Mars: War Logs makes no attempt to hide what it is. It’s employment of every bog-standard WRPG trope makes that immediately clear. There’s your cypher for marginalized minorities (mutants in this case), oversimplified companion romancing, and a black-and-white morality system. The game desperately wants to be the next Witcher, the next Knights of the Old Republic, and, but for a lack of skill and budget on the part of its developer, it could have been.
The world of War Logs rates well on the originality scale. The game takes place on Mars, of course, a setting woefully underutilized by the science fiction genre these days.
Mars is a symbol, one that represents humanity’s hope for the future. It’s a stepping stone on the road to space colonization, and the continued survival of the human race beyond the inevitable natural end of life on Earth (or, the much-feared unnatural end). It’s interesting, then, that War Logs presents such a bleak vision of the red planet. Water is scarce, solar radiation mutates those unlucky enough to be caught in the sun, and society is ruled by corporations and their ridiculously named “technomancers,” who wield their knowledge of old-world technology like magic over the less educated masses.
The backdrop sets up a unique atmosphere, one that bleeds well into the action-oriented RPG gameplay. Weapons are limited to pipes and metal rods which can be augmented with scavenged scrap. The only projectiles in the game are construction tools, like nailguns, for which ammo is scarce enough to require crafting. Even currency, and the way you acquire it, highlights the desperation of the setting. Money comes in the form of water, here called “serum,” which is most commonly obtained by draining moisture from human bodies. Since water is scarce on Mars, your odds of finding it in the wild are low.
This is where War Logs’ morality system mostly comes into play. You can beat your enemies into senseless hamburger, but to keep them down permenantly requires turning them into human ATMs. That means more cash, but a worse reputation on the game’s morality meter. Little details like these make War Logs feels like Dune’s greasier, more intentionally mundane cousin, a pleasant change from typical medieval fantasy WRPG fare.
The bleak, patchwork aesthetic also makes for interesting combat, assuming you can put up with slow controls and a targeting system that actually seems to make hitting a specific target more difficult.
Even with a choice of companions at your side, every encounter in the back alleys and shantytowns of Mars will see you outnumbered. Staying alive means relying on hit-and-run tactics to keep mobs manageable. You can blind a guard here, stun an attack dog there, allowing you to drop one baddy at a time and keep incoming DPS low. It’s interesting and lends a sense of tension to each encounter. On paper, it sounds great; in practice, not so much.
For as deep as it is, the action is about as refined as low-texture character models that participate. The player-character, Roy, controls like a horse. You can pull the reins commanding him to move, strike, fire, or use abilities, and he will obey. Eventually. There’s significant latency on every action: blocking or countering with any consistency is completely out of the question, and timing blows is abysmal. Stun locks are the number one cause of death for Martians, and will keep Roy infuriatingly immobilized while the three, or four, or ten enemies in each fight get in free, lethal licks.
Our protagonist might move more smoothly with a controller’s analog sticks, rather than the digital input of a keyboard. I say “might” because, despite the game’s Steam page claiming full controller support, my USB Xbox 360 controller refused to function. That’s just one of several glitches I encountered. In the 15 hours it took me to complete War Logs, I was also met with dialogue which constantly cut itself off mid-line, and characters melting into walls during cutscenes.
Even less attention seems to have been paid to the story. The voice acting is terrible to the point of comedy, unaided by an infinitely-quotable, tone deaf script which attempts grittiness by virtue of stringing together nonsensical profanities. The overall plot is largely forgettable, revolving around the search for — you guessed it — powerful ancient artifacts, and culminating in an abrupt, anticlimactic ending.
Where the plot stops being bland, and starts getting more than a little troubling is in its treatment of women. Their presence alternates between instances of casual misogyny, and attempts to use them as plot devices to genuinely unnerve so often it becomes hard to tell the difference.
This is best summed up by the character Mary, a mentally maladjusted technomancer apprentice who sleeps with her “master” in exchange for training. After blowing herself up in a botched assassination attempt on Roy, remains garbed in her underwear and tattered strings for the rest of the game. But hey! That’s all right, thanks to a line of dialogue which informs us she dresses thusly to “remind herself of her past.” After earning her new uniform, Mary immediately decides not to kill the protagonist, and offers to have casual sex with him instead.
The rest of the female cast includes prostitutes, date-rape/murder victims, a sycophant name “Devotion” and — I kid you not — kidnapping victims forced to act as mutant brood sows. Much of this is no doubt meant to shock the player, but by the end it only left me feeling dirty.
The game certainly earns brownie points for pathos, but I’ve less tolerance for its ethos.
War Logs stumbles as a whole, while its premise and basic design could have — should have — made it dance. It’s not for a lack of understanding what makes the games it mimics great. It’s the fault of execution, not ambition, that hobbles the experience. It’s actually more than a little endearing to see such a young, sickly up-and-comer with the gall to play with the big kids. Even as War Logs fails to deliver on much of its promise, you find yourself wanting to like it more than it deserves out of respect for that ambition. That just makes it all the more upsetting when the genuinely offensive mistakes rear their heads.
Mars: War Logs is a grimy little game that tries twice as hard to shine half as bright as its inspirations. It’s also a third the price of any brand-new game in that lexicon, so it seems at least self-aware of its shortcomings. It’s the sort of game that makes you daydream of a sequel, one with a bit more polish, and a lot less disgusting philosophy, but with all of that same ambition.
This review is based on a copy of the game for PC provided by the publisher.