Scars of Mars:
Steam Next Fest Preview

An Eclectic Blend of Tactics, Action, And Sci Fi

Feb 09, 2024
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Steam Next Fest is here, and it's always one of my favorite times in gaming. It reminds me of the old demo CDs you could get with magazines, but on steroids. Looking through the festival gives you hundreds of new games to try and wishlist, letting you have an informed opinion on your next purchase while also letting a company get some hype built: it’s a win-win scenario.

It’s also a great chance to let games with odd ideas or small marketing budgets get a little bit of buzz. While some games (Pacific Drive, Lightyear Frontier, Synergy) are already huge successes, I find its really fun to dive a little deeper and find something off the beaten path. This time it was Scars of Mars, and it absolutely surprised me in how it took concepts I knew and mashed them all together.

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I went in expecting a Sci-Fi version of the old Might and Magic series. What I got instead was a bizarre and slightly addicting blend of a tactics game with the active time system of old Final Fantasy 7, all mixed together with roguelike progression. It’s a heady mix, but I worry it needs a little explanation in order to really get the audience it deserves.

Guys, Mars Is In Trouble Again

The basic plot of the game is that a Mars Research Facility has suddenly gone silent, and you are essentially the commander of a small ‘humanoid’ team to go and try and rescue the scientists. It’s a little bare bones and I wanted more such as to why my four characters are just called ‘humanoids’, but hopefully it’ll play out more in the full game.

The demo is essentially attempting to beat a roguelike run, complete with ‘finish an area, choose the next zone on the map to go to next, rinse and repeat until you get to the boss’ set up ala Slay The Spire. It’s a commonly used mechanic, but this is where the secret sauce of Scars of Mars comes into effect: the clock that’s always winding down. It’s a ‘battery’ that’s your connection to the four-person team fighting their way through the research facility. If it gets to 50%, there are some technical problems that start to appear, and as it gets to 0, you lose.

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The demo is essentially the first 'roguelike' run you can do on repeat. The time pressure means games go fast, and it feels like a great quick game for when you don't have a ton of time.

There are ways to get more battery life, to add more time to the clock, but that number at the top of the screen helps add urgency to this game that I wasn’t expecting. It’s also what makes the game so successful.

Fighting On The Dance Floor

I picked up Scars of Mars because the screen shots nostalgically reminded me of old dungeon rpgs like Lands of Lore, but I had no idea how wrong I was. This is an action game as much as it is anything else, becoming frenetic at a moments notice. I should have paid attention to the 3x3 grid that’s on the bottom of the screen, as that becomes your whole world once you enter a zone and the giant bugs or sentient plants start to attack you.

Here’s a quick rundown of how combat works:

  • Your characters are on a 3 by 3 grid, and can be moved.
  • Your characters have two attacks or abilities, each with cooldowns and each having very specific placement. Melee attacks will often hit one spot in front of a character, while a basic gun will hit the first thing in a straight line, etc.
  • When enemies attack, you will get a few seconds to react, as their attacks turn part of your grid red. You can just move your characters out of the way of the hit.
  • You can counter attack while an enemy is warming up to strike, and that attack will always deal more damage.

And that’s it! It sounds simple at first, but with the action being in real time, chaos can ensue. I was pleasantly surprised that Scars of Mars works well with a controller, using the bumper or trigger buttons to activate attacks. It gives the game a very arcade game feel, which I appreciated. Grabbing characters and tugging them out of the way of a giant monster swing is really satisfying, making you feel like a boxer when it's all going according to plan.

Of course, it won’t always go according to plan. When there’s more than one enemy on the screen and they attack at the same time, you can probably only save one of your four characters from getting hit. Or, you might choose to have your melee fighter leap out of the way, realize they are moving into a space that has your healer, and they swap positions instead, having the healer take the hit.

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Even by the end of the demo, you can see how movement tricks can become tricky as combat gets more intense.

Combat is a chaotic dance where you are trying to stay one step ahead of the foes, and the life of the battery slowly ticks down above it all.

The Promise Of A Great Game

Before I sing the praises of the game, I’ll get my reservations out of the way. First, the story felt a little barebones, or perhaps just not entirely well localized. I can give it a pass since its a demo and you have to sometimes jump into the middle of a game, but something to note. Another is that some of the information can be a little hard to read. I hope that the three by three grid you actually control becomes a little easier to read in the full game, as there’s a lot of information you have to process second by second. Heck, I didn’t even realize until after two full runs in the game that the left side of the screen had a running summary of the attacks going back and forth.

Finally, Scars of Mars is very much a genre mash up, and might be off putting for some. Those of you wanting a calmer, more turn-based rpg might want to skip this one, as it's a faster game than its screenshots suggest. At the same time, this is not a looter shooter either. It’s a game about timing, and trying to stay one step ahead of attacks. There’s definitely skill involved, but it doesn’t quite line up with other popular conventional games.

I lost my first attempt because I was still learning how movement worked, and left my healer in the line of fire by accident one too many times. However on your runs, you pick up equipment that can be used to upgrade your various characters, their weapons, and even unlock new classes that have different strengths. I beat it the second time through, got the hint of what story beats might come next, and wishlisted it.

With all that said, I can definitely say that I’m on board for buying this game when it comes out because all the various parts come together incredibly well. Each demo run was only 10-15 minutes or less, meaning it's a great way to play even at the end of a long day at work or on break. The story feels bare bones yes, but I hadn’t realized that Acquire Corp - one of the companies that developed Octopath Traveller - is behind this game, so I am confident there will be a little more in the full game to appreciate.

At the end of the day, Scars of Mars is a unique game that probably deserves more buzz because it’s the sort of game that the Steam Next Fest was made for. Give the free demo a shot to see if it’s right for you. It might not be for everyone, but I am hopeful that the full game might be a wonderful mix of twitchy action and satisfying planning when it releases in the future. Who doesn't like a good dungeon crawl?

Wyatt Krause

Editor-in-chief, Co-founder