Most RPGs follow conventional story developments -- most of the time, you're cast as some heroic figure who is the only hope against the ultimate destruction of the world. The good and bad guys are pretty easily defined and things are relatively linear in the development of the plot and the adventure itself. The same can't really be said of Metal Saga, Atlus' post-apocalyptic RPG that (for the most part) abandons plot and linearity for a user defined experience.
The ostensible plot, which you pick up in snippets by talking to the inhabitants of towns, is that the world was once extremely advanced, but on the brink of ecological destruction. Hoping to avoid a catastrophe, humanity created a supercomputer to manage the problem, which promptly turned on its creator. Creating new monsters and weapons to eliminate mankind, the obliteration of that society became known as the Great Destruction, as the survivors of the tragedy were scattered across the world. After some time passed, a few people decided to fight back against the creatures in the surrounding wilderness by salvaging and reusing tanks, weapons and other items. These people became known as hunters, and they were tasked with destroying any beasts that threatened any human outposts.
These aren't the standard monsters that you've become used to from other RPGs; one glance at the strange creatures that you'll face off against and you'll realize that this ecological disaster obviously created a ton of mutated beasts. For instance, there are sentient hot water heaters, bumblebees packing machine guns, and zombies made out of scrap metal. These are some of the tamer creatures too, as some of them tend to be a bit more risqu? and comical -- ever face off against a creature that was only a pair of legs with a massive gun in its crotch? What about soldiers that played hide and seek in boxes and barrels? At the very least, you'll have an interesting time whenever you run into a random battle, because a large amount of the time you'll be wondering just what in the hell you're facing off against.
Players take on the role of a young man who happens to be the son of a famous retired hunter named Eddy. Following in your father's footsteps, you'll travel the world, exterminating beasts and sharpening your skills in this 40+ hour adventure. You'll also expand your party to include an eclectic cast, including a dog with a bayonet strapped to its back, a cowgirl and a mechanic. Whenever your group enters a new region, you'll be able to capitalize on what's known as weekly bounties that are associated to a specific type of monster. Anytime you kill one of these creatures, you can return to the hunter's office and receive a reward for each one you've destroyed.
You'll also be presented with outlaw contracts complete with wanted posters of monsters or criminals that are terrorizing a certain area of the world. Some of these entail giant land sharks with three hammerheads on its body, a bomber/vulture hybrid, and an army of soldiers led by a general sitting in a lounge chair on the back of a much larger grunt (didn't I mention how wacky the enemies were?). You'll have to actively track down these rogues in their last known area, as they frequently hide from any hunters trying to collect the bounty on their heads.
Combat in Metal Saga is somewhat different than other RPGs because it can take place in one of two different formats. The first is the standard human against beast combat that is most familiar to RPG fans. Players will have to outfit their hero and his party members with melee and ranged weaponry, as well as protective gear and attempt to inflict damage on their opponents. The other format is vehicular in nature, and involves using the various tanks, buggies, buses and other machines you find as a mechanized assault platform. These vehicles can be equipped with main, sub or SE guns, which gives them a range of various uses. Main guns are powerful, but require specialized shells, while sub guns are weaker but can be fired infinitely. SE guns, by contrast, apply to specific situations, such as airborne or underground enemies, and can only be used to target enemies that fit their gun classification (for instance, you can't use an aerial gun on something that's underwater).
Each mode of combat also happens to have its own advantages and disadvantages: Vehicles can take a large amount of damage, but restrict you from using skills, which can only be triggered when you're outside of your machine and much more vulnerable. This may be a trade off that you're willing to take during certain fights, as these skills are powerful abilities that can do anything from bringing airborne enemies crashing to the ground to immobilizing a target. However, there are a number of detractions to the skill system, which can sometimes make them much more trouble than they are actually worth. For one thing, you can't always use skills in battle for some strange reason. There's no specific explanation as to why a skill designated for battle is grayed out and unselectable, but it can be somewhat disconcerting when you want to use one in the middle of combat only to be rejected.
What's more, even if you're given the opportunity to use an offensive skill, you're not guaranteed any success that it will work. I found that some creatures simply shrugged off the effects of status-affecting skills, like preventing monsters from running away or paralyzing them. Another serious issue is the rather unorthodox way that skills are handled in Metal Saga: unlike other RPGs where you have a limited number of uses or a pool of points to use abilities, your skill usage is governed by the amount of money you have. Every time you trigger a skill, you're paying for the opportunity, which can suck your wallet dry; Plus, considering that you have to pay money to even gain skills, this just adds insult to injury.
It's funny, but even in a post-apocalyptic world, money makes the world go round, and you're going to need a lot of it. Equipping your characters for the next dangerous assignment will often put a drain on your finances, while repairing, rearming and upgrading your vehicles can easily suck up a majority of the money that you get for defeating a criminal. You'll constantly have to worry about the state of these machines because as their armor is stripped off in battle, they become more and more vulnerable until they completely break down and are wrecked. You'll also face buying new skills, expanding your party to certain members, or renting machines if and when you don't have one, which will often subtract from your reward take as a continually running expense. In fact, you'll wind up losing so much money on a regular basis in the first half of the game that you may need to resort to alternate means to keep your expenses low.
For one thing, players can engage in a number of mini-games to increase their wallet. You can take your party into a casino on board a train, where you can engage in video poker, slot machines, blackjack and other games of chance. You can also wager on smaller and more whimsical games of chance, such as frog races. Once you manage to add a dog to your party, you can also place it in the Dog Coliseum, a battle arena where you can pit your pooch against various monsters. You can even sell items that you've found or created on the black market as well as ore and scrap metal which can be refined into new equipment.
Regardless of whether or not you explore this world meticulously, going after every bounty or you simply power your way through the title, there's plenty of humor to keep your attention throughout the game. The game ranges from making fun of RPG conventions to social commentary to characters named MC Hamir and a parody of Kurt Cobain. There's even a cult of bodybuilders called the Gluteus Maximists. It's pretty apparent that there's a definite tongue-in-cheek sensibility to the gameplay (when have you ever played a title that referred to your game character's mother as a MILF??).
The game is also surprising in how layered it is, with at least 10 separate endings possible. How many of you have completed a video game in about thirty seconds? Metal Saga gives you that opportunity -- well, okay, it berates you for that decision and for what you're missing out on, but it's at least creative enough to place such a major spin on the game. If anything, the largest drawback to the non-linear play is that it can sometimes come across as unfocused or without a measurable impact to the rest of the game world. Once you defeat a troublesome boss, you don't necessarily make the world any better by cutting it and the surrounding monsters down; instead, you may just be removing that one problem and then traveling to the next town to do it again.
If you are looking for a visually intense game, you're in the wrong place. The game comes with one anime intro, but never returns to the same level of detail or animation. The graphics are definitely dated (a la PlayStation era) and show a ton of jagged, pixilated character models as well as some less than visually stunning backgrounds. If anything, the true attention that has been paid in the game is in the wildly eye-catching models of the monsters that you face, because they're so random and so extreme that they steal the focus of the game over and over again. Nor is the music exceptional, because you're often facing the same musical tracks over and over again, and while you can "download" songs to your in-game PDA, you're probably not going to pay much attention to the few tracks provided, which quickly become old.
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