METAL MAX Xeno Reborn Review (Switch)
Release Date: June 10, 2022
File Size: 4.3GB
Click here to view on the Nintendo eShop.
The Nintendo Switch has its fair share of post-apocalyptic RPGs, which tend to depict the world as an endless wasteland, near-devoid of life. Because of this, METAL MAX might not look appealing upon a first look- it embodies many of these aesthetic elements, and gets away with having giant bugs and amorphous blobs as enemies partly due to the setting, in addition to just being a good old Japanese RPG. But there’s one element of the game that truly sets it apart, a special, precious thing that kids and adults of all ages can enjoy. No, it’s not the powerfully evocative illustrated art that peppers loading screens, crafting a moody glimpse into a beautifully desolate world. Nor is it the Shiba Inu toting a machine gun, as charming as that might be.
It’s the tanks. Oh, the glorious, glorious tanks.
METAL MAX Xeno Reborn is an active turn-based, semi-open world RPG where the player is tasked with constantly gathering resources and defeating enemies in order to further enhance their survivability as they attempt to tackle greater threats. While on foot, the player can explore the massive world of Dystokyo, ducking into smaller size pathways in order to nab valuable remnants of an older world, or even grind against some of the monsters present in these smaller areas. However, the meat of the game is spent exploring and surviving using the most precious of resources- your tanks.
While roaming either on-foot or riding in a vehicle, you’ll be able to switch into a targeting mode using the X button, which pulls up a command list for item usage, attacking, and skill usage. If you should engage targeting mode before you invoke the wrath of an enemy’s aggression, you’ll be able to seize the opportunity and get a first strike, which can often cripple enemies and kill them in a single shot, depending on the scenario. When on foot, your attacks will automatically snap to targets within range, but when exploring in tank mode, you will get to aim more freely, as several of the artillery options for your vehicles have area of effect damage properties that allow for much larger swaths of damage to be delivered.
Outside of this core gameplay loop of exploring and looting, there are specific elite enemies that appear as obstacles both in the narrative and world design. They will often possess substantial health and attack power, which will factor into your means of approach. There are particular circumstances where you will be able to use high ground or exploit these enemies in their neutral state, but when push comes to shove, you’ll need to overwhelm them with superior firepower and longevity. The more playable characters you sorie with, the more likely an enemy will need to switch its attention between targets, thereby prolonging the lives of all parties.
If you take things a step further to the equipment screen, you’ll find that weapons of different firing ranges can further split the attention of enemy units and allow you to attack more safely. However, if you want to deal serious damage, you’ll need to grind out enemy encounters in order to get the parts to modify your currently-owned weaponry. Buying new equipment costs a pretty penny, and funds are better allocated towards expanding the inventory of your tanks and purchasing specific equipment for your pilots, who are generally squishy and will need all the assistance they can get during ground segments.
There are a number of paths and areas that can be blasted open if you or one of your party members is equipped with strong enough firepower, but that’s a key element of exploration and upgrading that cannot be ignored. Many of the obstacles will require some time and money investments, but the areas behind them can lead to other weapon exploits that will allow you to take down even greater foes. There’s a fair bit of time spent at your base of operations, but the rewards are all that more satisfying when you finally do go out and sortie with dangerous enemies.
Target mode is much more enjoyable than normal combat, however, as actual enemy engagements can slow action to a crawl if once you start ATB switching between a party of three. This can be circumvented somewhat by the auto attack function, which will allow you to enjoy the flow of battle a bit more at the cost of making crucial decisions regarding your ammo. While pilot weapons and certain tank weaponry do have infinite ammo, the larger weaponry does have an ammunition limit, which means you will eventually need to return to base to reload if you want to maintain a consistent level of destruction.
Narrative and Aesthetics
The world of METAL MAX is bleak, there’s no doubt about it. You’ll rarely find other humans out and about, and most are wounded in some capacity, either mentally or physically. You will be forced to keep exploring and defeating enemies in order to progress the narrative, which usually boils down to being filled in on a particular objective thanks to a sparing few survivors. There is a bit of lore sprinkled across the various NPC interactions you can have at your base of operations, but they do little more than serve as the basis for the miserable situation in which mankind finds itself entrenched. There’s some pretty obvious ties between the protagonist and the AI overlords that destroyed Earth, seeing as he’s sporting a mechanical arm that deals damage to them, specifically, but it’s rarely, if ever, touched upon outside of larger narrative beats.
METAL MAX is a story about the will to survive, and although it feels somewhat at odds with the gleeful destruction you get to perform on a regular basis, the world truly does feel barren. This is partially due to the aesthetics, which are passable, but not on the same level as something like Shin Megami Tensei V. The texture work depicts a wasteland well enough, though the game isn’t great at telegraphing destructible elements, which might be the point of ducking into target mode every now and then. The soundtrack isn’t much to write home about, featuring a few sparing exploration themes that evoke adventure, but loop fairly often, and techno-and-electric-guitar-heavy battle themes that turn the intensity up to eleven, contrasting heavily with the more subdued aesthetics and exploration theme.
Character design is an oddity in a variety of ways, as enemies range from “giant monsters” to “absurd mechanic abominations,” sometimes with little physical space separating the two extremes. The tanks are lovingly rendered, however, and can appear realistic or equally ridiculous when fully outfitted with the horn of a slain robot spider attached. The survivor character designs are a bit wild, though, as they appear in an ugly, mottled art style when engaging in dialogue that does none of them any favors. It’s a bit wild, considering the promotional art that displays during loading screens is so beautifully done, it begs the question of whether this series could ever achieve such aesthetic highs. Unfortunately, with the recent cancellation of the next installment in the series, that does seem unlikely. But these loading screens do offer a nice reprieve from a sometimes-ugly game.
Impressions and Conclusion
I’ve never been one for warfare simulations in general, but the opportunity offered by METAL MAX has given me the chance to re-evaluate my relationship with tanks. I have to say, after having played the game, I’m pretty sure I would love to engage in this series more. Realistic warfare might not do it for me, but equipping a modifying chip to a dune buggy that allows it to fire four machine guns simultaneously is a special kind of crazy you can rarely find elsewhere. With that said, this experience is pretty much the only thing this game offers in spades or with competency, so if you want more than that, you might want to look elsewhere.
The tank controls, which use alternating trigger buttons to move forward and reverse (of can be pressed in combination to execute a fast turn-in-place), feel clunky in all the right ways, and the fact that the game designs portions of its world that are only accessible by foot means you constantly need to check how proficient your pilots are both within and outside of their vehicles. An unfortunate element of the game’s design is the skill point system, which has a number of categories for investment that don’t telegraph their purpose all that well. The “Medical” category starts with modifiers to elemental weapon properties before finally introducing healing skills, and others don’t do a wonderful job of communicating what sort of skills you’ll be accessing until you’ve invested more than a few points. While enough of a grind can course-correct your poor decision-making, it would be nicer if the game’s decently-extensive tutorial pages had included detail on this.
Although marketed as an open world title, the environments in METAL MAX are large, but linear, with plenty of avenues for exploration and a few on-foot, subterranean areas, as well. While riding in a tank, you’re not an unstoppable killing machine, and can get overwhelmed by enemy attacks if you don’t scout areas properly. If you aren’t rocking treads, however, the situation becomes even more perilous, and the size of METAL MAX’s world comes into full focus, as running around the dusty dunes is slow-moving without a tank. However, the running speed of METAL MAX’s pilots is also a bit frustratingly slow itself, and although sprinting would negate one part of a tank’s utility and would likely break the game’s enemy aggro system, as well, it would have been nice.
Outside of these minor qualms, there’s really only the matter of performance to discuss, and METAL MAX is another strange example of a game seemingly being a more enjoyable play experience in handheld than while docked. Maybe it’s because you don’t have to see those ugly character portraits in as high detail, or maybe the nauseating motion blur that accompanies fast camera movement isn’t as noticeable, but METAL MAX just looks a bit nicer on a smaller display- perhaps because the art style seems more befitting of a handheld experience. I did encounter a single software crash during my playthrough, but the game mercilessly autosaves rather frequently and made sure I didn’t lose too much progress.
All in all, I don’t think METAL MAX Xeno Reborn deserves to fade into obscurity. From what I understand, it is a departure from its successors, but the gameplay loop that exists is straightforward and satisfying. Yes, it might not be as technically or aesthetically polished as some of the larger RPGs on the Switch, but it offers a very satisfying sense of empowerment and a simple premise that is fun enough. If you go in looking for a rich narrative with compelling characters, you might find yourself disappointed, but if blowing things up in a tank sounds like your idea of fun: this is it. This is the one. “To reclaim the wastelands from giant bugs and hostile machines”: METAL MAX delivers on that premise, at least.