"Imagine releasing your earliest beta as the final product."
Spiders is the sort of developer I hope has success in the industry because they make the sort of games I like to play and are an underdog in a world of giants. Essentially attempting to emulate studios like BioWare, but with a fraction of their budget, they've crafted a number of action RPGs over the past few years that try to include many of the same features you'll find in the average Dragon Age or Mass Effect title. Choices that have an effect upon the direction of the plot, lots of characters whose moral code falls into one of many shades of grey and so on.
Thanks to PlayStation Now, I can access a number of their games and, from what I've read, their most recent addition to that service, GreedFall, is considered pretty good, even if it doesn't quite reach the level of Spiders' inspirations. However, for a smaller company not possessing tons of resources, the road to respectability does have its share of potholes. In the case of 2013's Mars: War Logs, those potholes dominate the road to the degree one could be excused for wondering if any pavement still exists. There was just enough potential to keep me wanting to play on to see how things would end, but all the potential in the world can't quite make up for how very little works like it should.
If anything does legitimately work, it's the game's premise. As one might guess from the title, the action takes place on Mars. The red planet has been colonized by Earth, but things gradually went wrong, setting up a situation where the Mars residents are basically on their own and have splintered into a handful of guilds constantly in conflict over the planet's scant supply of water.
As the action starts, you'll watch Innocence, a young soldier who more than lives up to his name, finding himself on the losing end of one skirmish in one such conflict. His punishment: To be held in the opposing side's prison camp. His fate: As a young man of slight build, to be prison raped by the more brutish captives.
Fortunately for us all, Innocence isn't the actual protagonist. That would be Roy, who hits all the notes to be a proper, generic anti-hero. With his gruff voice, blunt personality and no real goal beyond escaping this jail, he might not seem the most likely person to be Innocence's savior, but after one brutal tutorial fight beat-down to the leader of the lad's aggressors, the two form a partnership to find a way out of their predicament.
Which they do after an hour or two of playing. At which point, we skip forward in time to when the two men make it back to Innocence's hometown. By now, that whole conflict between the two water-hoarding guilds has ended, but there still is a good bit of turmoil and conflict in the area, as the leadership of our characters' "home team" is up to some shady business. Innocence is set on joining a resistance movement to overthrow the guild, but Roy also is being recruited by a guild general who views himself as the man who can reform that organization from within. And with how multiple characters seem to feel the resistance is composed of a bunch of naive idiots who might have hopes and dreams, but no idea how to actually run anything, he might be the best choice, even if he's cut from the same cloth as the current boss.
I found this to be an intriguing premise. Science fiction-based RPGs are still a lot less common than those taking place in medieval or fantasy worlds, so I didn't get any sort of "been there, played that" vibe while going through Mars: War Logs, which helped keep me interested in seeing what would happen next. Also, Spiders did a really good job of showing how a planet's events are far larger than one person, no matter how tough they are in combat. The big water feud between guilds is resolved off-screen and, as Roy, you'll spend a lot of this game either trying to escape the jail or merely looking for allies in a city while being constantly pursued by bounty hunters, soldiers and random hoodlums.
Sadly, about the only other real positive about this game is its brevity. A person can beat Mars: War Logs in about 10 hours, give or take, and that's a big positive. If this was one of those games lasting 40 or more hours, there's no way I would have been able to stomach all its flaws. It was tough to endure them for as long as I did.
This game controls super-awkwardly. I was expecting this to a degree, as Spiders is a smaller company with a lower budget and if there's one thing I've noticed about Western RPGs in general, it's that they are tricky to build. Even the best titles from the biggest companies tend to have all sorts of glitches and issues, so what chance does a smaller company have in creating something where everything works perfectly? Still, there was a huge divide between my expectations and the sad reality. In combat, Roy moves like a tank. You have the basic controls including melee and ranged combat and the abilities to lock onto enemies and dodge attacks via rolling and then you'll get into a confrontation and things just won't work correctly. My main problem was with anything involving evasion. Sometimes, I'd either try to run away or roll and the controls simply wouldn't cooperate and I'd be stuck watching Roy stand there like a big idiot while getting bashed by lead pipes. And then I'd try the fight again and get through it with minimal difficulty.
That combat issue was a problem throughout the entire game and really turned its simplistic battling into a recurring source of frustration, but if a person can ignore minor details like "the controls don't always work when you need them to", there are all sorts of other issues ready to make damn sure your experience is marred.
You have all these features such as a crafting system, a morality meter and so on, but in a game this short, they feel more like things placed into it because they are always in games like this. You'll likely want to utilize them simply due to how they benefit Roy, but they're really simplistic and don't really add much to your playing experience. The plot might be pretty cool, but so much of the dialogue comes off as the sort of "fake-edgy" stuff you'd expect from inexperienced writers trying to emulate action movie characters in dystopian worlds, which sometimes makes it hard to take things overly seriously because the script gets too cliched.
Other things were more amusing than anything else. Early in the game, you'll spend some time with a jail officer who is in charge of handing out jobs to prisoners. On your first trip to his room, you'll get a brief cutscene with him talking to another inmate, who will stay in this room for the entirety of the section of the game. You see, he was programmed to be in the cutscene and then completely forgotten about by the programmers, so his model never will disappear, even if you can't interact with him.
And other decisions were just mind-boggling. For the entire jail chapter, you'll play this game as a straight-up physical combatant, able to improve your character by unlocking level-up bonuses in two skill trees -- one for pure melee and one for an assortment of things including ranged weapons, stealth and improved healing. After leaving jail and arriving at the city, you'll now have access to a third skill tree for Technomancer abilities that allow you to cast various electrical-based spells. This gives you a choice: Do you continue to build Roy along the lines of how you had been doing for his first few levels, or do you make an abrupt about-face in order to power up those spells in hopes that they'll be worthwhile additions to his repertoire eventually?
Or, let's talk about companions. Innocence and a few other characters can join Roy in combat, but they'll likely be of very limited use. If you regularly make good-aligned dialogue choices and steadfastly refuse to kill fallen foes to obtain more goods, you might unlock a skill that makes them more competent on the battlefield. Until then, get used to watching them get beaten down quickly whenever you go against any remotely competent foe, leaving Roy alone. These guys are basically Dark Souls NPC summons without the durability to at least make them useful distractions.
I could go on, but you get the point. Mars: War Logs intrigued me with the potential of its premise and then spent nearly all of its short run time making me feel like a fool -- both for being intrigued and for continuing to look for silver linings. The combat was clunky and didn't always work like it was supposed to, while all sorts of lesser flaws popped up regularly to remind me that this was the dollar store version of a good game. I was able to see the skeleton of that good game hidden deep down in there, but it was so well-hidden that the entire thing probably would need rebuilt in order to unearth it.
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (October 16, 2020)
Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.
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