Release Date: April 25, 2006
If Atlus is known for anything, it's for quirky stuff from Japan. Need I highlight such examples as Disgaea, Trauma Center, and Sky Gunner to get this point across, or to indicate that Metal Saga is most likely going to fit in Atlus' vein of each release fitting into a different vein. Metal Saga is best desribed as the three-way love child of Rogue (or the many others names for it, including Nethack, the *bands, etc.), Disgaea, and an older Final Fantasy, getting the mini-games and much of the overall feel of the third, the humor of the second, and the mostly plotless "just do stuff" pure RPG insanity of the first. If you like your RPGs with deep incredibly complex plots a la Xenosaga, you probably won't enjoy Metal Saga's wide-open nature too much. However, if you are interested in a decently built, highly open, and quite humorous send-up of and tribute to the older school of RPGs, Metal Saga is worth a really good look.
The first group who's going to be turned off by this game are art fanatics who like their games with the absolute top quality of graphics and sound. Metal Saga has almost nothing that couldn't be done on two or three discs and a PS1 in either area – the models aren't too extreme on the polygon counts or texture detail but look great nonetheless, and non-3D art is all in plain, yet well-done, anime style or a pseudo-military menu appearance. The sound is simple, with catchy yet not-masterful music meant to evoke the feel of any of the PS1 RPGs, complete with the highly eclectic mix common to those games. Of course, a PS1 RPG the size of Metal Saga, with the number of tunes, sidequests, etc., that this game possesses, would have insane load times and take four discs, so having it on the newer system isn't entirely wasteful.
The second group is those who like extremely detailed plots, or like their plots handed to them. Metal Saga does not have you out to save the world or anything similar. You are a hunter with a nerdy-looking tie, using vehicles to make money in a wide-open and rather insane post-apocalyptic world. If you've ever imported the Metal Max games, this title takes place in that world, but isn't too heavily linked to the earlier entries, so don't worry if you haven't played it. You explore the world freely, and very little except monster difficulty stops you from going wherever you want, whenever you want. Even monster difficulty can be worked around with a sufficiently well-beefed vehicle or character, unless you challenge one of the bosses – and you never know when you will. Bounties and sidequests are literally the entire game, so you are open to learn moreabout the world or to take one of the game's many endings (I found two funny ones in the length of my review playtime), so if you want an epic plot, stay away because this game is almost pure dungeon crawling.
Sadly, the dungeons aren't all that interesting – it's straight exploration with no gimmicks and little to differentiate rooms, other than your memory. Find the treasure chests and maybe the boss, hope that you've found that boss' bounty so you get the full money from it, and that's about it.
Combat isn't much more involved – it's a standard old-school turn-based affair, with the only twist-ups being that skills cost money instead of MP (money is everything in this game), the you can jump in and out of any vehicles you have with you, and you can have a dog with a bazooka on its back as an ally later on, which explains the "Dogs of War" advertisements. Expect a simple attack-and-be-attacked affair normally, with fairly few options to consider. This is sad, given the evolution seen in games like Xenosaga, but it's not entirely deviod of fun, mostly because the enemies you face are quite interesting, to say the least. A hint: If you don't want to enjoy the details and just want to speed up the fight, hold L2 to speed animations. Also, look at the turn bar on the top when targeting your opponents; the zig-zagging target selection seems less random at that point.
Now, here's the good news, which may turn the game from a no-sell to a great choice for many. Metal Saga is hilarious. I'm fairly easily entertained, I admit it, but this game is parody to the brim. The money dependence and old-school graphics are tributes to the old school of RPGs. The knives and guns who ride unicycles, robot zombies, and giant trash heap boss are an obvious send-up on the crazy enemies in many RPGs, and that's just in the first couple of areas! Then there's strange things like the League Of Uncivilized Barbarians, fancy people with black suits, and the option when you first meet a fellow mechanic's daughter to say, "Let's get hitched!" – and have the response, after a long pause, be, "Okay." This leads to an ending, of course.
There are also subtle gags like all numbers going down from 999 instead of up from 0, and being able to download the music from the jukeboxes you find – illegally. Also, any "Yes"/"No" options are replaced with more contextual statements ("Let's save, you can never be too careful"/"I'm too cocky to save"), and even the relative lack of save points is a joke, albeit a bad one that will prove to be a pain at times.
Further, the dungeons aren't very interesting in terms of activity, but actually exploring them is surprisingly joyous in and of itself, not just for the new laughs from new enemies, but because these dungeons are surprisingly beautiful. The abandoned buildings evoke a feeling of real, unexplained abandonment, the junkyard has a useless tank with witty comments if you keep looking at it, and the other dungeons have little subtle gags and feel that combine rather impressively.
The vehicles I mentioned for combat? First, customizing them is as simple as customizing equipment, and includes just as much variety – with the exception being that you need to watch your tank's weight. Armor tiles, equivalent to HP, take up weight too, after all. Don't like how your vehicle looks? The game includes the ability to custom-paint the vehicles (think Jet Grind Radio's Grafitti editor, but more robust), and save the results to your memory card. Don't need that vehicle right now? Make sure to park it or send it to a garage so that birds don't crap on it. The vehicles are the stars of the game at many points.
Unfortunately, in the time I had to review this game, I didn't get to the dogs of war - they look to be a fun and fairly well-managed twist on play, though.
Metal Saga is filled with little touches and surprises – mini-games, odd areas, working jukeboxes, and all sorts of other things indicate that Createch really wanted to make the world the centerpiece of the game. The effect is beautiful, and every little new surprise keeps the game fresh for quite a while of play, without getting overly gimmacky, mostly because its very nature as a tribute and parody makes nothing gimmicky. It's also all well-coded and explained, so generally you won't be wondering, "What am I supposed to do here anyhow?"
As crazy as it might sound, much of Metal Saga's beauty is precisely in its intentionally not pushing any play boundaries. It is not the greatest role-playing game of the year, not even on the PS2. It does not offer action-packed combat where precise timing is part of doing things. It is the funny little popcorn flick of RPGs, it's Scary Movie to, say, Xenosaga or Final Fantasy X's Scream, meant to be enjoyed as itself, and as a tribute to and parody of days gone by in the genre. If you're not fully convinced or scared off, give it a rental and try it, particularly if you're a big fan of RPGs and want something a little more plain and old-school. Not everyone is going to like it, but those who do will probably love it.