Metal Max Xeno: Reborn Impression
Way back at the start of the year, I posted a semi-facetious editorial about what it would take for the Metal Max Xeno remake to get a pass from me. It was a basic list, and in hindsight there are a few other items that might have been important to include, but it’s there.
Now, nine months and two game release delays later, I have had the chance to play Metal Max Xeno: Reborn. So how does it measure up against the possibly unreasonable demands I made back in January? Let’s go by the numbers first.
Demand #1: That Pochi be restored to his proper place as Man’s Best Kick-Ass Mascot Good Boy. This should be easy to fulfill, seeing as everyone’s favorite pooch was brought up in literally the very first remake announcement, so we shall go on to add that we wish to be able to pet the doggy as well.
This was the softball item on the list, for exactly the reason mentioned. In any case, Pochi is officially the Best Boy, and even better: yes, you can pet the doggy. You can even teach him to shake paws if you get far enough through his skill tree.
Demand #2: That the ruins of post-apocalyptic Tokyo be worth the effort of exploration. We want variety; we want architecture. We want a sense that each of these locations is functionally different from the previous ones in some way. This is a series known for its insane approach to everything to do with engineering, and that includes infrastructure. Show us what you’ve got. The most recent screenshots are tantalizing, but they’re just a taste, not a full course.
This was more of a long-shot, since there wasn’t much that could be done about the open zones of Xeno that wouldn’t completely alter how things were in the game. On the other hand, the personnel-only zones, mostly buried buildings and unnatural caverns in the rubble, have seen an improvement. I will admit that when I first delved into the Atrium, I was disappointed because it looked the same as literally every level of the old Xeno. Then I visited the next ruin, and had to hide from walking fuel canisters in a ruined parking garage until I located the sprinkler controls. After that was the sewer system filled with bio-weapon caimans. It’s not to the level of variety as found in earlier games of the series, but it’s more than the old Xeno had.
The only negative here, and it’s a fairly big one, is that there are still so few such locations. In fact, after reviewing the original game on my Vita, it’s obvious that at least six locations were completely removed from Reborn, and a seventh was merged into a second exit for the sewer level. Three more had their spots in the story replaced by a special boss event that takes up that section of the map. The spots that remain are almost all reduced in length, if far more interesting in appearance.
Demand #3: In that vein, we further demand that at least some of the WANTED monsters that Xeno turned into random encounters be returned to their rarefied status, and that the aforementioned improvements upon ruins include WANTED encounters which do not require heavy artillery (though that may be sorely wanted in its absence).
This has actually happened. Certain named monsters, generally WANTED encounters from previous games, are essentially boss monsters of those redesigned dungeon areas. The sewers level has two of them, and they are nasty customers.
Demand #4: That the story be fleshed out, and the characters have more character. The heavy and the grim, the metal and the dark, this is all fine, but it needs to have more of a point to it than simply being heavy-metal grimdark. There are plenty enough games which do this better. Metal Max is a series renowned for its bat-guano gonzo insane post-apocalyptic world, and we want that back.
Well, it was going reasonably well up to now. This is where things start going sour, because if anything Metal Max Xeno: Reborn has regressed from the unenviable starter position of its original. There do not appear to be any new characters added to the story, aside from Pochi, and most if not all of the character interaction scenes have been cut. I distinctly remember things like Yokky getting drunk and taking a swing at Talis, or Maria’s ‘reward’ for her rescue, or the dining room discussion over whether or not Itikka’s marginally-human status mattered. None of those things have happened in my playthrough of Reborn. I did not even get the ending scene when Talis, Yokky, and Toni ride off into the sunset in search of the next adventure.
This has had an impact beyond just dialog. The circumstances of recruitment for several characters have been tweaked, occasionally for the better, but sometimes for no good reason. One example is Misaki, who in the original showed up at a specific point, mentioned the Libro Dome, and went off to find it. This still happens, but with one important new detail: the player has to defeat a particular flying mechanical boss first, and that is easier said than done. I was actually well past Libro Dome before I was able to go back, beat that boss, and get Misaki to continue his journey so I could get him at Libro.
While Metal Max Xeno was not held as a model of good storytelling or characterization, it at least had some measure of both. Its remake fails to meet even that low standard. The only thing that appears to have been added to the story is the series-standard semi-romantic fakeout ending, where the hero decides to hang up his spurs and retire with a love interest. I was not particularly surprised when I triggered this with the survivor girl Toni, but it was more awkward when various dialog choices caused the exact same ending to occur with Yokky, Dylan, Maria, Po-M, Itikka, and Jingoro the mechanic. I have yet to get it with Misaki or D’Annunzio the bartender, but I figure it’s only a matter of time. Which is to say, Talis can romance his way into a fake ending with literally almost every other character in the game, be they male, female, androgynous, young, old, mutant, or walking computer. Only Pochi remains unromanced (though still Best Boy).
Sadly, items 5 through 7 on the list are not feasible, because once it’s all said and done, Metal Max Xeno: Reborn is still Metal Max Xeno where it counts. Any issues one might have had with the plot, scenes, characterizations, themes, or overall feel of the game are still valid, even if said plot and characterization are greatly diminished.
With that said, it’s time to discuss the things that have been added or changed that I hadn’t even considered as being on the table back in January. One of the key points about Metal Max Xeno: Reborn is that it’s almost the same game, but rebuilt with a different base engine for everything, which means that for me it’s both familiar and different at the same time.
The first obvious change is to how Talis and his comrades get around. Vehicles are now controlled via the shoulder buttons: R2 to advance, L2 to go in reverse, with the left joystick to control the direction and the right one to adjust the camera angle. There are many game series out there that use this setup; up to now, Metal Max was not one of them, and it adds a new dimension of frustration when touring the blasted environs of this brave new world. Different vehicles handle differently in motion, with the buggy being the easiest to maneuver but also the most prone to flipping and rolling at high speeds. Thankfully no enemies appear to be programmed to take advantage of this.
The second obvious change is to how combat occurs. Now, all enemies are placed in the current area at set locations, moving as their schedules or AI direct. This helps play into the targeting mechanic, which allows the player to choose a weapon to snipe enemies from a distance for some preemptive damage. The damage output from sniping is increased as well, to the point where many enemies, even in the middle to late stages of the game, can be mowed down by a machine gun barrage before a battle can even commence. The trade-off appears to be a reduction in overall enemy variety, with any given area losing between fifty and seventy percent of its enemy types, as compared to the original Xeno, which itself was light in the bestiary.
When combat does happen, even more changes are evident. Reborn has made the change to an active-time battle setup with the ability to move characters around freely while their turn is still pending. This does not actually do much in battle aside from giving them the chance to escape if enough distance is achieved, as the listed ranges on weapons only affect the sniping mechanic. As long as combat is engaged, it does not seem to matter that much how far away the enemy is; unless the enemy is specifically tagged as long-range, attacks will hit without regards to walls or other obstacles to line of sight.
Other changes to the vehicular side include the loss of the ability to double- or triple-up the occupancy of a tank. Anyone traveling without a vehicle may be seen riding on the outside while the player is driving around, but once battle is engaged, they’ll have to fight it out on foot. This reduces the usefulness of evasion as a strategy for vehicles, even as all of the major enemies in the game seem to have gotten a massive boost in strength. Strangely, the remake also removes the feature wherein vehicular shielding slowly regenerates as the heroes drive around, which was arguably one of the few things that Xeno improved upon the earlier games of the series.
In fact, for every thing that was arguably changed for the better, one or more seem to have been changed just for the sake of change, without any thought as to whether it was a good idea to do so. For one last example, there is the skills system. In the original Xeno, this was done via assigned job classes that could be built up separately from character levels, plus a bonus point system based on the fulfillment of various minor tasks and achievements. In Reborn, it’s all about skill trees, with a few points gained at every level up, but the organization of the trees ensures that certain basic skills end up heavily gated behind many levels’ worth of points. The bonus point system has been scrapped in favor of a straight experience point bonus for each task or achievement, with the points going only to the active party members. Because of this, it’s increasingly difficult to keep a balanced party level late in the game, and spreading out the skill points too widely can nerf a character’s effectiveness for a long period in-game.
I am equal parts amazed and depressed when I say that Metal Max Xeno: Reborn has actually made me nostalgic for the very game it was meant to replace: the game with the easier-to-handle control schemes, more equitable skill distributions, marginally better character scenes, and more easily fraggable bosses. It’s like the developers listened to all the complaints about Xeno and then came to the absolute opposite set of conclusions as to how to go about doing things. As mentioned above, there were a few things improved upon and done better, but the fact is that I would much prefer those few things be added back into the original game rather than throwing the metaphorical baby out with the bathwater.
In short, this game is what happens when you try to put out a fire with gasoline. In a series that is predicated on its silly and whimsical portrayal of the stark post-apocalyptic future, Metal Max Xeno: Reborn takes away all the fun stuff. It may well be the one entry of the series I sell back to the used games store when I’m done. For every other marginal-to-bad game the series has produced, I can at least name one item I actually liked about it. Metal Max on the NES was a unique experience for its time. Metal Saga for Playstation 2 had some of the most innovative bounty target subplots in the series. Season of Steel for the DS gave the player unique character classes and skill sets that have not been seen since. Metal Max Xeno swapped out the ablative tiles for regenerating force fields and at least tried to do something different with the themes. But for Metal Max Xeno: Reborn… in the end, I can’t say much good about it at all that one of its predecessors hasn’t done better.
But at least I can pet the doggy.