Some things in life are just tough. Early starts on cold days, dentist bills, Windows 10 updates. And some things are tougher still. You’ll have your own thoughts on life’s biggest challenges, but trust me, once you’ve played Mars: Chaos Menace on Xbox One, you’ll be adding it to the list.
Mars is a ‘bullet hell’ type shooter which in every way evokes the style, and difficulty level, of old school classics such as Ikaruga. Anyone who spent the ‘90s clutching a wired controller will feel instantly nostalgic; for those who didn’t, think Sky Force. With alien dinosaurs. And triffids which belch laser beams.
As you would expect, the premise of Mars: Chaos isn’t going to have J.J. Abrams reaching for the phone. Humanity, fresh from sucking every ounce of life out of this planet, has decided to terraform Mars. For some reason, this doesn’t sit well with an alien race who, despite being composed largely of flying seahorses and giant spiders, have somehow despatched their nefarious forces to ensure the planet remains sterile and barren.
Like I said, rest easy, J.J..
But that’s a tad unfair. I’ve no idea what the plot is in the majority of shooters I enjoy; plot is just a set-up to get us into the action. And into the action you will go, pretty much immediately. Your character isn’t a ship, more a flying, transparent fella with a pink dot in his head which may represent an area of vulnerability. Frankly, I never quite worked it out.
All the usual tropes are present; shoot everything as quickly and efficiently as possible while avoiding death. Gather power-ups, employ your rechargeable shield, use your more powerful secondary weapon (also rechargeable with time) as efficiently as possible, and time your use of special attacks wisely in order to succeed.
Spoiler: You will not succeed.
I’m no stranger to the genre. In fact, I quite enjoy them. My formative gaming years were in the ‘90s so there’s something soothing and familiar about titles like Mars: Chaos Menace which transports me back to a dark room with an absurd haircut and my Achtung Baby LP playing in the background. Technically, this is also true today, but I’m making a point about the passage of time here, okay? Likewise, those formative years hardened me to insane difficulty levels, the likes of which are almost unheard of today. Yes, there’s the occasional Cuphead, but as gaming has expanded in inverse proportion to our free time, we’ve become accustomed to checkpoints and frequent saves.
Mars dispenses with these niceties. No checkpoints, no extra lives, no retries right before the boss fight. Lose all of your three lives and you’ll be transported back to the beginning of the (admittedly brief) level to start again. Your precious upgrades and special attacks are gone, and the onslaught begins anew.
A quick word about those upgrades. In addition to the aforementioned shield and secondary weapon (a thick, powerful laser beam attack which has the unfortunate consequence of obscuring enemy projectiles), you can shoot various monuments to release floating orbs which, when you fly through them, add to your arsenal. Each increases your attacking prowess by attaching another laser to your pilot, including one which will automatically fire behind you. This is invaluable as your opponents will spawn to the rear often, rendering the age old tactic of hugging the bottom of the screen pointless.
The upgrades are essential, as is frequent use of the shield and laser. The special attacks are useful as they will destroy everything in your path for a few seconds. The only method I could discern to gather these was to have my shield destroyed completely, which is not recommended.
Dying removes all your power ups, but there’s a brief period after respawn in which you can snag them again. Fail to recover them and an already tough ask becomes almost impossible, as enemies will fill the screen, both with their weapon’s fire and themselves – colliding with one of the swarm is as likely to kill you as a bullet, perhaps moreso, as the shield seems ineffective against impacts.I can’t be absolutely certain of this, as the screen gets impossibly busy, but physical contact with enemies seems to always cost a life.
Mars has four stages, each split in two. There’s jungle (unfriendly Endor), snow (unfriendly Hoth) desert (unfriendly Tatooine) and underwater (unfriendly rubbish bit from The Phantom Menace). They’re nicely detailed, but the vegetation and landscapes are window dressing only, which, considering how many things on screen are trying to end you, is something of a relief. Character models are interesting and pretty varied, although there is some repetition between areas. Bosses are classic 1990’s bullet hell, going through various stages of metamorphosis as you gradually wear them down.
In actual fact, although the bosses are tough, they’re not quite as tough as the approach to them. They have predictable patterns and tells which can be exploited, particularly if you’ve retained your power ups. That said some, such as the spider web which renders you immobile for a time, can be frustrating.
The road to meet the bosses is another matter altogether. There are some patterns to enemy movement in that you’ll quickly learn to avoid certain areas at certain times, and know which sections you can recharge your shield in. But there’s so much going on that forewarned isn’t necessarily forearmed. It’s not uncommon to die, and then respawn in an impossible situation with only a few seconds of grace before you start taking damage again. These instances did not end well for me.
In a nutshell, Mars: Chaos Menace on Xbox One is tough to the point of being unforgiving. The lack of in-game checkpoints and the problematic spawn points combined with the already challenging gameplay make it all seem just a little unfair. Even played on easy (don’t judge me) I found it strayed beyond the point where the level of challenge was… fun. Dying repeatedly, in Dark Souls or Dead Cells for example, imbues the player with a new piece of learning. You should return to the fight a little wiser and better equipped. I can’t say Mars does that effectively and I never felt as if I was improving. Even now, I could return to the first stage and take a beating, which suggests my modest success was down to luck rather than gained expertise.
If you’re fond of the genre, and are prepared for a challenging (even frustrating) experience, Mars; Chaos Menace might be just what you’re looking for. However, the average player will almost certainly be alienated (pun!) by the staggering amount of retries it takes to make progress. A bit more polish could have made this one a contender, but for me it was memorable for all the wrong reasons. Now I’m off to do something a little easier, like seduce Jennifer Lawrence, or learn ancient Greek.