ASCii's Mars Story is a game that is relatively unknown in the US. However, its Japanese release was met with a decent amount of hype; the game was released in a limited edition package featuring figurines of the main characters, a map of the game's world, and assorted other related paraphernalia. Although Mars Story isn't a game that lives up to any large amount of hype, it is an RPG that features decent but unconventional gameplay, a great storyline, and is overall quite an enjoyable experience.
Mars Story's plot revolves around Phobos, a young boy with a spirit for adventure and a love for tinkering with anything mechanical. In the beginning of the game, Phobos even has his own garage workshop on the outskirts of the town of Aroma, and his main goal is to complete a land rover that he has been working on. His search for the elusive final part takes him all over town, but he finally finds the part.
Upon its completion, Phobos and two of his friends take the land rover out for a celebratory test drive around town. As they reach the center of town, however, panicking townspeople alert the trio to the fact that some robot has gone haywire in the middle of town and is attacking everything in sight. Phobos, being an extremely conscientious boy, goes to try to stop the robot. As the trio confronts the robot, it immediately blows their land rover to pieces.
After a long battle, Phobos is able to overcome the robot. As he surveys the damage in the wake of the robot's onslaught, he learns that the robot is from the distant (and advanced) city of Kangarian. In order to get to the bottom of this mystery, Phobos decides to travel to Kangarian, and so his quest begins.
Although these early events don't sound particularly exciting, Mars Story is blessed with an excellent storyline. The plot moves along well, and despite the fact that the general mood of the game is pretty goofy and lighthearted, there are many exciting plot twists and poignant moments as well. Character development is well above average, too, as the main cast and even some of the supporting characters are competently developed. Best of all, the characters are very likable.
Chrono Trigger fans should also take a liking to the plot of Mars Story, as Phobos travels back and forth between time periods during his quest. Although the degree of freedom in time travel isn't at the same level as that of Chrono Trigger, it's a welcome twist to the plot.
The plot of Mars Story is also laid out in a fashion that should be very pleasing to fans of anime. The game is broken up into 30 episodes, and after each episode ends, the player is treated to a short omake theater stick puppet show involving characters from the game. Each episode also begins with a narrated recap of the previous episode.
A noteworthy fact about the Mars Story plot is that it contains a profuse amount of toilet humor. For example, Pochi (a humanoid dog player character) has a major flatulence problem, and is somewhat perverted as well. Also, whenever Phobos travels in time, he has a tendency to drop in at the same time and place that Ques (a female character) is changing. Even funnier is that every time this happens, Sasuke (another male character) is trying to peep in on Ques himself. These moments of toilet humor are hilarious, and work very well in this lighthearted game. They also in no way detract from the more poignant moments of the storyline.
Mars Story's gameplay, while arguably its weakest aspect, is still decent and contains a good amount of innovation. When you travel on the world map, your path gets laid out into squares like a board game, and you advance by spinning a needle and advancing whatever number of spots that the needle lands on. On certain squares, there are enemy encounters, while on others, there are goodies such as treasures, pools that completely heal your party, and other cool bonuses.
In addition, Mars Story uses a semi-tactical battle system not unlike that of Game Arts' Grandia. However, there is actually more interaction with the battle screens than in Grandia. Characters can be commanded to move to specific locations, and objects (if not too heavy) can be picked up and thrown at enemies. All battles are in preset locations in Mars Story; there are no random encounters.
Despite its innovation and overall strength, Mars Story's gameplay is plagued with a few major problems. First of all, the game is extremely linear. Now, I'm not someone who gets bothered by linearity in RPGs (mainly because just about every non-linear RPG I've ever played has had either a nonexistent, jumbled, or incoherent storyline), but Mars Story takes linearity to illogical extremes. On every screen you go to in the area maps, you have to talk to the correct person in the screen to be able to advance to the next screen. This, of course, also means that there is only one possible choice of screens to move to next, which means that you have no freedom of choice in this game. Even if you go to a shop, once you leave, you can't go back unless the plot takes you there again. Thankfully, you can visit any shop that you've already been to at the end of each episode, but that still doesn't make up for the lack of freedom in this game. The only place in the game where you do have some freedom of movement is in the dungeons, where you can move back and forth between screens at your leisure.
Another annoying aspect of Mars Story is the fact that you can only save your game at the end of an episode. Each episode takes, on average, about an hour to complete, which is a long time to go between saves. If you mess up 45 minutes into an episode and don't happen to have enough retries (an item that allow you to retry a battle or task if you lose), then you'll have to replay the 45 minutes of the episode to get back to where you messed up. Needless to say, this is a colossal waste of time.
The Mars Story battles are well conceived, with a lot of options at your disposal, but the AI of your characters is ghastly. You can command a character to pursue and attack an enemy, but your character won't know how to run around obstacles to reach the enemy. This makes battles a lot more time-consuming and frustrating than they need to be.
Mars Story isn't anything to write home about visually. The graphics are entirely polygonal, but the game is played from a 2D perspective. The battles are in 3D, however. The polygon characters and backgrounds aren't too bad, but lack detail. They also get really blocky up close. The animation of characters is smooth (as is the case with most polygonal characters in games), but isn't that well constructed; for the most part, the superdeformed characters don't look very balanced or realistic when they animate. I wasn't that fond of the character designs or art, but they certainly didn't bother me.
The graphics do have their high points, though. Some of the spell effects look pretty good, and the summons are actually surprisingly impressive. As a matter of fact, I would venture to say that I can only think of three games (Final Fantasy VIII, Final Fantasy VII, and Shining Force III, in that order) that I've played to date where the summons are more impressive than those of Mars Story. The summons are all human-looking, and a few of them are even comical (one of them looks like a gym teacher).
Control in Mars Story is for the most part excellent. Phobos and friends can be moved in 8 directions, and a dash button allows them to move faster at a nice clip. The menus are also very well organized and user-friendly. Weapon equipping is quick, easy, and organized, and menu management never becomes a chore.
In spite of the overall excellence of control, a few problems rear their ugly heads as you progress. In the area maps, Phobos sometimes gets caught on objects in the background, which slows you down. And in the battle screens, the cursor and the scrolling are both pretty sluggish.
Mars Story also sounds good. The sound effects, while pretty good, are nothing to write home about. However, the voice acting is excellent. The seiyuu here are expressive and fit their characters perfectly.
The Mars Story soundtrack is also quite enjoyable. Although I wouldn't call it brilliantly written, the melodies are mostly pleasant and are often catchy. Sometimes they even convey a fair amount of emotion. The boss themes are particularly impressive, too. The sound system used for the soundtrack is pretty much par for the course with other Playstation RPGs.
Mars Story is a good RPG for anime fans and veterans who want a somewhat unconventional approach to the genre. Because it won't appeal to everyone, however, I would recommend trying it before you buy it, if it's possible.
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