Metal Max Xeno Review
Less “Mad Max”, More “Complacent Max”
For many western audiences, the Metal Max series of turn-based RPGs is an unknown entity. Though there has been a large number of releases in the series, only one — the spin-off Metal Saga — made its way to North America and Europe. Meanwhile, the series has established a firm foothold in its native Japan, and is only a few scant years away from celebrating its 30th anniversary. With the freshly-localized release of Metal Max Xeno, the latest in the tank combat RPG series, current Japanese custodian Kadokawa Games and western publisher NIS America hope to give it a foothold in the west. Unfortunately, several major design missteps, not to mention being developed with the technical limitations of the PlayStation Vita in mind, make sure that any potential fun that could have been had withers and dries up before it ever has a chance to blossom into anything worthwhile.
Metal Max Xeno takes place several decades after the rogue AI NOA put into motion its plan to eradicate humans from the face of the Earth in a war of man versus machine. With mankind all but extinct, survivors were forced to huddle into small camps, scratching out a living on the barren surface of the planet. Protagonist Talis is on his way to just such a camp, Iron Town, as the game opens. What he finds is nothing but ruins devoid of life. Rogue machines — the Sons of NOA, or SoNs — patrol the wastes of what once used to be Tokyo, now known only as Distokio, intent on wiping out the last vestiges of human life. Joining forces with three survivors in the nearby secret military installation Iron Base, it is up to Talis to scour the game’s world to rescue any remaining humans and decimate its machine and monster populations, eventually tracking down the warbot spearheading the anti-human campaign in Distokio.
Where the expectation for most games would be to take this very basic revenge story premise and build on it, adding plot twists and character development to forge a much more interesting narrative in the process, Metal Max Xeno‘s plot very closely sticks to its simple rut. The game is essentially a string of missions that send Talis farther and farther out into the wasteland. The initial all-male cast — with the exception of the female android Po-M — is joined before long by an actual human woman rescued, literally, from the tangled web of a large spider-bot. Immediately, several of the male characters revert to hormonal teenage-boy behavior, either awkward or downright creepy in its single-minded focus on sex. While the topic of repopulating the Earth and preserving mankind from extinction is a perfectly appropriate one for a species on the brink of extinction, the dogged persistence with which Xeno pursues its sexual politics, with entire cinematics repeatedly focusing on who Toni, our young girl, should give her virginity to, is nothing short of cringeworthy. Even later female characters, like the scantily-clad Maria, don’t fare much better. It’s standard, stereotypical anime adolescent-boy fantasy stuff, and feels embarrassingly out-of-place in this gritty world where concerns of sheer survival should rule the day instead.
As players encounter new characters in the wasteland, and the population of Iron Base grows little by little, opportunities for interesting interactions and character development begin to amass. Sadly, little of any lasting importance or even interest transpires. The brief anecdotes that are provided have no impact on the larger narrative, and are never mentioned again after the scene ends. Backstories are seldom given much development, either; a shame, really, considering the characters include such fertile premises as the leader of a gang of wasteland thugs. The biggest tease, though, involves main character Talis himself, or more specifically the robot appendage he has instead of a left arm, which is revealed to be the result of a curious infection that is consuming his entire body and turning him into a machine, little by little. It even incapacitates him at several points throughout the game, but this development astoundingly receives zero importance or payoff as the credits finally roll at the game’s end. Other than that, Talis makes it clear he’s not interested in any sort of narrative shenanigans, with a single-minded devotion to revenge that can only be described as dogged and entirely banal.
As much as the boys-salivating-over-girls parts of the narrative shift the focus away from the game’s thematic thrust of vehicular combat, it’s sometimes, sadly, a welcome distraction from the dull and poorly-implemented world exploration. While a desolate wasteland should not, by all accounts, teem with points of interest, the designers went a little overboard with this concept. There’s almost nothing of note to see or do while driving between points outside of crates and enemy encounters. While the option to explore Distokio on foot exists, it spells almost certain death, as many of its monsters and robots are designed to be tackled using the fleet of armored vehicles found throughout the game.
Battles are turn-based and involve three party members on the player’s side, but neglect to give an on-screen indicator for the turn order of party members and enemies. Each vehicle comes equipped with its own shield, which absorbs all damage until its shield points are depleted, at which point it can still continue attacking but will start to take enemy hits directly to its chassis, motor, and various armaments. Each successive enemy hit has an increasingly greater chance of wrecking a shieldless tank’s equipment, and should the chassis break entirely, all characters riding the vehicle are ejected onto the battlefield, and must continue fighting with their own equipped personal weapons and health bar. In case players run out of ammo or shields, a quick-travel option sends players straight back to Iron Base, where all tanks and characters are fixed back up free of charge. This fast-travel option, coupled with multiple fast-travel points in the field, means there’s virtually no penalty for failure; die and it’s an instant trip back to base, then right back out to take another crack at it. While this takes away a large portion of the sense of danger throughout the game, it also serves to reduce late-game frustration when the game adds some sudden extreme difficulty spikes.
Another advantage of Iron Base is its resident mechanic and perverted old man, Jingoro, who will happily construct new weapons and retool tanks’ battle capabilities — even construct whole new tanks — using resources and blueprints collected in the field. There are a ton of ways to customize tanks, including a few purely cosmetic adjustments, to improve their performance and make them better-suited for certain foes. Characters earn experience and level up in stats, but tanks only improve through swapping out parts, adding engines, and adjusting weapon slots.
Tank armaments come in three types — machine gun turrets, cannons, and special weapons — with varying elemental effects, ranges, and ammo caps. Most enemies are weak to one type of attack or another, and some have shields of their own that are vulnerable to specific types of attacks, so there’s plenty of reason to return to Iron Base frequently and spend resources to alter tanks — in theory. But the level of difficulty for most enemies is so low and the game’s systems of stats, weaknesses, and strengths are so poorly explained that it’s often not worth the time to work on tanks that fly through one battle after another anyway. One nice feature to reduce the tedium of easy encounters is the ability to blast away low-level enemies without leaving the world map, while still granting players all the experience points and spoils they’d normally receive. The ease of most enemies doesn’t necessarily apply consistently, however. Easy random encounters may be followed by a sudden cadre of ten or more overpowered enemies, who would pose considerable problems even to higher-powered tanks.
On-foot combat, which is required in some select dungeons that are too narrow for tanks to enter, follows almost all of the same rules as the vehicular battles, and falls prey to the same shortcomings. Most battles are laughably easy, often seeing a whole group of enemies wiped out by a single attack from Talis, even before other party members have taken their first turn. Other enemies, included in the same dungeon, can quickly wipe out the same party that trounced all previous encounters. Rather than persevere against difficult foes, it’s usually a much more appealing option to just run from battle, which is also an option when in a vehicle. While this doesn’t bode well for the fun-level of dungeons, the straw that really breaks the camel’s back is the complete lack of design effort. Every single dungeon uses the exact same rubble-strewn tileset of hallways and rooms, stitched together in a few different orders. There’s nothing to do in them, apart from, again, looting a few crates. No interesting plot points, no boss battles (with one exception), nothing visually interesting to see. To make matters worse, the encounter rate in dungeons and tunnels, basically linear “dungeon” stretches for tanks, is highly irregular, sometimes triggering battles every two or three steps taken. In a game already struggling with dull exploration and combat, dungeons mark the rock bottom.
So while most of Metal Max Xeno seems to encourage players to fall asleep at the wheel, it’s the game’s finale that at last rouses the senses, though not necessarily in a good way. The final boss, who already features an unfair difficulty spike compared to everything else up that point is further locked behind an unskippable three-part boss rush. Suddenly, a game that has done nothing up to that point but lure the player into a false sense of complacency dials up the frustration factor to an unfair degree. Challenges are often welcome, but the game’s sudden requirement that players master the upgrade systems, which would have been fun if incorporated earlier and with proper guidance, and likely spend additional hours grinding experience and resources feels like a punishment more than anything else.
The game was developed for both PlayStation Vita and PlayStation 4 in Japan, and the limitations of the former have significantly impacted the console version. Though the Vita version has not come west, the game’s graphical fidelity serves as a constant reminder that Metal Max Xeno isn’t going to push the PlayStation 4’s capabilities. With the drab dungeons and stretches of nothingness in the open wasteland, there isn’t much to uplift its visuals. Animations are fairly basic, and even cinematics largely restrict themselves to simple character movements. Combat animations are inconsistent; for example, some weapons appear during their respective combat animations, while others, specifically some handheld weapons, are entirely absent. The game at least makes good use of neon and pastel colors to make characters and vehicles stand out from the otherwise unappealing environments. Likewise, character models during dialog are large and highly detailed, and easily offer as much characterization for some characters as the story sees fit to provide them with.
Those looking for an engaging soundtrack experience will be hard-pressed to find much to write home about here. The battle music, for example, is a grating heavy metal riff that contrasts to the extremely drowsy overworld music, and the constant switch from one to the other does nothing for the overall experience. There are a few highlights, like the Iron Base theme for the game’s second half, and the main menu track is worth a listen. All main characters in Xeno are also fully voiced, though the audio remains entirely in Japanese. Overall, even with some worthwhile selections, the game’s music comes across as very average at best.
The ideas behind the Metal Max franchise are sound, and have surely been executed effectively in the past, but Xeno falls short in some very critical areas. While things like the empty-feeling wasteland can be excused considering the game’s backstory, the fun that should have been derived from building up a killer squadron of kitted-out tanks and demolishing the opposition with it is squandered by a design that doesn’t require players to really learn how to play the game until it is too late to really have any fun with it at all. Any positives that pop up along the way are constantly negated by frustrating encounter rates, sudden difficulty spikes, and capped off by an unfair ending boss rush. If Kadokawa Games was hoping to kindle interest in future Metal Max titles in western audiences, Metal Max Xeno is not the game to get that particular job done.
Riding post-apocalyptic tanks into battle is quite an interesting premise
There's a deep customization system in there...
...but it's so unintuitive and poorly explained that it fails to provide any fun
Visuals are pretty lackluster
Dungeons are boring and painful experiences
Even for a post-apocalyptic wasteland, the graphics are drab
A late-game boss rush demands that controllers be thrown through TV screens