What do you get when you mix equal parts Romancing SaGa and The Road Warrior with a dash of Harvest Moon and plenty of self-referential humor? The answer is Metal Saga, an open-ended role-playing game set in a postapocalyptic future full of strange creatures and even stranger characters. Although it has an appealing blend of dry ingredients, there's nothing holding this cake together, which makes it a tough one to swallow.
Metal Saga takes place on Earth in the distant future, after an event known as "The Great Destruction" turned the world into a barren wasteland. This apocalypse was brought about by a super computer that was created to solve the pollution problem on Earth. Apparently the computer came up with an answer to the problem right quick: kill all humans and pollution will cease. Of course, the computer wasn't entirely successful, but it did manage to pretty much wipe mankind off the map, save for a few groups of particularly hardy folks. The most resourceful of the survivors became hunters and scavenged the remains of forgotten civilizations in an attempt to rebuild their world. This is where you come in. You play the game as a young boy who is just starting out as a hunter--and that's your entire story. You are a hunter now, so go hunt things.
That's how the game plays out. You go to the hunter office in town to find out if there are any outlaws about that you can collect a bounty for, and then head off to wander around, killing enemies and collecting items at your leisure. Then you return to town, collect your reward, sell your items, and do it all again. The primary goal for most of the game is to amass wealth, which you can use to purchase better equipment, and which you can then use to bring down bigger targets and get even more money. It's an endless, aimless cycle that tends to get stale fairly quickly. All of the missions are optional, but you earn different endings based on how much of the game you manage to finish. It can take anywhere from less than a minute to 40 hours or more to complete the game, depending on which ending you're going for.
As a hunter, your best friend is your vehicle. Not only does it make it easy to move across long stretches of desolate terrain, but it can also be outfitted with some heavy weaponry that is essential for taking down most of the enemies. You start out with a modest buggy that you find in a trash heap, but you can find, purchase, or rent a variety of other tanks to suit your hunting needs. You can completely customize your vehicles, from the paint job to the weapons, engine, and armor. It pays to take care of your ride, because most of your time is spent driving around and engaging in random encounters as you would in any other role-playing game.
The battle system is the same whether you're on foot or driving. You can have up to three people in your party at any given time, and each character can drive his or her own vehicle. The battles are turn-based and play out according to initiative. When in a vehicle, you can attack with a sub gun, which has unlimited ammo but short range; a main gun, which usually has longer range and inflicts more damage, but also expends ammunition; and an SE weapon, which also uses ammo but serves a specific function, such as taking down flying enemies that other weapons can't reach. There is no magic in the game, but while on foot, your characters can use special skills, such as calling in remote missiles. These skills cost money though, and if you use them too liberally you'll find yourself in the red.
As you take damage in battle, you lose armor tiles. Once all your armor tiles are gone, or if an enemy uses a special attack, your vehicle components will become damaged. This can cause major problems, because if your engine is broken, you can't move, and if your guns are busted, you can't attack. You can tow damaged vehicles to a nearby repair shop, or if you have a mechanic in your party you can just pay him or her to patch things up. But, as you can imagine, all this upkeep can take a toll on your bankroll. It's a bit of a conundrum, because you need to make money to keep your vehicles updated and in good shape, but in the process of making money, your vehicles are going to take a beating. Sometimes you'll find that the reward for completing a mission barely covers your expenses, not to mention all the time and effort spent.
If you aren't into the whole hunter thing, there are plenty of diversions to keep you occupied, at least temporarily. You can participate in a wide variety of minigames, including simple memory games that require you to dance or flex your muscles by pressing certain button combinations, an arcade-style shooting game, a frog racing game, and a full-fledged casino with roulette, video poker, and blackjack. The minigames are fun for a few minutes at most, but they soon start to feel as pointless as everything else in this game.
The game's saving grace is its sense of humor. You'll meet plenty of colorful characters like Klepto Cobain, who speaks mostly in Nirvana lyrics; MC Hamir, a cheesy used tank salesman; and Dr. Mortem, a mad scientist who specializes in resurrecting corpses. There's also plenty of fun to be had at the expense of role-playing games in general, like the way a character will tell you that you look like you need to level up more, or will suggest that saving your game is for wusses. The creatures are truly bizarre as well. You'll see a pair of legs in fishnets with a huge turret where a torso should be, cyclopean refrigerators with huge teeth and frosty breath, a boss who would rather drink wine and yawn lazily than attack, and many more.
But for all the personality that the creatures and handful of unique characters bring to the game, Metal Saga still feels utterly lifeless, due in large part to its dated and drab presentation. This could be mistaken for a PlayStation game, with the blocky, undefined character models and blurry, pixilated backgrounds that recall the early days of 3D role-playing games. There's some good music to be found, but there's also a lot of elevator music that will make your eyes glaze over as if you're in some sort of will-sapping trance like the audience at a Kenny G concert.
Metal Saga is an interesting concept, and at the very least it's safe to say there's nothing quite like it in the world of role-playing games. So if you're looking for a bit of a departure from the standard slay-the-dragon/save-the-world RPG, you'll certainly find it here. Unfortunately, the lack of a cohesive narrative makes the game feel like busy work, with no real sense of progression or achievement. Metal Saga is quirky, and funny at times, but it isn't satisfying enough to justify the time and effort it requires.