Reviewed: May 22, 2006
Released: April 25, 2006
Welcome to the future. Some great catastrophe has all but wiped out life on Earth, but the human race lives on nonetheless, carving out livelihoods and societies from the vast wastelands of the planet. Many robots from the technologically advanced past still wander the planet, randomly attacking everything they meet without rhyme or reason. Mankind's answer to this threat is placing bounties on each and every hostile thing out there, and the people who collect those bounties wander far a field searching for ancient tanks and armored vehicles with which to fight their nemeses.
Sounds pretty typical, doesn't it? Except that the livelihoods the human race has carved out include mad scientists and geriatric pickpockets, the ancient robot menaces look like they walked out of a Dali painting of a gun show, and the association that pays hunters their bounties also slaps them with nicknames like "Monkey Masher." This, ladies and gents, is the strange, strange world of Metal Saga.
Metal Saga places you in the shoes of a kid who looks about twelve and acts about twice that age. You get to name him yourself. At the outset of the game, your character's mother is asking him to reconsider following in his father's footsteps as a (bounty) hunter - a dangerous and uncertain profession - and think about becoming a mechanic like she is, instead. Right away,
Metal Saga's great sense of humor becomes apparent: if you choose to become a mechanic like your mother wants, the game ends - complete with an ending scene, a credit roll and some entertaining text describing the rest of your unbearably dull life as a mechanic. From the first time I saw the irreverent alternate ending, I knew I was going to like this game.
After a quick reset and a wiser choice, the game begins in earnest. As a young hunter in Metal Saga's desolate, post-apocalyptic world, your first order of business is to dig into the miles-wide scrap heap behind your hometown and try to salvage a working, preferably armored vehicle of some sort. After all, the bounties you're after aren't the ordinary real-life variety.
From walking piles of trash to fifty-foot sentient gorillas and massive battleships with minds of their own, the various wanted criminals of this world are anything but normal. And the unique enemy design doesn't end with the bosses. Bayonets on unicycles, sexy legs topped by anti-aircraft cannons and Siberian huskies with bazookas on their backs are just a few of the bizarre and entertaining enemies you'll run into during the course of the game.
Metal Saga's overall visual style is reminiscent of the anime Trigun, and the Wild ARMs series of RPGs; in other words, a post-apocalyptic Old West fusion. Tanks and tank-like vehicles figure prominently in the lives of most hunters, so snooping around ancient facilities, guided by a satellite GPS while looking for useful military technology is something you'll end up doing fairly often. At the same time, cowgirls sling six-shooters, trains get robbed by banditos in bandannas and desert sands cover just about everything. Add a handful of random stuff into the mix (like a wandering samurai, a morbid Dr. Frankenstein wannabe living in an abandoned church, and a cult of idiotic body builders led by a dude named Father Muscle) and you've got a very weird game on your hands, stylistically. However, it's as entertaining to experience, as it is strange.
In terms of structure, Metal Saga is more Fallout than Final Fantasy, despite its Japanese heritage. Almost completely open-ended, about the only thing that will keep you from running all the way across the world within two hours of starting your game is a lack of money; at a few key points you'll need to cough up some cash to ride further west. Because the game almost feels as though it will be a traditional story driven RPG at first, some people have been caught off guard and disappointed by Metal Saga. There is, after all, absolutely no main storyline whatsoever. But when taken for what it is, this game is actually very solid.
Similarly to most open-ended games, events in Metal Saga can be triggered by all sorts of things, and are occasionally completely random. Each event constitutes a mini storyline for you to follow to its completion, usually with a fat bounty at the end of it. For example, you might walk into a town you've visited twenty times before and see a scene of some outlaws planning to rob the train. If you want to, you can buy a ticket and hop on board to try and stop them - or not. These events are not always keyed to your level, either, so it's always a good idea to save before pursuing your next objective.
Aside from these plentiful little side events, there are also a wealth of permanent bounties to be collected in each town you visit. These baddies are always around, usually protected by some sort of dungeon or appearing randomly in certain areas of the world. Fighting your way to the bounty-heads and defeating them usually yields several well-earned levels up, and with each bounty you claim, a large sum of money is rewarded to you, allowing you new freedom in equipment and tank part upgrades. If played in order, Metal Saga's progressive challenges offer a surprisingly smooth leveling experience for such an open game, rarely becoming too easy or difficult.
Of course, for those of us who like to break our games and make them beg for mercy, that's no fun. Metal Saga also allows you to drop a few bounty-heads, catch the train west, run for your life all over the world until you find a high level town and blow your money on equipment you aren't meant to see for another twenty levels. The combat system will always allow you to run, in the spirit of allowing as much exploration as is reasonably possible, which is nice. However, you may not get a chance to do so until your party is completely dead, if you stretch your neck too far out, too early. Whether you want to experience a balanced challenge or just power-trip your way through some quick money, Metal Saga's got you covered without feeling unbalanced.
Either way, when you explore various towns and dungeons in Metal Saga, you'll notice that they're all chock-full of hidden goodies. I haven't had this much fun running around mashing the action button since... well, since I don't know when. Some of the loot is obviously placed, in treasure chests or glowing objects on the ground. But even more stuff is hidden behind barrels, on tables, in dark corners, under sinks, inside refrigerators - you name it.
Better yet, a lot of the things you can dig up are merely components of some greater whole that can be assembled at a shop somewhere. By diligently searching every square inch of a building, you can often find every component you need for a sweet new weapon or piece of equipment. And since the enemy encounter rate in Metal Saga is possibly the lowest in the history of gaming, you'll never have to worry about overextending yourself on your treasure hunts.
When you do run into enemies, you'll experience a very normal, turn-based RPG combat system that's pretty easy to get the hang of regardless of how many RPGs you've played before. There is a deep damage dealing system that will be appreciated by old hands (after a tank's armor is depleted, its parts can become damaged but it does not become immediately unusable), but everything is put together smoothly enough that a beginner can enjoy battling as well.
Depending on your tank's configuration, you can equip it with various main guns, secondary guns and special-situation weaponry like sonic blasters and anti-aircraft guns. During battle, firing the Main or SE guns expends some ammunition; firing the secondary Sub Gun does not. Naturally, most battles are fought with lots of Sub Gun fire.
As you acquire more party members including a mechanic, a battle partner and a Loyal Friend (you'll see what I mean), you will be able to drive more tanks into battle and be that much more deadly than before. When fighting out of your tanks, your party members can only use their own personal weapons to attack, but also have access to character-specific special abilities and the all-important Item menu, which is inaccessible when fighting in the much more powerful tanks. Either way, there's a handy FFX-like turn meter at the top of the screen to allow for thinking ahead.
All in all the battles are intuitive and entertaining. The large number of different weapons and special abilities Metal Saga has to offer ensure that fighting never becomes too dull. And if you just can't stand to wait regardless, you're still in luck. Holding down the L2 button allows you to skip over every part of a battle instantly until your next command comes up. When you're lost inside a cave and you've seen the same enemy animations a thousand times, this makes dealing with random battles much less stressful than usual.
Naturally since you play a hunter, the vast majority of Metal Saga is focused on combat. Still, there are a handful of things to do and see in the game that have almost nothing to do with fighting. One of the more entertaining side activities is sending gifts to various people (mostly pretty girls) you meet during your travels. The gifts are usually quite expensive, but you can unlock a lot of extra scenes if you figure out who likes what type of gift. You can even get some of the girls to wear different outfits you send them as gifts!
Some of the bars have arcade games in them (though there are only two types) that you can waste time and money on. A lot of bars also have either a drinking or a dancing challenge somewhere in them. Both games are quite funny and decently challenging, though I especially recommend the dancing game if you want to laugh whatever you're drinking right out of your nose. Other mini-games can be found in odd places here and there, too - Metal Saga is a game that offers rich rewards for people who like to talk to everyone in sight.
There are also jukeboxes in most bars that have a selection of six songs from the game inside of them. By illegally downloading them into your "Satcom" satellite communication device (kind of a laptop computer in your helmet), you can listen to whatever song you like at any time outside of battle. In the few instances where a song was getting on my nerves, I was very thankful for the ability to change it to something much cooler. This is one of those features I now find myself wishing every new game would include.
Metal Saga may not have a grand, overarching story - but there are plenty of games out there that do (try Suikoden V for a perfect example). Much rarer is this type of game, which manages to feel smoothly balanced and open ended at the same time. Even better, the game has a big sense of humor and doesn't take itself too seriously. The con man Klepto Cobain swears, "I don't have a gun. No, I don't have a gun... what, you don't believe me?” An ape bodyguard with blond hair is named Dr. Zeus.
Last but not least, Metal Saga is a game that goes easy on gamers, allowing free instant teleportation to any previously visited location, easy fast-forwarding through menial fights and the freedom to choose your own theme music, among other things. Despite the gameplay options being mildly limited (you have to fight and that's all there is to it), and despite the fact that you probably won't develop any great attachment to the characters, Metal Saga delivers where it counts. All its important elements come together to make, if not a great or revolutionary game, then at least a good solid one.
If there's one thing Metal Saga does not have besides a main story, it's great graphics. On the good end of things, you can zoom in pretty close to your characters and vehicles and their models stay sharp. On the bad end, characters in particular are extremely simplified, more so than in any game in my recent memory. And although the camera can zoom, you cannot rotate it - like Final Fantasy VII, Metal Saga uses pre-created, fixed-angle isometric backgrounds for every locale. While this might be a bit of a trip for FFVII geeks like myself that does not mean it is a good thing. Special effects are also quite lackluster, considering what some games can do these days.
Put simply, the graphics in Metal Saga belong at the beginning of the PS2's life cycle, not the end. Now, most of the people who will like this game probably won't care much about its graphics (once again, myself included), but they are sadly dated nonetheless. Even the unusually high quality anime cinematic at the beginning of the game isn't enough to offset the graphics of the game itself, I'm afraid.
There are a number of pretty good tunes in Metal Saga's repertoire. Ranging from saccharine piano pieces to trip-hop influenced, urban-sounding numbers, the soundtrack has a wide variety as well. However, the good and the bad come in fairly even quantities. Though there are only a few songs annoying enough that I refuse to listen to them, there are plenty that I routinely change just because they aren't very good.
Of course, that brings me to my second main point about the game's sound: you can change the music! As long as you don't enter a place where the music would change automatically, it persists between rooms as well, which is nice and convenient. On one hand, this is a great boon; on the other, it's sad that only a handful of songs ever get played in my game, out of the nearly 20 I've downloaded so far. It's also worth noting here that when switching between rooms, there is an annoying load time layover during which the music stops briefly and then starts up again. Can it really be that difficult to optimize the soundtrack so that it keeps playing during a two second load?
There is no voice acting in Metal Saga. Instead, characters' voices are simulated by that good old RPG standby, the Nondescript Text Chirp. Sound effects for the various guns and cannon in the game are done quite well, while most other sound effects are simply par for the course. And despite some good songs and the ability to control what you listen to, the bad songs and annoying breaks in the music balance everything out to make 'par for the course' the phrase of choice to describe Metal Saga's sounds.
Metal Saga has a world that is much larger than it looks on the Satcom map. And given that a lot of sub-plots only appear sometimes (or if you say certain things to certain people), it feels as though that world is a living, breathing one, a world that could surprise you with a new twist at any moment. I have a feeling that in reality there isn't as much raw content in the game as it feels like there is, but the illusion is convincing, convincing enough to be fun for at least one play through. At roughly fifty hours for an average game, that's a good amount of value the first time around. And there's always the prospect of finding yet another side quest to work on, just when you think you're approaching the end.
Though chances are good that it isn't as fun the second time through, Metal Saga definitely delivers just as much as any other RPG out there. It should also be remembered that there are many, many alternate endings to the game, all of them humorous. Dying on the field doesn't end the game at all - you get dragged to a cathedral by a purple giant named Igor and resurrected instead - but dying in most other places, or saying the wrong thing, can yield all sorts of bizarre endings. They're worth seeking out just as much as the missions themselves.
It's fun to play a game with as much humor in it as Metal Saga. From the big things (game endings) right down to the small, it's pervasive on every level. Even the usual Yes/No dialog choices are often replaced by stuff like "That's right, small fry/Not today, mini-me." The combat is certainly a bit repetitive, but you don't ever notice it much because it's also a lot of fun - and fun combat is key in a game about a bounty hunter.
There aren't a lot of areas in which Metal Saga breaks new ground, but it loves its players and treats them well, which is often all you need to make a good game. And I'm willing to overlook the graphics and sound. If you are too, then Metal Saga may just be the open-ended RPG you're looking for.