It was apparent from the start that Metal Saga was not made for players like me. Though claiming to be open-ended, the game strongly encourages the path of adventure. “Settling down” is anathema. At the game’s startup, before you even have the chance to save, your mother asks if you really want to be a hunter or if you’d like to work as a mechanic. I thought I’d impress my mom by being a mechanic. Thirty seconds of dialogue passed, and then some black-screen white-text narration told me of all the adventures I would never have, and the end credits ran. I had beaten the game: poorly.
The next time, I chose the path of the hunter, and began my quest. I picked up a vehicle by scouring a field of junk and headed to another town. There I met a girl named “Misha,” and I had the option to propose to her. Being the big fan of love that I am, I chose the option, and immediately went on to see some more cutscenes, ending with a marriage ceremony and another narrated epilogue that told of my boring life. Flash end credits again: I fail at life. I had gotten two “bad” endings in one hour.
I open my review for Crea-Tech’s original RPG with this story as a word of caution; you have to enjoy adventure and the standard life of singlehood and independence to get anywhere in this game. My love of domesticated life had me catching every snag the game offers, proving that I am much better suited for, say, Natsume’s Harvest Moon series.
Nonetheless, I decided to plow through the game, and though there were times I literally had to force myself to continue on, there were times that I felt rewarded for playing the Atlus-published title. Let’s take a look at the good and the bad of this game, by category.
I will argue throughout this review that Metal Saga feels like a game from the previous generation: i.e., a PlayStation One game. My first case in point? There is no voice acting.
Now, I’m not belittling the game for this. It’s not like every game from here on out is required to have voice acting, but it has become pretty much a standard among RPGs since the arrival of the PS2.
Since there is no voice acting, I can only consider two points for the sound: music and sound effects. Starting with the less tonal of these two categories… the sound effects in this game are loud. There’s a lot of crashing, smashing, exploding, and that sort of thing throughout the game. Though sound effect volume can be adjusted, the standard is that sound effects are anything but subtle.
The music may well have been the most high quality portion of the game. Written by Satoshi Kadokura, head of Soleil Music, the score makes excellent use of the PS2’s aural capabilities. Some songs are heavy on guitar, others take the ambient techno route; all of them are very well written, in my opinion.
There’s also a fair amount of music in the game. The official soundtrack for this game was split into three discs, featuring roughly 60 songs. For a small title such as this, I’d consider that a fair amount of music.
The decent soundtrack wins a lot of points, but there’s nothing too exquisite about the sound overall. I’m giving out a 75% here.
Aside from a very well-done anime and CG introduction, the graphics to Metal Saga are one step lower than Final Fantasy IX, which was a PS1 title. Specifically, the environments are dull, mundane, repetitive, and headache-inducing. The character sprites are, honestly, sharper than most PS1 titles, but that hardly makes up for the monotony of bland locales. Granted the world is apparently “post-apocalyptic,” so one would expect a sort of sandy, earthy desert world. But they still could have done a much better job with it.
Hand-drawn stills of character faces are another graphical highlight, but these only exist for major characters and a few random shopkeepers. The “wanted” posters are another nice feature. But these small pros don’t make up for the overwhelming number of cons. Graphically, the game is terribly dated, and that can’t be overlooked. The nail for the coffin is the load times; no game with such mediocre graphics should take so long to load from one area to the next. Barely passing, I give Metal Saga’s graphics a 65%.
Exploring the world of Metal Saga has a lot less to do with you as a character and much more to do with the world overall. Boasting over 800 “events” (bits of dialogue, triggers toward furthering the plot and various subplots), putting together the scattered pieces of the story is all a part of the job. This is typical for any “open-ended” RPG; however, the game ends up forcing linearity upon you due to its limiting gameplay aspects (read further for more details on this point).
The main character is male, but the name is left for you to choose. Your father is a fairly well-known “hunter” (the shortened term for bounty hunters), and you have some important connections through him and his past experiences. However, who you are is not integral to the game’s overarching plot.
As mentioned previously, the world is “post-apocalyptic.” Though this is not made explicit at the game’s beginning, it has been made explicit through Atlus’s ad campaign. The story goes that humans knew they were polluting too much so they came up with a computer program called “Noah” to deal with the pollution. Noah hit the pollution at its source and attempted to wipe out humanity. It took care of most civilization and modern technology, but a few people survived and someone managed to stop Noah.
One thousand years later, people are still picking up the pieces of their lost civilization. Organizations are attempting to uncover the truth behind the past, which is shrouded in mystery. At least, it would be, if we hadn’t been told ahead of time. When you start the game, you have no idea that this is the plot’s premise, and you discover it slowly by playing the game, though you obviously make further revelations that the back of the box won’t tell you.
I am guessing that the publisher’s reason for revealing this much of the plot was to help it sell. On paper, it’s certainly an interesting idea: not entirely original, but still rarely used in RPGs. However, this is about the most interesting plot point of the entire game.
The more I think about it, the more I consider Metal Saga’s storyline to be a subpar copy of the popular anime Trigun. Except, for Metal Saga, the most interesting twists are removed, leaving a skeleton of what makes for an interesting storyline. The bad guys are exactly who you expect them to be, and for the rest of the time, you’re hunting bounties.
If there is one point that gives the story redemption, it’s the translated dialogue. You can tell that Atlus had fun translating this title, and they didn’t even bother being politically correct or even tasteful. Pop culture references such as “milf” made it into the dialogue, and Arabic-looking characters were donned such names as “Sadam Insein.” Not necessarily clever, but certainly bold.
The game barely held my attention. That’s a bad thing. Despite the somewhat nifty premise and Atlus’ humorous translation work, I’m going with a 50%.
How does the gameplay fare? In a word, poorly. First of all, everything you do in the game revolves around one key factor: money. The game quickly teaches the lesson that without money, you’re nothing.
Want to build a better vehicle so that you can take on harder enemies? That’ll cost money. Want to learn new skills? Skill points don’t exist; you’ll be using money. Want to return to your home for a free place to sleep? It’s not happening, you’ll always be paying for a bed. Want to use a skill in battle? There’s no MP or EP or SP; using skills will cost you money. As a result, you need to keep a constant flow of money coming. This comes from two things: enemies, and boss enemies (the ones you collect big bounties on).
Battles are traditionally turn-based, with up to four players in the party. Players can fight on foot or in their vehicles. Should a vehicle become damaged beyond repair, the character will hop out and fight on foot from then on out. After the vehicle has become completely incapacitated, it is left stuck wherever it is: be it the world map (another PS1-generation symbol that returns in this game), a dungeon, wherever. You can tow the broken vehicle with another vehicle, but should you undergo a rough battle that leaves all your vehicles busted, you’re in big trouble.
The same cannot be said of having your party wiped on foot. When this happens, a big guy named Igor collects your corpses, takes you back to Junkyard (the hometown), and revives you. Hence, there’s never a game over screen: just an extreme sense of shame and frustration.
Should you choose to take on this RPG, expect to have those shame and frustration feelings a lot. The game is horrendously difficult, with the added problem of never knowing where to go. As a man who enjoyed SaGa Frontier and managed to beat it with all seven characters, I think I know a thing or two about tedium. This game takes the cake; I haven’t played a more frustrating RPG in the better part of the last decade.
There is a strong sense of satisfaction when successfully finishing off a bounty, but the battles are hardly strategic. The key is prior proper planning, which generally means level grinding, best gear available, and a stock of healing items in your relatively limited inventory. Most boss battles are simply a matter of whittling away the enemy’s health while you hope to dodge large attacks and otherwise try to stay alive. You usually know early on whether or not you are going to win the battle, and after that, it just takes time. Like I said, it’s tedious. And it’s not even fun to watch.
The only things that are even remotely strategic are oftentimes a hassle. Enemies can go underground, be airborne, or stand far back, “out of range.” All of these give the enemy extremely high evasion, and unless a character knows a skill to coax the enemy back to a normal position, you’re in big trouble.
There is one convenience in the game: once you’ve reached a town, you can easily teleport to or from that town in a flash, given at least one vehicle is in working order. If you’re already in the town, you can also use a teleporter on foot for simple errand-running from town to town.
Overall, I did not enjoy playing this game. It was fun having an old-school traditional RPG for awhile, but the novelty wore, and what was leftover was more a burden than a game. I’m rating things low again, this time with a 55%.
Let’s just pass that number right on to this area too. Control gets a 55% because it is inextricably linked to the gameplay, including its faults. There are a lot of problems with button input. For example, after loading into a new area, buttons simply do not register for the first five seconds or so. Secondly, getting in and out of vehicles is a lengthy and unwieldy process that oftentimes goes wrong if you park your vehicle near a “no tank” zone. That’s no good! Nobody has the right to touch your tank if you don’t want them to! Oh…right. Sorry.
Usually, when I give a game low scores, I try to look on the bright side. It’s common that I or one of my peers would suggest a rental before considering a purchase, or say “I didn’t like it but you might.” I’m not going to do that this time around.
Unless something else comes to lower standards further, this is probably going to be the worst console RPG I’ve played in 2006. As much as I love and respect Atlus for bringing obscure titles to the US, and as much as I love cheering for the underdogs in this industry, I can’t in good conscience recommend this game to anyone. There are far better games to check out, and far better ways to spend your time in general. If you’re looking for another open-ended RPG that’s light on plot, Atlus also released a game entitled Steambot Chronicles soon after this one. It was shorter, and much more enjoyable in my opinion. This one was so unenjoyable, it made me want to quit writing reviews altogether; I declare it a failure with a still-generous 59%.