No matter what else Metal Saga got wrong, I knew two minutes in that its score wasn't going to dip below a five. It starts off traditionally enough for a Japanese role-playing game, with a young man in a small town setting out to make his way in the world. Before leaving to start life as a bounty hunter, the main character's mother asks if he really wouldn't rather take over the family business and become a mechanic, avoiding all the dangers of a life spent hunting bounties. I answered yes, and the game promptly ended. There were a few brief text bubbles detailing the boring life I led, and the amazing adventures that I in no way participated in, and then the credits rolled.
So yeah, I thought to myself, they've got a sense of humor about the genre. That's worth at least a five.
Of course, I couldn't very well write a thousand words about one minute of play and two minutes of text, so I went back and tried the actual game. The JRPG genre is one of the most formalized and regimented around, and Metal Saga doesn't deviate much from the formula. The player travels around a large 'world map', assembles a team of up to four members, finds towns and dungeons to adventure in, and fight monsters through the magic of turn-based combat.
There are two points in which the game really deviates from the traditional. The first is the setting. A follow-up to the relatively obscure NES title Metal Max, Metal Saga continues that game's setting of a post-apocalyptic future where people drive around in tanks and battle weird cybernetic monsters. The game gets quite a bit of mileage out of the setting alone, and the if the design of the playable characters is a little generic, the monster design more than makes up for it. As this is a fairly by-the-numbers JRPG, a player can expect to fight each individual monster hundreds of times while leveling up, but the creatures are so bizarrely entertaining that I didn't mind the repetition. For example, the deadliest creature to roam the wilderness? A giant tomato. A giant tomato wielding a butcher's knife. Does it make sense that this blade-wielding fruit could cut apart an Abrams main battle tank? Not really. Then again, it's probably not supposed to.
The second unique thing about the game is the difficulty level. It's by far the easiest RPG I've ever played. Strangely, such ease seems to grow as a direct consequence from the game's premise. That is, it's exactly as easy to fight random creatures while driving a tank as one would think it would be. It's almost as if the developers took a normal, fairly hard game about fighting monsters in a post-apocalyptic wasteland and then added tanks to it, dialing down the difficulty level several notches. Not even the bosses are especially challenging—for the first time I can remember I managed to beat a final RPG boss on the first attempt.
Also interesting is just how much of the game is optional. It's possible to make it most of the way through Metal Saga without meeting most of the playable characters, or killing almost any of the notorious outlaws that plague the world. The game's plot is similarly laid-back. Beyond the occasional appearance by a group of people in black suits doing research into the world pre-apocalypse, the game's main storyline doesn't rear its head until the game's last few hours. While this does make the game a little less involving than the average RPG—there's absolutely no pressure on the player to complete or achieve anything—I found the relaxed pace to be something of an entertaining novelty.
While a good effort is made, nothing in the game can match the inspired lunacy of Metal Saga's opening minutes. Even if the rest of the game doesn't continue to offer incisive commentary on or parody of the genre, it's still a likeably diverting romp, and definitely something a little different for people tiring of the standard JRPG grind.