Review: Metal Max Xeno Reborn

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Is it a remake or re-release? Unfortunately, Metal Max Xeno Reborn goes no distance to solve one of life’s unanswerable questions, but this JRPG turn-based title is – like the name suggests – reborn, like a director’s cut of movie from an aghast director who manages to create a completely different experience from the same source material.      

Originally a PS4 and PS Vita release, this is the 15th entry in the post-apocalyptic vehicle-combat Metal Max series, which has gone relatively under the radar in the west, but don’t let that fool you, this low-budget title is one of the most addictive JRPGs I’ve ever played and is tremendous fun. 

The biggest change from the original is the complete overhaul and massive improvement in its turn-based and enemy system, which activates turn-based fights without ever removing you from the active 3D map, allowing you to attack enemies from any angle and be able to plan your next move seamlessly which is important as the maps are often filled with enemies and can all be seen on the viewable map. 

They found me, I found them, pleasantries were exchanged.

After an enemy detects your presence (after your freely explore the map or attack them in a first-person mode), you enter a fluid turn-based attack mode where you can move on the map between turns and attack in any direction (map and weapon range permitting). It even provides you the option to exit the mode at the touch of a button, allowing for your escape – assuming you aren’t killed while still within the enemy’s range – while another button can activate an auto-fire mode which gives you the chance of victory even without hanging around.

It works fantastically and affords you the opportunity to let the fireworks and cacophony of honing cannon fodder fly at 360 degrees at numerously more enemies and is a joy that gets more enjoyable as your weaponry expands. Its barely comparable to the original’s retro system where one small group of enemies would pop up out of nowhere in the middle of an empty map and failing to one-shot kill them would launch you into a static turn-based battle – hardly the smoothest of processes.   

While the action mostly takes place in your vehicles – which include tanks, a buggy, a bus and a spider tank – the game also brilliantly combines with the ability to attack on foot, with your own weapons, stats and upgrades for your characters that can aid you in both situations with engineer, medic and assault abilities. 

Race a shark, jump the shark and fight a shark…..with a flaming sword.

This is only one half of the overall gameplay loop though, as you can have almost as much fun with an addictively deep and creative tank customization system that you’ll need to constantly tinker with to challenge the progressively harder enemies. If you try and brute force through the game without picking up items and developing your weapons you will struggle to progress, but if you become adept to creating builds that focus on the best available weapons and enemy weaknesses, you’ll likely have little trouble. 

With a choice of 5 weapon slots, an engine slot and 5 trait chips to enhance your tank there’s a lot you can play with.

One of the best elements of the tank customization is not only the buying, creating or upgrading of the large selection of weapons, but also the decision on how to divide your weapons between your vehicles as need to adhere to your tank’s weight capacity (which depends on the engine you have equipped). You can’t, for example, equip all of the most powerful weapons to one vehicle as the most effective weapons are not only really heavy, but the closer you get to the capacity limit, the lower the health of your tank becomes.

You can reduce your overall weight by swapping for a lighter weapon (with a choice of 3 types – machine gun, cannon or missile) in one of the 5 slots or you can reduce the weight of your individual weapons, but that makes them more susceptible to damage during battle, so a balance needs to be met in the slickly-designed menus. 

For those who have mastered that balance and like a challenge, the game provides 3 extra difficulty levels (unlocked by beating the main boss on each newly unlocked mode) as well as a survival mode which removes all autohealing from the game.

I don’t know where you land on the need to platinum your games, dear reader, but so simple and efficient is the gameplay loop in Reborn that even my long-lost desire for such achievements was rekindled at the thought of more explosive action and tinkering with more tank setups. 

Just in this picture alone, are two bosses and three minor enemies. Find them all – I dare you!

Story-wise the post-apocalyptic narrative is as basic as it gets – humanity is on the brink due to an overzealous and unappreciative AI mind who has done the business on its former masters. Starting off by yourself with the ambitious goal to destroy all enemies in sight, you discover the lone beacon for humanity – a base which can recover and replenish resources – and explore the world finding lone survivors and abandoned vehicles to add to your arsenal. The ones particularly responsible for the hell on earth are the well-designed SoNs, the machine bosses, all of which have bounties on their heads and drop special parts you can use to create epic weapons – for extra motivation.

The reason I list the story second to the gameplay though, is that Reborn barely gives it the time of day (at least in comparison to the original), and take the knife to its script, cutting out entire plot points, characters, animated cutscenes, and leaving the story to play out like a mystery that gets filled in a piecemeal manner through one-way character interactions as they explain their past experiences.  

The world itself is also discovered linearly and is completely barren except for enemies, but interestingly, this sparseness never really becomes an issue as the gameplay loop of battling, fast travelling back to base to autoheal and upgrading your vehicles paints an effective picture of survival in a harsh world where everything is hard to come by – apart from the autohealing which we’ll chalk down to modern gaming convenience.     

Colorful explosions, cool looking bosses contrast well with bleak sand-covered maps

It should be said that the mysterious atmosphere exuded by the soundtrack and the great enemy variety and environmental design makes you want to learn more about the world through the relationships with the available characters (that develop as you level them up), but there is no denying that the desire to see some meaningful character development goes unsatiated as the characters are mostly there to add to the pool of playable characters rather than to have an effect on the story. This is compounded by quirky joke endings for each NPC that shows your bedroom door and a ‘happily ever after’ ending, regardless of the progression of the main story, which is either amusing fan service, or a sign of a neglected story.      

The visual design has also gotten an overhaul, taking the original’s cartoonish style and taking a more photo-realistic filter to the output as well as vastly improving the menus and giving the characters new avatar designs.   

I’d be remiss if I forgot to mention that along with your tanks on the battlefield you meet a dog that can join your team as an assist character – with a gun strapped to its back. Its also key to victory early in the game as it can heal you AND kick the enemy’s ass. If that wasn’t awesome enough you can stroke and feed him at base, and if you spend a ton of upgrade points for him you can also unlock a belly rub – not kidding. Furthermore if you want to play a spin-off from the same developer you can always buy ‘Metal Dogs’, that has solely dog protagonists – also not kidding.

There is some inevitable low-budget jank present, but it’s far from detrimental, mostly extending to basic character models with overly smooth and shiny designs and the occasional slightly jaggard running animations but they are acceptable. Perhaps the worst offender though, ironically, isn’t even the developers fault as the translation – often outsourced to another company – can be subpar, with some enemy and item descriptions still in Japanese, as well as other questionable text, though to be fair, it’s debatable whether that’s due to a sliced and diced script with leftover text from cut plot points.

Fret not though, the effect of these minor issues is often lost amongst the effect of so many other great details in other areas that give the game its personality, such as an immersive day/night cycle with moving shadows as the sun rises and sets, which gives the desolate world a natural beauty to it despite the immense struggle of the populace. Even something as simple as characters hitching a ride on your vehicle when their own has been totaled or enemies that aren’t just standing around to be killed, like the giant ants that duel each other as you just explore the map – its the little things that count and they really do make a difference.   

With its tremendous take on the turn-based gameplay formula and creative vehicle/weapon customization, Reborn has one of the simplest and most addictive gameplay loops I’ve ever experienced, even out-performing its larger JRPG cousins in that regard. Sadly, as the cancellation of Reborn’s sequel came on the same day as its own release, it rings even more true now that Reborn is a giant killer from start to finish, going out perhaps not as intended, but in a blaze of glory. 

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