Mars: War Logs isn’t a great RPG, but it is at least the seed of one – and a seed with some surprisingly green shoots sticking out of it, given that it’s an attempt to pull off an epic in the style of Mass Effect or The Witcher 2 on a fraction of the budget. There’s a definite underdog charm to its 10 or so hours of overly ambitious action, and while it shoots for the moon and mostly misses, every now and again it lands a solid hit – especially during its regular arcade punch-ups.
You wouldn’t suspect it from the opening, though. MWL kicks things off not just clumsily, but as charmlessly as RPG openers get. It’s a sloppily translated time of war on Mars, and a young soldier named Innocence – yes, really – is about to be violently raped in his POW camp’s sand showers by a foul-mouthed fat man. Subtlety is not Mars: War Logs’ speciality. From that scene to the sledgehammer-like nature of the dialogue and the many characters with ironic “virtue” names like Morality and Charity.
Luckily for Innocence, (one of the few who actually lives up to his name,) his only role in MWL is to be its designated narrator – the War Logs of the title referring to his diary (despite Mars: War Diary being a much better name). The actual hero is a veteran called Roy who shows up to literally save his ass, and takes him under his wing. You may be wondering if Roy is a Man With a Mysterious Past™ of some kind, and will no doubt be shocked to know learn that the answer is yes. Such blatantly obvious reveals are for later though, once the two have fought their way back to a world where things are honestly little better than they were in jail, but at least a man can bathe in peace.
All of this is handled with fairly stock Western RPG design – questing by objective markers, lots of running around and backtracking, and levels split by doors into segments that increasingly exist to hold a gratuitous fight with bandits or soldiers. To its credit, the limited graphics and scope usually feel like a pure budgetary issue rather than a lack of care, representing a comprehensively designed world with some pleasant nuance now and again. Instead of going for pure black-and-white morality in the POW camp, for instance, there are friendly and sympathetic guards as well as militant types, with as many jerks amongst the prisoners as their sworn rivals.
Ignoring the actual introduction, the prison setting actually shows a lot of promise early on. Like Chronicles of Riddick, it’s a tight, controllable location that seems perfect for a game on a small budget, with scope for deals and alliances and dramatic escalation from the inevitable relics buried underneath it. Sadly, none of that actually happens, with the escape being ridiculously simple and only taking up the first third of the story. Not only is that a wasted opportunity, it also sees Mars: War Logs lose much of its focus, with the second act almost entirely about running errands for people, and fail to realize that shoving lore into a codex only works when it’s a complementary source to decent storytelling. Here, it’s ineffectively used as a replacement for giving players a reason to actually care about this universe. The relationship between Roy and Innocence is meant to do that, but both are too dull for it to work as it should.
The morality system is equally odd, starting with the fact that despite going out of my way to be a nice guy, my reputation never shifted from “Neutral.” Along with some straight evil choices, like stealing money you’re meant to deliver, there’s also a nonsensical mechanic where repeatedly smashing enemies in the back of the head with electrified crowbars, shooting them in the face with nailguns, running lighting through their bodies, or making them walk on exploding traps will only ever politely knock them out. Actually killing them (for bonus cash) is treated as an extra, karma-slapping step after the battle – not that you ever need to.
Most of the entertainment, therefore, ends up coming from unintentional places. Mars: War Logs plays itself very straight, wanting to tell a gritty, edgy story where writers need not fear F-bombing the scenery into craters, and elements like torture and politics can be its playthings. Fair enough, and it’s worked before. The trouble with going dark is that it only makes it funnier when, say, the hidden villain is revealed to be a Sith Lord – sorry, an evil “Technomancer” called… wait for it… “Sean.” Truly, a name that will strike terror into the hearts of all who oppose his authority.
MWL’s endless quest to make the Technomancers as out of place in this world as possible reaches its nadir with Mary, Darth Sean’s apprentice and winner of the hotly contested Worst Actor In The Game award. She’s terrible to the point that even other Technomancers likely end up with palm-shaped bruises across their faces after meeting her. Even those regular Technomancers are jarring to encounter − overt, albeit tool-using mages in a world that otherwise sticks to grounded industrial chic.
Their electricity powers do help jazz up combat, which is the rare part of MWL that isn’t simply acceptable, but excellent… if also unintentionally hilarious. It’s arcade style, with a real weight to attacks and enemies that are always threats – a case of mixing blocks and parries and special attacks like throwing sand into peoples’ eyes that later evolve into charging weapons with lightning and hurling shockwaves. A regular guard can still bring the pain, as wearing glasses means they’re immune to sand-blinding. Technomancers will throw up a melee-blocking electric shield. Others can only be hit from behind. In design and execution, it’s a system worthy of a much better RPG – and that RPG should also use MWL’s generous auto-saves, fast levelling, and vicious crafting system designed around bolting increasingly nasty bits onto base weapons like copper pipes.
The hilarity in combat comes from the fact that trying to have a straight-up fight is suicidal. Enemies do too much damage and there are usually too many to defend against, making survival a matter of constantly being on the move and using hit-and-run attacks. As a tactic, that’s fine, but it also looks utterly insane, with Roy spending whole battles rolling around enough to hint that the developers misunderstood when they were told to make a “roll”-playing game. During cutscenes, he’s a stoic; reserved and methodical. In battle, it’s like his martial arts training came from a dojo run by the Joker.
Even so, the combat is absolutely the highlight, with its only big issues being how easy it is to get pinned and the NPC companions’ useless A.I. It can’t, however, carry the entire game, and the appeal wears off long before the end. The first act is spent getting used to it, the second kicks off with the addition of Sith powers, but not long afterwards Mars: War Logs runs out of things to do except mix up its handful of enemy types a bit. That makes them more inconvenient, but rarely much harder.
This slide unfortunately comes along with the realization that the whole world is going to be as empty and ugly as the prison camp, and that the story losing what precious little momentum it ever had. An RPG already facing this much of an uphill climb simply can’t afford that trifecta before even its halfway point, and the point it starts getting back on track comes too late to fix the story or provide any sense that this is a world worth taking the last few hours to even try and save from itself.
While only the combat stands out as a true high-point, Mars: War Logs is at least an ambitious attempt at a budget RPG, in a much less overused setting than most. Silly Technomancers aside, it has all the pieces and ideas it needs to be something special – just not the writing chops or the raw resources needed to flesh them out to the level of the games it draws obvious inspiration from. The result is hard to recommend, with few diamonds to be found in the Martian rough. If you’re willing to settle for occasional agate or topaz though, there are just enough sparkles here and there.