Review by threetimes
"Let's have a mano-a-mano, balls-to-the-wall, old school showdown!."
These words as uttered by Rodriguez, the guitar playing singer who will regale you with his songs, both before and during a one on one fight (where you are well-advised to use Earplugs) sum up the appeal of Metal Max Returns. Its old school charm, turn-based fighting and quirky sense of fun is now accessible to anyone with an emulator, courtesy of a brand new sparky and idiosyncratic fan translation released by Aeon Genesis. However the dialogue and fighting is not for the faint-hearted, since the game is set in a post apocalyptic world where people are tough and enemies are tougher. But you have a distinct advantage since you will have access to some very nifty tanks as well as two allies, a feisty female soldier and a skilful mechanic. More than a match for most monsters, even if they might be capable of blasting your ears with out-of-tune guitar riffs.
Although this is an RPG there are no magic spells, no castles kings or princesses, no noble cause, no wrongs that need righting, and no world to save, (at least not until the very end). After all, the world has already been destroyed and people are now inhabiting the broken remains of towns that were once prosperous, factories that were productive and towers that were the pride of a long gone civilisation. This is a realistic world, where people live by salvaging the remnants of past technological glories and monsters roam the land. Think Wild West, only with tanks and technology instead of horses, and towns dominated by a garage and bar complete with showgirls, a jukebox and games arcade. Well, not quite Wild West, then, more Mad Max, but more fun.
So, it all sounds a bit downbeat, and yet the game is enormous fun, and right from the start you know it is not going to take itself too seriously when Hunter (the main character whom you can name), is first shown being kicked out of his house by his dad and spends the night knocked out cold on the garage floor. Dad is a mechanic and thinks that son should be one too, but of course that wouldn't make much of a game, and there would be no adventuring at all stuck at home tinkering with other people's tanks. In fact, you can decide to do just that, at any point in the game...and that's the end. I said it was realistic, and it is. Anyhow, assuming you want to be a Hunter, off you go, without Dad's blessing, to find your first tank, for as anyone will tell you (and they will): "You can call yourself a monster hunter, but if you don't have a tank, people will just point and laugh when they see your corpse rotting in a ditch somewhere." Actually there is no need to worry about death, because you are indestructible with or without a tank. If you die in battle, even if all three of you die, you will be rescued by Dad and reanimated by the local Frankenstein type doctor who loves his work and doesn't charge you a thing for his services. Dr Mince is both funny and creepy since he has a pet brain in his office, and and a pet insect that eats money in his yard.
The game is packed with details like these, and strange little things to discover and chuckle at, and that is partly what will keep you playing, because there really is very little story, At times it seems that there is none at all, but in fact there is an interesting tale which is presented obliquely, rather than directly. By travelling the land, talking to people, and exploring the various locations, you discover more and more about the world as it once must have been, and why it isn't like that anymore. The details of this world are rich and varied, and even poignant as you come across a blood stained notebook in the drawer of a desk on floor 35 (maybe...) of a huge tower block that was once a city, or the cryptic messages left on various computer screens in a deserted laboratory, or the huge factories now populated by zombies but with still active security cameras and conveyor belts. You are never told what to do, or where to go, because the game is truly non-linear and you can drive wherever you like, the only limit being your ability to defeat the monsters that assail you in random encounters. Eventually you will find the nerve centre of this world where you uncover the secret of Noah.
The other thing that will keep you playing is the lure of finding better and flashier tanks, and the tantalising undiscovered territory that shows black on your in game computer's map. The first time I played I was gripped by the desire to explore and didn't stop until I had found a shortcut using dark underground tunnels leading all the way to the towns at the furthest corners of the Metal Max world, which of course, also sold the best equipment and hid the best tanks. You really do have to search to find everything and you even have a Metal Detector which will help you uncover hidden mines as well as buried weapons and even a tank. This one happens to the Tiger tank, for the tanks are as realistic as everything else and most are based on historical tanks, though their colours are not exactly historical: the Tiger is painted gold and one of the best tanks in the game is bright red.
Most of the fighting is in tanks and each one has different slots for gun mountings: a cannon, a Special Effect (SE gun) and auxiliary gun, and you can buy different engines with varying capacity for the load they can carry, as well as C Units (the control centre of the tank) which has varying durability and can be programmed for different functions such as to ambush opposing enemies or fire guns automatically in support. You can even tow a tank which will act as a back up in battle if correctly equipped. The variations of guns and additional tank tools can make or break the game, and battling monsters with your small tank army firing their guns at once is wonderfully satisfying especially as every gun has its own particular shot and everything is shown on the battle screen. Controls are intuitive and simple to understand and everything can be customised to suit. Fiddling around with your gun placements and deciding whether a Burst Cannon would be better despite it's heavier weight, or using mostly Vulcan aux guns which have no shell cost, or maybe relying on special shells that can be carried by the chassis is all part of the appeal.
When you cannot you can't use tanks, (remember, this game is super realistic and tanks don't climb narrow stairs) you fight on foot using guns, knives and wrenches as weapons as well as a range of bottles for throwing or tablets for boosting stats, and your enemies might be cupboards with tendrils, flame throwing monkeys, or bazooka wielding dogs. Most enemies drop something ranging from tank weapons to odd things like Monkey Nail Dirt, or Octopus Wart and you can sell these in a bar where you can also treat the regulars to drinks and snacks such as a Rocket Ping or Roast Amoeba, or play the Jukebox, and indulge in a Frog Race wager.
Everything you find, buy or pick up, is recorded on your Hunter's special computer and you have no fear of running out of space as you can store masses of stuff in your home garage Trunk Room. You even have your very own garage where you can park your tanks when not in use, and protect them from accumulating bird crap if left outside too long. The wealth of detail is impressive, and this is a game where everything feels just right. The music is excellent, suitably stirring in battle, with some plaintive tunes in deserted factories, and jolly ones when the show girls dance. The enemies are as colourful and varied as your collection of tanks, and you can collect Baddie Posters as trophies of your kills. This is all brought to life by the clever translation which enriches the game with unerring attention to detail and a wicked sense of humour.
There are one or two awkward things which you have to overcome, such as removing items from storage requires a number of separate button presses for each item as you navigate through menu choices, and when you return to your tanks after a few drinks in the bar you might have trouble getting back into the one you want, but these are minor complaints. The lack of a clear goal or character driven story might put some people off, but this is more than compensated for by the engaging script and sheer originality of the game.
For anyone who enjoyed Metal Saga on the PS2 this game is a must, and if you ever wondered what it was like to drive an Abrams tank this is your chance to find out! Free roaming fun with tons of tanks redux.
Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Product Release: Metal Max Returns (JP, 09/29/95)
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