Daemon X Machina is fundamentally about the satisfaction of making small adjustments to tackle a much larger problem. Faced with a quadrupedal robot the size of a city park, do you focus on defense to outlast it, or offense to bring it down as quickly as possible? Stay grounded for access to its underbelly, or fly far above the majority of its reach? Use rapid-fire weaponry to compensate for losses in accuracy, or a lumbering bazooka and line up each shot carefully? The game is at its best when you're diagnosing a mission and outfitting your armored mech suit to match. Most of Daemon X Machina is spent in combat, but it's the moments between missions, making these key decisions, where the game really finds its identity.
As the newest mercenary surrounded by veterans, you're quickly labeled "the Rookie"--a name that you keep well past it being deserved, given that you rise in the ranks and even best most of your colleagues. The mercs are pilots of armored mecha suits called Arsenals, their actions governed by a centralized artificial intelligence that oversees their missions against Immortals--A.I. robots that have gone rogue against humanity. But you're all still mercenaries. Even if you're ostensibly on the same team against the Immortals, you're all really in it for the money, and often your objectives will come into conflict with your peers from other merc groups.
Life as a newbie mercenary falls into a familiar pattern. You might tinker with your Arsenal's equipment, take on a mission consisting of attacking an Immortal outpost or defending a convoy, collect your pay, and then head back to the hangar to do it all again. Despite the simple formula, Daemon X Machina manages surprising variety in its missions. Sometimes you'll need to traverse a narrow hallway filled with the small, gun-fodder Immortal units, other times you'll need to battle against a rival merc on their own conflicting mission, and occasionally you'll discover a Colossus--a giant, screen-filling Immortal with a massive life bar.
The pace of the combat differs greatly between encounter types. Smaller enemies swarm the battlefield requiring harried crowd control. Rival mechs often turn into aerial slugfests, especially as melee clashes jump to a sudden button-mashing event to overpower your opponent. And the massive Colossi are each fully unique encounters with their own individual attack patterns and weaknesses. Your backup weapons equipped to the pylons provide a little flexibility, but your Arsenal is no Swiss Army knife. No single build could be prepared for every battle type, especially in the late-game as enemies are able to absorb much more damage.
The variety of these battle types call for different equipment to match, and it's the tinkering portion of the game that's strangely the most satisfying. Your Arsenal has tons of customization options, including two main weapons, two backup weapons stored on rear pylons, shoulder-mounted equipment, and auxiliary equipment, and that's without even touching on the swappable head, body, arm, and leg parts and the ability to paint and decal the whole rig. It's something akin to building a model Gundam, except you can go out and pilot it against hordes of enemy robots. Some of the most rewarding moments are when you hit a tough boss battle, step away from the game while you continue to think about how you could outfit your Arsenal for the challenge, and then return with a successful battle plan. And while this isn't exactly a loot-shooter, you can pick over a defeated Arsenal and select one part to make your own, fulfilling your equipment envy when you see an enemy with a shiny object you'd like.
The wealth of customization options hits a stumbling block, however, when it comes to battles against the other mercenaries. Weapon options range from slow-moving bazookas to acid guns and swords, which are perfectly suited to dealing with standard enemies and Colossi alike. But as the game goes on, battles against other mercenaries become much more frequent, and most of the weapons aren't well-suited for them. Just like your own Arsenal, enemy rigs are airborne and extremely nimble, which means the majority of your options are just too slow. The lock-on function helps signal when an enemy is in your sights, but it doesn't really lock on to them, so you need to babysit the camera as they dash around the battlefield. I found myself defaulting to double assault rifles for the last third of the game or so, since the rapid-fire helped counteract the other mechs' evasive maneuvers. It consistently worked, but it sapped most of the fun out of tailoring my Arsenal to the situation.
These mech-on-mech battles are delivered with a heaping helping of anime melodrama. The cheesy voice-acting and dialogue are just endearing enough not to distract from the excellent worldbuilding, as the characters and relationships reveal more about the history and nature of the conflict. The story throws you in the deep end without much explanation, but you'll slowly grow accustomed to the various mercenary groups and their differing philosophies and goals. The Bullet Works mercenaries are run with military efficiency, for example, while Immortal Innocence throws itself into battles with reckless abandon, and the Western VII are a gang of prisoners who fight for reduced sentences instead of cash. Each mercenary comes with their own fantastically absurd call sign, like Crimson Lord, Guns Empress, and Savior.
While you build up familiarity with these mercs in the story, you also gain them as recruitable allies. That allows you to bring them along on side missions, though it is sometimes frustrating that you can't direct your allies to focus on a specific target. Their help comes at a price--sometimes a price even higher than the actual payout, in which case you're taking a net loss to make the mission a little easier on yourself. This is fine, though, because money has limited utility in the game’s economy. You can buy parts at a shop or fabricate them at a factory, but the ones you find scrounging around on the battlefield are generally better anyway.
Most of your cash will instead go into small, passive upgrades for your Arsenal and humanoid avatar--called an Outer because, naturally, even your actual human body is defined in the context of being outside your Arsenal. You can pay a little money at a place called the Ice Cream Parlor for a one-mission buff, or pay significantly more to develop an upgrade tree. These upgrades make you appear progressively less human, which is thematically similar to transhumanism elements in the main story. Your inhuman appearance isn't ever remarked upon, though, so your choices don't connect with the larger narrative and it remains superficial. Instead, your upgrades and the accompanying cosmetic changes are just a matter of weighing whether you mind if your avatar looks less like you intended when you made them.
Similarly, the story lands with less punch than it should have. You've been fighting other pilots so casually and with such regularity that when the stakes turn to life-and-death, it isn't really reflected in the gameplay. You're still shooting the enemy until their Arsenal becomes inactive, but then a cutscene shows that they die instead of retreating. It's a disappointing fizzle considering how fond I had grown of the various factions and their merry bands of weirdos.
DXM does get a boost of longevity through its cooperative online play. Missions range from upgraded versions of the Colossus boss battles to taking on other sets of mercenaries. The lobby system and chat functions, while simplistic, perform their jobs well, and it’s cool to see your hangar bay filling up with your teammates’ mechs as they join up. Your rewards for co-op missions lean into the best part of the game by providing a constant avenue to obtain new loot like armor parts, weapons, and mod attachments. Oddly, though, there appears to be no clear way to swap your loadout or equipment when you’re in the multiplayer lobby. If you want your rig to be properly tailored to a multiplayer mission, you’ll either need to choose the loadout and then restrict your search criteria very narrowly, or deal with having a more broad-purpose build.
The missed potential of the story and minor issues with mech-vs-mech combat and multiplayer loadouts make Daemon X Machina fall just short of its potential, but the foundation is strong. As a total package, it’s on the verge of greatness; it just needed a little more time in the shop tinkering.