in a tree until all three branches are available. If anyone chooses the latter option, I can’t help but think that combat would be rather difficult. I leveled this same complaint toward Game of Thrones and Of Orcs and Men: why not allow players an option to reset skill points? More often than not putting points into one area may seem like a good idea until a better weapon power comes along later where those skill points may further boost attack, but without an option to respec, some gamers may have to slog through a second or third playthrough in order to see how each skill tree works out.
Not that Mars: War Logs isn’t a game worth replaying, there just aren’t enough variations in conversations or quests to make revisiting the campaign multiple times over all that worthwhile. After I finished the game I did load a save point from about halfway in where the choice I picked clearly intended two distinct outcomes. Without spoiling either choice, I have to say that I’m glad I went back and played through the second option to see what differences occurred. Spiders did not mess around with the severe shift in dramatic outcomes between the choices. One outcome led to a relatively pleasing path which eventually ended on an upbeat note. The second outcome was as dark as I’ve ever seen and definitely left me questioning if I had selected that option initially if I would have stopped right then and loaded my save to experience the better outcome.
Characters in Mars: War Logs matter and the fact that one crucial branching point could affect my choice in how I would’ve played the game so drastically, says a lot about the investment I had with the story and characters. While there are times when the quests feel overly fetchy and the combat a little unbalanced, the details that Spiders put into the world make the experience worthwhile. Mars: War Logs clearly has its ups and downs, but overall Spiders has put together another solid story and character driven role-playing game. For fans of action RPGs, the good outweighs the bad enough to make this trip to the Red Planet worth considering.
+ Unique characters
+ Broadly different outcomes play out based on choices made
+ Interesting armor and weapon upgrade system
+ Fun combat
– Reputation system isn’t well defined
– Skill tree can’t be reset
– Some side quests feel more like busy work
Platform: PC (also coming to PSN and XBLA)
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Release Date: 4/26/2013
Genre: Action RPG
Source: Review code provided by publisher