A word of caution, this game opens with a fairly harsh sequence in which a large ugly man attempts (and fails) to rape a new inmate in their prisoner of war camp. It’s horribly written, cliche and akin to some of the worst prison dramas you will ever see. The language used is foul and visceral and a jeering crowd of onlookers don’t help the matter. If you can stomach this as a scene setting exercise and move past it you will find that nothing else in the game is even remotely as nasty. If you can’t then I would suggest that this is not the game for you.
When I first saw screenshots of Mars War Logs I was immediately attracted to the game based on a childhood obsession with the novel Dune by Frank Herbert. This seemed like a similarly gritty, washed out future where the game makers could go a little crazy and the idea of that wrapped up in a package similar to Dragon Age Origins had me hooked. I didn’t play it right away though, I looked at the price of the game on Playstation Network and decided to wait for it to go on sale. I’m glad that I did because after launch and some less than positive reviews it went down to less than half its original price and I was able to snap it up at a bargain. What I discovered was a deeply interesting if flawed game.
Graphically Mars War Logs is nothing to write home about, it uses an engine that may or may not be the same as the one used for Dragon Age Origins for similar results and displays characters who look alright but move more like dolls than humans overall. This is only really a problem when conversing or in cut-scenes however, because when exploring or in combat the character models look fine. The whole game makes the brave choice to feature a washed out red to its palette that most would consider harsh. It’s designed to make the game look like it reflects the harsh red of the planets light and dirt and overall it meshes well with the steel grays, black leather and browns that most of the characters wear. It separates this RPG from anything else on the market and accompanied by some interesting design choices for clothing and monsters the whole thing has a Mad Max vibe of cobbled together life on Mars.
Sound is interesting, when the game was released the audio was deemed to bad in early reviews that the Spiders, the studio that made it went back and re-recorded every scrap of dialogue and re-wrote the script to sound better. Its a level of dedication post-release that goes above and beyond putting out DLC to fix bugs or change the ending after negative responses from fans. I never played the original dub because of my later purchase date but the new one is acted well and has all the gritty charm of hard characters trying to survive a hard world. The soundtrack is available free to download from the games website, which is a nice addition, and features all 44 original tracks composed for the game. Written by Sylvain Pruiner they are full of deep haunting moments and do an excellent job of setting this game apart from the more standard fantasy fare, these pieces use every trick in the book to scream science fiction at you, though some are better than others.
The story of Mars War Logs is solid and goes beyond being simply functional to add layers of depth to the setting on multiple occasions. If you get past the initial ‘rape’ sequence the game settles into a style for its first act that outclasses prison based dramas such as ‘Orange is the New Black’ by making everybody who is on site equally likable and dis-likable. The guards are there because they can’t be at the front, some like it others don’t but many are regular people with their own problems. Prisoners are captives from the opposing side which names its people after virtues and who can be more horrible to their fellows than the guards if pushed, then there’s the working class of mutant outcasts that both parties shun. The setup in the first hour alone is dynamic (if foul-tongued) and believable. You are introduced to Innocence, a young man new to the camp who gets off to a bad start in the sand showers but is rescued by Roy, a fellow prisoner who has ditched his virtue name for survival’s sake. Roy is the central character of the story but we lean about him as Innocence does, giving both real plot significance and allowing the game to surprise us occasionally. Roy has a past, he’s tough and pulls jobs for prisoners and guards alike. Better still he has an escape plan, and this will be how you spend the first third of the game, getting used to your prison and getting out. I half expected the game to end there but instead it opened up into a bigger city, then later the out-lands and finally an assault on a citadel. The game is much bigger and more involved than I had reason to expect for such a low cost and the story does a good job of keeping the player coming back to see what happens next.
Gameplay fares very well, with the action orientated combat mechanic working perfectly for fights against mobs of enemies, which you will be facing more often than not, you are not the majority here. Basic attacks fall into a standard swing that deals immediate damage or a kick that breaks guards that would otherwise prevent your standard attack working. A special throws sand into the face of any attacker with exposed eyes, stunning them and leaving them open, but more importantly taking them out of the fight when your surrounded by multiple targets and taking a hammering from all sides. Other specials can be learned and leveled up from a skill tree, this includes passive bonuses for foraging and experience gain as well as broadening range, scope and damage of attacks. By the end of the game for example my throw sand ability was wide enough to stun multiple foes in one more and lasted long enough for me to finish off at least one of them who had escaped this move. You get a ranged weapon that could potentially break combat an hour or two into the game, but ammunition is scarce at first and needs to be forged from scraps you harvest, balancing it out as risk/reward use. I saved it for the non-human Mole monsters, which couldn’t be stunned and swarmed your position at speed.
Harvesting items also falls into the games sub quest and item creation system that sees you make your own weapons and armour as you scrounge for parts. This is the perfect fit for the prison setting and continues to work once freed because of plot factors I won’t dig into now in fear of spoilers. Everything has a definite 80s science fiction inclination when it comes to your wardrobe with leather and bone jackets for that Mad Max vibe or more practical hazard suit inspired uniforms for that touch of Alien. Finding a new metal means shaping it to fit the body, arms, legs or part of a weapon you’ve been meaning to upgrade and soon you find the hassle of scrounging up parts quite rewarding.
You get to choose a class from Warrior, Renegade and Technomage at the games outset which have some bearing on where you will want to specialize, but its worth mentioning that these three have very different approaches to combat and the Renegade’s ‘hang back and lay traps’ method works well but gets dull quickly whilst the Technomage powers are available to everyone after a point but reload far more quickly and deal more damage. I chose the warrior class because I knew that in a prison setting I’d have to club somebody to death at some point and never regretted it. The game alters slightly plot-wise to accommodate this choice and many others as you move through it, but I personally felt that there were only really two bottle-neck decisions that had a major impact on the games outcomes. Where the game impressed the most was in its currency system. After killing an enemy you can extract a fluid from the corpse that killed your foe but could be bartered with, doing so raises your ‘bad’ rep and I found that it wasn’t necessary to use even once if you completed enough side-quests to purchase what you wanted.
Overall Mars War Logs is a solid game, far from epic in scope and a little rough around the edges. The use of an adult tone and themes is well judged for the most part but overdone in the opening to the point many gamers will turn it off and never come back. Some plot elements (especially the ending) are rushed through and the game does leave you with a ‘is that it?’ moment when the finale builds and builds then ends with a conversation instead of the epic boss fight you had in mind and would have prepped for. Some of the romance options are also a bit rushed, one in particular you’ve only just met when the optional mission reads ‘get to know her better’ as if duration of time spent with her was unimportant. To the games credit once you choose a romance option the others are locked out to prevent girl-hopping, and the actual ‘love sequences’ are tasteful ‘pull-away and assume’ fare. I’d have liked to give Mars War Logs a higher score but in truth its a title that does what you expect of it. People hoping for a science-fiction Dragon Age Origins will be disappointed and people hoping for a space opera can look elsewhere, this is hard-boiled sci-fi that dares you to play or get out. Sadly most did. Hopefully the game will see a sequel that builds on its fantastic combat and item crafting mechanics whilst pushing the boat out a little more in other directions.