I had recently played through the fan translation for “Metal Max Returns”, a post-apocalyptic JRPG on the SNES that pretty much allows the player to explore an open ended world and figure out all of the story threads on their own by following up on vague clues or simply by playing as far as they can by pushing into more and more dangerous areas as they level up. I’d imagine that if Japanese developers had decided to mash together Fallout and JRPG conventions together while making it cute and friendly at the same time, this might be the result. Not as dark as Panzer Dragoon Saga where post-apocalyptic worlds are concerned…there are still streams and bright patches of grass and trees living in Crea-Tech’s take on the End.
Metal Max Returns is actually the third game in the series, but the fourth game actually came out here in the States courtesy of Atlus, called Metal Saga. The series takes place in a world left ruined in the wake of what has become known as the “Great Devastation” with half-buried buildings and massive deserts making up most of the area that you will be adventuring in. Monsters, bio-mechanical horrors and mutated vegetables, run wild through the countryside with small cities and villages in secluded spots in between. It’s not a survivalist’s take on the apocalypse, either, with radiation sickness, or weighty questions of existence or extinction. The world is ruined and that pretty much gave the developer license to fill it with monsters…and a lot of other things…since the previous civilization had apparently reached an incredible zenith of super-science that has made it as legendary as Atlantis.
Basically, you take the role of a boy who speaks in ……’s and wants to become a hunter just like dear old dad who still seems to be doing the same thing even after so many years. The game, like its predecessor, is also known for its multiple endings. If you want to, you can actually end the game at the start by simply talking to mom and telling her that the whole hunting thing was just a mistake and see an ending.
For the most part, you’re left to kill monsters at your own pace, but the key thing that every hunter has in their arsenal to do that with is a vehicle. In this case, tanks. Most everyone in the game loves tanks and tanks are what hunters use as their weapon of choice. There are a lot of them in the game to find since there isn’t a tank store that you can just visit to buy one. Each can be customized with weapons that can be purchased or found, but there are weight limits that you have to balance out along with armor and firepower that throw a few wrenches into a carefully managed collection of tools.
As far as open-endedness goes, you can go as far as you or your wallet can take you but the monsters will also become as furiously dangerous the further away from home you get. There’s nothing that can really stop you from reaching the edges of the map…aside from the whole survivability thing. It’s also got a few quirks that can turn off some players…its graphics aren’t the greatest, and there are a few oddball decisions within the gameplay mechanics that can really be aggravating.
The reviews slamming this game aren’t far off on some of the issues, but I didn’t think that they gave this game as much of a fair shake, either. It doesn’t hold your hand, there IS a story here but it’s served up in discreet pieces, and it leaves it wide open for the player to explore and find out things on their own. And that might rub more than a few players the wrong way. It’s not a pretty game, but since it seems that because every game today has to be powered by cutting edge visuals in order to sell themselves, that seems enough of a reason for some to overlook that which it actually does alright by.
It’s actually a lot of fun and I’ve been tooling around with tanks, talking to every NPC to see if they might lead up to another story thread, or investigate an overgrown building in the hopes of finding some lost piece of tech…or another hidden tank or vehicle somewhere out in the wilderness. Killing monsters for cash to mod tanks, buy new weapons, goodies, and other pieces of equipment to gear up your own party when they’re on foot is a grinding cycle that doesn’t feel so much like work since there are several things that you are almost always working towards for most of the game.
If anything, modding tanks, buffing them up with improvements, and blasting away at wanted outlaws to claim the bounty on their heads can be addicting fun. Just don’t expect this to be “Japanese Fallout” because it isn’t, but as a freeform JRPG that gives the player an incredibly open experience considering the generally strict linearity that most every other game in this particular genre can be like, it’s as novel a title as you might find on the PS2.