Launched by Crea-Tech and Data East way back in 1991, Metal Max is one of those striking and obscure JRPG series that largely never escaped Japan. A lighthearted take on Mad Max (the hint is in the name), each Metal Max title put players in the shoes of a group of tank-riding bounty hunters and their cannon-sporting shiba inu seeking their fortune across an open-world wacky wasteland. The West’s first dalliance with Metal Max was Metal Saga way back in 2006; I personally had a lot of fun with this janky, SaGa-esque adventure, but critical reception was mixed, and the series retreated back to Japan for multiple sequels and remakes for handheld platforms.
Twelve years later, Metal Max Xeno marks the series’ return to both home consoles and the West. Disappointingly, it’s not a cause for celebration. And this time, there’s not a single shiba inu to be found.
Xeno is a reboot that follows the narrative framework of its predecessors: during the late 20th century, mankind developed a powerful AI called NOA to compute solutions to climate change and global warming. NOA, in its infinite wisdom, determined the most efficient way to save the Earth was to exterminate mankind, and it hacked electronics and global weapons systems to bring about the apocalypse. Earlier Metal Max titles used this setting to present a comical selection of cargo cult settlements making their way in this brave new world, but Xeno’s take is much more pessimistic: there are no settlements, for NOA’s genocide succeeded in wiping out all but a handful of humans. Enter Talis, an angsty bounty hunter with a cyborg arm whose sole purpose in life is destroying NOA’s monstrous creations. Joining the last bastion of humanity at Iron Base, Talis, his angst, and his mysterious, series-recurring tank Red Rev head out into the desert in search of more survivors.
Xeno is incredibly depressing, though not in the way that Cattle Call may have intended. With humanity all but exterminated, there are few characters to meet and no towns to explore. You’re left driving across miles of linear desert, with Talis’ sole character trait of vengeance making for dull company. Eventually, you do get party members, and talking to them back at Iron Base allows Talis to choose between two equally rude and dismissive dialogue options which affect nothing. Don’t feel too guilty, because your party are pretty dour company. All the men drool all over the women — a busty woman in battle panties, a busty child-who’s-actually-a-hundred-years-old in a revealing kimono, and the busty last virgin, who everyone wants to impregnate — while the women all just want to have sex with Talis. Talis is in an exclusive relationship with his urge to kill monsters, and his cold demeanor makes the ladies just want him that much more. It’s base anime tropes all the way down.
One of the core features of the Metal Max series is its customizable tanks, and Xeno has them in spades. The Red Rev can be fully altered with a number of chassis, engines, and weaponry, and the same goes for any of the other tanks you salvage in your journey across the dunes. Ultimately, customization just boils down to swapping out parts when you come across a replacement with higher stats. There are chips that add different abilities or passive effects when equipped onto a chassis. I never really had to do much tweaking — oddly enough, my success in tank-based boss battles seemed more dependent on my party’s levels than their respective vehicle stats — but I did appreciate that I could play with the color of each individual component, creating a fleet of camo-patterned technicolor nightmares.
Metal Max Xeno is a PS4 exclusive in the West, while in Japan it was also a Vita game. As you’d expect, it doesn’t look great, but it also doesn’t run great either. The framerate frequently dipped to 10-15fps for no discernable reason; there certainly weren’t any character models on screen to cause this slowdown. Enemies don’t have a death animation, instead quickly blinking out of existence when their HP is depleted. There’s also the fact that, out of the game’s 30 or so dungeons, about 27 of them are completely identical. I can deal with a certain level of jank, and obviously this is a game made on a tight budget, but the same can be said for each of its predecessors, and I’ve found a great deal of enjoyment from the handful I’ve played. Xeno, by comparison, just feels dull and overstretched.
For most of my 25-hour pilgrimage, I just found myself asking “why?” Why does the battle camera so frequently linger on negative space, obscuring attacks from the screen? Why was a boss able to keep summoning allies, even after it died? Why did I get an accolade for doing 10,000 damage, but not trigger one for doing over 5000? Why could I use a “fire all vulcans” ability, when each of my vulcans were damaged and could not be fired individually? Why was that one boss’s name constantly shifting between Sky Scraper and Sky Specter mid-battle? Why, and how, did a boss and I kill each other simultaneously in a turn-based battle?
Perhaps some questions are best left unanswered.