Ah, the Japanese RPG. It has given so much to us over the years: the awkwardly silent protagonist, theme music denoting the appropriate emotion to be felt during a given scene, random battles, mountains of menus, and the freedom to rummage through the drawers and property of random strangers’ houses in search for cheap, perishable items.
Metal Saga, already an established series in Japan, doesn’t mess with genre success. You’ll find all of that here. It would be quite disheartening however if it was content with just working within established genre elements. There is a glimmer of hope for those out there who grew up on these kinds of games but left them for their dogged insistence on perpetuating those stale elements. What is our savior in this instance? Well, it’s a mixture of a little post-modern self-awareness and humor, a dash of open-endedness, a disregard of plot-driving events and the inclusion of uncommon flourishes to flesh out the overall RPG experience.
I believe one of the most important elements in narrative gaming to be the creation of a cogent world, a world whose mythos is reinforced in all aspects of the game design, so that it comes as close in our minds to being a tangible place. It makes it worth investing time in. When you have characters or objects referencing and acknowledging people, places and things within the game world, creating a network of connections throughout, a magical, interwoven narrative takes shape and gives the world its character. A particular feeling is generated when you’re engaged in that world, and the collection of ideas you carry about that world is felt even in the real world. Final Fantasy VII achieved this brilliantly. Nobody wants to play in a game whose world is a mishmash of random events and places, jumping from one desolate locale to the next, unless it is somehow the point of the game. For the most part, Metal Saga manages to create such a world.
Metal Saga is strange in that it’s left up to the player to do most of the work in engaging the world they are playing within. You are not required to partake in event A to get to location B. Instead, for the most part, the only thing stopping you from going wherever you please whenever you please is inherent in the way the game is balanced; in other words, the only thing stopping you is increasing dangers from random battles and lack of money (if you have strength and money, the sky’s the limit). There are no necessary fetch quests or cut-scenes holding you back from progressing. Some may wonder what the point is in doing all this and where it leads. Metal Saga, for all intents and purposes, is mostly about the journey, so it will appease the RPG fans who get their thrills in the genre gameplay through maxing out stats, finding items, customizing things, and just generally being content with experiencing what the world has to offer. Still, there are rewards for those attentive enough in discovering the subtle back-story of what made the world the way it is presented. The interplay of the discovered narrative and open-ended nature of the game design give us a world worth investing time in.
Metal Saga takes place in an opportunistic, post-apocalyptic world that has been ravaged by mysterious events hinted at throughout the game’s low-key back-story, which involves Man’s downfall at the hands of a supercomputer created by Man to solve a big problem. (Guess what problem the computer decided to solve? You can get part of the back-story via the manual, but that’s no fun!) The world comes across deliberately as a sort of mixture of the Cowboy Bebop anime (collecting bounties, western themes and settings) and Mad Max movies (landscapes and society based off of junk and scrap). There’s even an early enemy named Mad Maxwell. Anyway, as the protagonist, you are of the age to choose a path in life: do you want to be a mechanic and work on tanks and other vehicles in your small hometown, or do you set out across dangerous lands in search of money and life experiences? Hint: one of these two early game choices will give you one of the game’s endings.
The fledgling hunter must understand that money is everything. Another thing is that every successful hunter needs vehicles, for it is much too dangerous to be walking around a post-apocalyptic world on foot. Also, one needs to customize those vehicles to make them better in hopes of using them to earn more money and explore ever further. Money is earned in a multitude of ways as usual–probably more so than your average RPG–but the main way to earn money is random battles and dispatching notorious foes who have bounties on their heads (though the easiest way is to take advantage of some early minigames). The hunter would then be well advised to spend their paychecks on further equipment and vehicle upgrades.
The vehicle system and all that it entails is rather complex. Vehicles can be found, bought, traded for, and earned through various means. A vehicle consists of three main parts: the chassis, the c-unit, and the engine. Depending on the type of chassis your vehicle has, you can then add offensive mounts like sub-machine guns, tank cannons, and special SE cannons that can hit long-range enemies or enemies underground for example. All of these parts can be bought, found, earned and upgraded. Accessories like decals and flags can be added to finish up your fine custom ride. However, you cannot indiscriminately place all kinds of junk on your vehicle. Each equipped vehicle item bears a weight, effectively limiting what you can install depending on the maximum load your engine can handle. On top of that, a vehicle can have armored tiles installed for a price that contributes to the overall load on the vehicle.
In the turn-based battle system, vehicles are protected from damage by the armored tiles. Once those are depleted, damage to vehicles is suffered directly, resulting in damaged vehicle parts. This can range from having an inoperable sub-machine gun to the worst case scenario of having the chassis breaking, ejecting the user out to fend for themselves and making the vehicle useless until repaired with items or a mechanic. Once a vehicle is disabled and not repaired, it must then be towed or will be left where it broke down until you retrieve it.
The game is presented in relatively simplistic 3d graphics, simple enough to probably run on the PS1 at the sacrifice of some texture resolution . Regardless, the graphics–which run smoothly–are sufficient and will appeal to the old school RPG gamer. In regards to the music, there are some surprisingly good melodic tracks, something any competent RPG music composer should be able to produce. The soundtrack is nothing on the level of complexity of a Mitsuda or Uematsu, but the composer of Metal Saga understands that, archetypically speaking, a prevalent, memorable melody should be the driving force behind the themes of these types of Japanese genre RPGs. And it must be mentioned that you can override the current theme playing in an area by accessing a song in your jukebox database, one of the many extra “uncommon flourishes” that Metal Saga presents. Sadly, the sound effects are pretty terrible, but in context of this game, that might be too petty to pick on.
First things first: despite all I have said so far, this game will not draw any new fans to the RPG genre. It probably goes without saying that avid RPG fans will have no problems getting into this game and enjoying it for what it is. You know who you are. The problem is, will anyone else interested in Japanese RPGs be inclined to try it out? If so, will they actually like it? Metal Saga is a charming RPG, no doubt, possessing a localization effort on par with Working Design in its prime (without the physical extras). It even addresses the insanity that gets in the way of many a causal RPGer: random battles. For one, the encounter rate is fairly low. But most importantly, you can actually frame skip through actions and events during battle with the simple press of a button, making the engagements fly by very fast. Still, with the lack of a traditional approach to RPG direction and narrative, some RPG gamers might feel abandoned without a sense of accomplishment or purpose.