So, Metal Max Xeno’s schtick isn’t new. Humanity is in a bind and you’re out to find as many survivors as you can. With tanks! Hurrah!
The narrative is based around an assumption there is someone left to save, so a prevailing hope amongst the disappear. This hope is measured in the form of the gleefully named, Extinction Index; a doomsday clock of sorts, providing a percentile estimate of humanity’s survival chances, something you can directly influence through the power of discovery.
Your main man, Talis, with his metal arm and throwing sabres, is man of many nothings. Nothing to add to conversation, nothing to look at, though nothing to sneer at as, due to his inherent blandness, you won’t want to put that much effort in. He’s non-offensive, which is OK, I guess. There is something about him that’s immediately interesting though; the tank he drives! Like many JRPGs, you fly solo in the beginning but it’s not long before you get new tanks and team members to fill the base’s empty parking spaces.
D’Annuziowes me Money
So what’s there to do at the Iron Base, (your HQ), other than purchasing gear and tank upgrades? Well, order a drink off base-dweller, D’Annunzio, and he will offer you a story in return. Yes, meet D’Annunzio, the man who tells you to help yourself at the bar then, on your next visit, acts like the last conversation never happened, and tries making you order the drinks. Unscrupulous bastard. I mean, we all live in this base together, why the hell is he manning the bar?! To avoid doing anything around the base, I reckon.
What’s going on, then? Nintendo of America (well, alright ‘NOA’ but no one bothered to tell me what it stands for in the early game) hacks the controls for the world’s nuclear stockpile and fires on all major cities… then monsters appear. Well, this is how layabout-manning-a-bar-with-no-customers-D’Annuzio tells it, but we can’t exactly trust him now, can we? Reggie Fils Aime’s army (note: not Reggie Fils Aime’s army, again, I had no idea who the NOA was at this point) was there to gun down as many of the remaining human survivors as possible. Roll with it. Talis works on basis there are survivors, and it’s his job to explore the wasteland to find them.
A glance at the game running and you’d be forgiven for thinking this is a remastered PS2 game. Because it is! It runs like one, looks like one, smells like one… and I lied; it’s not one.
Tanks and character models carry a bit of a cel-shaded edge, but textures are low on detail. The scenery is samey; mostly a desert with little going on in the distance and environments are overtly devoid of any defining characteristics. There’s a day/night cycle, but it makes very little difference to anything beyond sky colour and saturation. The framerate is certainly fixed but, to my eyes, it feels stuck at an awkward 29FPS, as if there’s a fairly meaningless but consistent stutter. Admittedly, I could be wrong, this isn’t Digital Foundry, after all, but there’s something a little off-feeling about the pacing.
It’s all muted and bland in presentation with a UI design from a bygone era. Having said that, the menus are at least very snappy and, strictly in terms of functionality, there aren’t any major issues.
This, it would appear, is the price you pay for low budget. Like a knackered house with no furnishing but near an excellent location; it’s low-rent. But with the right perspective can be homely. This is the feeling Metal Max evokes for me; like a PS2 game in presentation, without any of the drawbacks such as slow load times, but with the benefit of everything functioning quickly and efficiently, in addition to quality of life shortcuts (fast travel, save anywhere, etc). So basically, like a HD remaster of a PS2 game, it has its own brand of retro charm, despite being a new game. It’s a strange juxtaposition that I came around to.
Heavy Metal, Max
OK, so I’ve passively mentioned the tanks a couple of times because they’re a joy to use in battle, they offer another extra layer of options in which different loadouts can be mixed and matched. The weaponry added is visible on the tank (not expected from a PS2 game… wait, I’ve done it again), and its effectiveness is determined by its individual stats as well as the proficiency of the tank driver. You can also switch between on-foot and tank control for each character in your team. The animation for moving in and out of the tank looks comical, with a big, speedy, springy jump, though it helps keep the pace up.
The turn-based battle system is a simple menu-based affair. Being very responsive and easy to navigate helps keep the battles feeling snappy and, though there isn’t a tonne of depth overall, the versatility of the tank switch mechanic keeps the rhythm going. Elemental weakness are used to good effect, with boss battles often coming to long, drawn-out, jaw-clenching slogs if you don’t plan ahead, adding a decent amount of tension between standard encounters. Defeat is treated without punishment beyond being carried back to base and being told off in a condescending manner, which is much appreciated.
Some of the enemies look a bit Earth Defense Force (an EDF: Mammal Edition, if you will) at times, well, if the bugs and robots merged. This is a compliment. One boss is basically a robot rhino equipped like an anti-aircraft carrier, another, a dinosaur warship; it’s zany and inspired. The anime artwork used in menus and cutscenes is also top notch. Once you save the first person on your journey, however, the artist’s hentai background starts to show. The fact that the Extinction Index goes down by about 15% has a bit of an uncomfortable connotation, frankly. Moving swiftly on…
Staying on Tracks
The tank’s usage isn’t limited to combat, additionally providing the quickest means of traversing the field. Looking around for upgrade parts and survivors is surprisingly relaxing and the method of slowly pushing forwards to a boss, returning to base to gear up and heal, then heading back through the desert feels fairly rewarding.
Enemies are visible when in close proximity and battles are initiated by coming into contact with them. Alternatively, by aiming your tank’s reticle from a first-person view, you can gain a battle advantage by blasting your foe to trigger the fight. Using this method, in a move as smooth as one of Persona 5’s shortcuts, you can dispatch weaker creatures instantly, foregoing the entire battle sequence; a pleasantry that removes some of the more pointless attempts at grinding.
With the map already being opened up, you can’t easily trace where you have or haven’t been. In lieu of this you are given objective markers, though the path is so linear it doesn’t make the world of difference. Field exploration follows an era-irrelevant genre-norm, think Final Fantasy 10 or 13’s sandbox areas or the field areas of a Nihon Falcom RPG (though the comparison ends there).
When finding the map’s mini dungeons, Talis and co must vacate their tanks and deal with the slog of the vehicle-less normies. Dungeons follow similar aesthetics and serve limited purpose generally, but are a welcome inclusion because, by forcing you on-foot, you’re left to think about your tankless team’s gear and combat tactics. The enemies here appear in the old school screen fading random encounter style. Metal Max Xeno makes you work for your prizes. Maybe I should have dragged D’Annunzio’s lazy arse away from that bar, make him learn the ropes… teach him a lesson.
Engines, manoeuvrability and speed can be upgraded for tank, with better gear gradually unlocking as you improve your base’s ‘tech’ level, achieved by locating science manuals. There are also ‘ace’ points, accumulated by completing tasks, which are used for building your character’s battle tenacity and enhancing stats.
Tropey and mostly emotionless writing doesn’t do Metal Max Xeno any favours. Cut scenes are voiced, and the voicing acting is fine. However, there’s something missing from the vast majority of characters that no voice acting can redeem; charisma. While we’re on sound, the dynamics need adjusting, with levels often feeling noticeably out of whack. It’s not an amateur piece of work but it comes across as though little effort was put into the sound design, likely owing to limited resources. Irrespective, the music tracks don’t stand out with their lifeless guitar work and predictable beats, generally feeling as plain as a Gregg’s pasty. That’s not to say it’s not competent, it’s just at the lower end of meh. I will say this, though; the level up jingle is killer.
Overall Score: 6/10
Taken as a light-hearted blast from the past, even though it’s not necessarily supposed to be, there’s plenty of fun to be had in loot-grinding, tank upgrading, and the enjoyable battle system. If you’ve never played and enjoyed a PS2-era JRPG, you probably won’t find the same kick out of the simplicity and, as charmed as I was, I can’t recommend it to anyone but the more forgiving genre fans.
Format: PS4 (reviewed), PS Vita
Price: £34.99 (UK PSN)
Publisher: NIS America
Developer: Cattle Call
Age Rating: 12
Release Date: 28/09/2018 (PSN)
Review copy provided by publisher