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I’ve always had a soft spot for the Metal Max games. The borderline copyright infringement name gives you a good idea of what to expect: postapocalyptic wasteland exploration with a JRPG twist. Originally released as Metal Saga in North America, it’s been a quiet, distinct take on the genre. Low on guidance and high on weirdness, it’s always been worth a look. The disappointing Metal Max Xeno was the last we saw of the games for a while. Metal Max Xeno Reborn is an attempt to polish that game into something that’s more worthy of the franchise. There’s only so much you can do with such a weak base, though.
Xeno puts you in the shoes of Talis, a red-haired man who awakens in a cave in a postapocalyptic world. Humanity is on the brink of extinction, and an evil supercomputer named Noah has effectively Skynetted the word. Between nuclear weapons and deadly robots, humanity has been driven to the brink. Along with other survivors, Talis struggles to find a way to survive in the harsh world. Thankfully, they have specialized tanks that allow them to fight the mechanical and biomechanical forces of Noah.
Xeno Reborn‘s story is there, and the concept of the setting is cool, even if it really is just “Terminator” meets “Mad Max.” There are some interesting bits of world building, and I like the game’s “gradually advancing against extinction” tone. The characters and actual core plot are rather dull, though. Nobody has much personality, with every character having one personality trait that they constantly retread. If someone is a drunkard, almost all of their dialog is about that. If someone makes innuendos, then they do so nonstop. It doesn’t do a lot for them.
Xeno is also held back by a surprisingly weak translation. Typos are everywhere, and there are several cases where words are either translated incorrectly or translated using words that are technically correct but awkward. It’s not the worst translation I’ve ever seen, but it makes the low production values of Xeno feel even lower. Some of the typos occur so early on that it is difficult to believe that the QC engineers didn’t catch them. It gives everything a rushed feeling.
Xeno Reborn runs into a strange issue of both being too linear and too free. While the game has an “open world,” it’s more of a long series of corridors, with advancement into later areas blocked by objects that can only be destroyed by weapons of a certain power. It’s not a bad method of advancement, but the game feels like it should be more open and freeform, and it does a bad job of conveying information.
For example, the first area is a light tutorial for on-foot combat. I went through it and reached one of the objects at the end. Naturally, I assumed that I was supposed to destroy it with my character’s built-in hand cannon, and that worked. It turns out that I was supposed to go in another direction, where I’d find a tank that let me destroy the wall. I ended up getting a good way past that point only to realize that some tutorials mentioned tanks, and I should probably have one. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s an example of some of the game’s poor signposting, so I was never sure whether what I was doing was intended or had broken the game.
I don’t mind games that demand you discover basic mechanics. I invested an absurd number of hours into Elden Ring. The problem is that Xeno doesn’t give you enough toys to play with to feel like you’re exploring or discovering things, as opposed to feeling like a linear title that explains itself poorly. If it were wide open and free-roaming like older Metal Max titles, it would be much less of an issue.
Combat in Metal Max occurs on foot and in tanks, but it follows the same basic rules. Combat runs on a real-time system, where you and enemies wait until your turn arrives, and then you select a variety of options and attacks. On-foot combat is standard for the genre, but tank combat is more complex. You can equip different weapons and skills that let you use those weapons together, but everything except machine guns has limited ammo. Being damaged can destroy one or more of your precious weapons, leaving them inaccessible without using items or returning to base.
The combat system feels strange. There are so many things that partially work or feel unintentional, and I’m often unclear about what is the intended or unintended method of doing things. For example, let’s talk about cover. Sometimes, ducking in and out of cover works as you might imagine. Other times, the enemy AI breaks and stops functioning. Other times, attacks go through walls, and objects to hit you. Sometimes, even the same attack ends up with different outcomes. Conservation is treated as a major part of combat, but you can fast-travel at any time, and even if you die, there are no consequences or downsides. It makes low-ammo weapons lack a real downside, since there is a fast-travel point near basically every strong monster.
Reborn is technically a remake of the original game, so it includes some new features. Perhaps the most significant is wanted monsters, who are special optional bosses who dot the landscape and significantly change the structure of the game. They become soft goals, advancing forward until you encounter the next monster or figure out when you can return to take it on. They’re also the most enjoyable part of the game because figuring out the exact patterns to take them down goes a long way toward making the other mechanics feel more engaging.
The other new feature is a special fourth party member. Rather than another tank-piloting human, you get an adorable little Shiba Inu named Pochi, who serves as an all-purpose helper. He can draw enemy attention, and since he’s tiny, it is difficult for them to hit him. He can dig up items, bark to weaken enemies, and strap a giant anti-tank cannon on his back to contribute to combat. He even has his own custom skill tree, which contains useful skills such as “dig” and “pee.” He’s a cute addition, but the lethality of the game made me feel guilty every time a giant rhino tank stepped on him. He’s not the most unique feature in the game, but who doesn’t love an anti-tank dog?
At the end of the day, the changes aren’t that significant. Dungeons are better designed, but they’re still not great. There are more things to do but not that much. For all that it is a “reimagining” of the game, it doesn’t do a ton to make Reborn feel as good as the old Metal Max titles. It’s a better title than Xeno, but it doesn’t go far enough to justify its existence. That’s the core problem: It’s a “fixed” version, but it didn’t fix enough to be particularly good.
Despite these complaints, I did have some fun with Xeno, but it felt like I was fighting the game to reach the parts that worked. The loop of Build Tank à Hunt Monster à Use Monster Parts to Make Better Tank can be genuinely fun in a mindless, grindy kind of way, and there are certainly options to build and improve characters in distinct ways. You have to struggle enough to do it, and then it becomes a question of whether it’s worth the bother. It might be good enough to satisfy cravings, but perhaps not at full price.
Xeno is visually unimpressive, even by the standards of low-budget JRPGs. It almost looks like a PS2 game, with awkwardly animated character models, badly textured surroundings, and enemies who vary wildly in quality. A certain breed of on-foot enemy is an untextured, vaguely rodent-shaped blob that glides across the ground; it was immensely distracting when we were trapped in a room with them. The original version had cel-shaded graphics, and while the new version is technically higher quality, it looks more dull and boring. The soundtrack is nice enough but not exceptional; it sets the tone of the game well, though.
Metal Max Xeno Reborn feels like a wasted effort. There is a lot of potential that Reborn brings to the surface, but ultimately, it’s not the game that it needs to be. If you’re a Metal Max fan hoping for an improvement over Xeno classic, then you’ll technically get what you’re looking for, but it’s still not as good as earlier games in the franchise. If the idea really appeals to you, then you’ll get some fun out of it, but otherwise, it’s just tough to justify a purchase.
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