Metal Max 4: The Diva of Moonlight - Import Review  

Heavy Metal Sonata
by Michael Baker

More than 80 Hours
+ Strong emphasis on exploration.
+ Lots of variety in combat.
+ Crazy fun design choices.
+ Tons of integral content.
+ The camera function.
- Boss battles can be grueling.
Click here for scoring definitions 

   Normally when I write a review, I try to stay objective and impartial in tone, but this time? Screw that. Metal Max 4 is pure awesome wrapped around a layer of whimsy hiding a core of even purer awesome. Some Western gamers might be familiar with Metal Saga, the only game in this series to leave Japan, to which I say: forget all expectations that PlayStation 2 title might have given you. Metal Max 4 is its own beast, and any comparisons would require a scientific inquiry into how best to redraw the numeric scales so as to allow both games to properly coexist on the same plane of reference. That's about all the science needed for this review, because the Metal Max series throws most every aspect of physics, chemistry, biology, genetics, pharmacology, and engineering (both structural and vehicular) to the four winds in order to provide the most insane sci-fi possible. Imagine the setting of Wasteland or Fallout coupled with the design esthetic of Parodius, and you have the general idea. There's enough cracked sci-fi packed in here to give Neil deGrasse Tyson an embolism.

   Here's a bit of background. Just over fifty years ago, the supercomputer NOAH was put in charge of solving the world's ecological problems. After a bit of deliberation, it decided to remove the biggest danger to the environment post-haste, and thus declared war on humanity. One incredibly loud and exceedingly explosive war later, and the survivors of humanity are teetering on the brink of extinction while rogue machines wander the wastes and the results of NOAH's more extreme genetic experiments carve out their own ecological niches with lasers and bio-grenades. Surviving in the post-war reality of Holdover Gulf is going to require a lot of ingenuity, and even more artillery.

   Which is why we have tanks. To paraphrase one of the great actors of our time, there are a lot of mother-loving tanks in this mother-loving game. Extend the definition of "tank" to include all vehicular types, and it gets even crazier. There's the android agent-slash-motorcycle transformer, the machine-gun corvette, the meter-maid motor scooter that can somehow wield multi-ton wrecking balls, the WWI-era replica, the ack-ack guns, the feral bus, the modified Shinto parade float, the bio-tanks... and this is before we even get to the enemy artillery. Expect to face crazy ATVs, stampeding steamrollers, hellacious helicopters, and homages to extreme Nazi engineering before it's all done.

   But what about the story? Metal Max 4 shows that Crea-Tech has learned from its previous efforts with both linear and non-linear plot progression, with this latest title walking the fine line betwixt the two. The hero always has a firm goal in place: to infiltrate the technocrat stronghold of LaTour and free his adoptive father figure from durance vile, while at the same time preventing the maniac warlord who controls LaTour from running roughshod over the continent with his elite Motor Legion. The exact means of achieving this evolves over the course of the game, but there is always a goal. It just usually happens to require that the hero cross hundreds of kilometers of monster-infested desolation first. Combine this with things like long-term cryogenic suspension survivors, mad science, kidnapping rings, and the usual assortment of outlaws, and... well you get the idea.

   The real strength of MM4's story lies in the minor subplots that develop while trying to achieve the main goals. There are dozens of minor quests lying hither and yon. Some, especially those tied to the main party members, provide good amounts of extra narrative. The side-quests can vary from something as simple as a dog-food delivery to one fun treasure hunt that turns into a slasher movie parody, à la "Nature Trail to Hell (in 3D)". The hero picks up a lot of these quests at the various Hunter Offices scattered across the region, but many others have to be discovered independently as the player delves into the unknown corners of the map. While the core plot can be haphazard or uneven in the timing of some of its elements, the Metal Max games have always been driven by exploration rather than narrative, and MM4 proudly continues the tradition.

Swords That Smash Evil Real men drive pink Tyranno-tanks.

   In fact, this game is an excellent example of how to carry a series forward while keeping everything that made its predecessors great. For example, the three DS games of the series included distinct character classes with an array of skills for use in and out of battle. Metal Max 4 builds upon that in two big ways. First, while the game's eight non-canine main characters all fall into distinct class types, their actual skill pool is much broader, with many of them constituting de facto hybrid classes. Though with bounty-hunting chanteuses, were-panda luchadors, samurai road warriors, kung-fu waitresses, and casanova cowboys, things are varied enough already. Their extra utility is even more obvious when compared to the handful of recruitable straight-class NPCs, most of whom (with the exception of Carrie the co-dependent Amazon) only stick around until a particular quest is completed. As an extra bonus, this game allows the player to switch party members in and out of the front lines at any time outside of battle.

   The other improvement is the Boost System. Every skill, whether active or passive, can be augmented. Characters regularly earn Booster Points, but unlike games with similar systems (e.g. Dragon Quest VIII), points are gained after a specific number of battles rather than at level-up. This allows for steady improvement even in areas with low experience gain. Just as importantly, there is an artifact found halfway through the game that allows the player to re-spec one or all of a character's Booster Point allotments, and can even swap out some skills to customize characters even further.

Caption The Karaoke of the Living Dead. Just one more spot that exists for no real reason other than to be awesome.

   The combat itself errs more on the side of tradition, but there'll be no complaints there. All party members can equip up to three personal arms, and the tanks can be upgraded to carry up to five types of guns, cannons, lasers, missile launchers, flamethrowers, wrecking balls, or even more exotic weapon types. All of this, combined with hand grenades, martial arts, and some over the top driving skills, makes combat exciting even with its traditional, turn-based infrastructure. Though, any game that lets wandering super-monsters just barge into ongoing battles can hardly be described as boring. Long-term survival in this post-apocalyptic world requires a lot of planning and innovation with the weapons at hand, and MM4 definitely encourages experimentation to overcome the most extreme baddies or finish the optional hunting challenges. Considering how this game likes to pile on the hurt in the big boss battles, it pays to be creative. In the event of a wipeout, the player will even receive a percentage value showing how close he or she came to defeating that enemy, just to spur the heroes on.

   Keeping with the theme, the graphics are also a blend of old and new. On the one hand, ninety-five percent of all enemy designs have appeared in previous games, with many of them at first glance identical to the Metal Max 3 designs. On the other hand, the in-battle camera regularly shifts perspective, displaying those same designs from every possible angle and magnification, making it readily apparent that the graphics department must have put in some hefty overtime when it came to rendering MM4's massive bestiary. None of these models are static; everything moves in surprising ways, and some of the attack animations are very impressive. The game's locales are equally idiosyncratic, with buried malls, derelict tourist traps, half-ruined belle époque architecture, bombed out industrial parks, and a massive dam providing a small sample of MM4's varied topography. Crea-Tech was thoughtful enough to link the R button to the 3DS camera, allowing the player to take screenshots at almost any point in battle or on the field, except during dialogue or scripted scenes. This would explain the two-hundred forty screenshots in the RPGamer image gallery for this game, by the way. Unfortunately it is not possible to take screenshots during the game's scattered animated sequences, which occur when party members are introduced and at other major plot events in the game. As one final plus, upon winning the game the player is treated to a slideshow of his or her own travel photos as the credits roll.

Swords That Smash Evil Optical illusions. Gotta love 'em.

   Likewise, Satoshi Kadokura's soundtrack is everything a fan of this series could expect, with much of it being re-tooled or remixed editions of tracks dating back twenty years to the origins of the series. And it still rocks. That cannot be stressed enough. Many of these tunes have stood the test of time and are all the stronger for it. In fact, the game's oldest track comes courtesy of the illustrious Ludwig van Beethoven: the "Moonlight Sonata," which even serves as the inspiration for the game's secondary title. This iteration of the series also includes a fair amount of voice acting for all the party characters and many of the important NPCs. While they're not Oscar-worthy performances, neither do they earn any Golden Raspberry awards. The voices add a lot to the major plot scenes, and overall the story is better for them.

   This is probably a good place to mention the small mountain of downloadable content available for this game. There's a metric ton of equipment, both personal and vehicular, and plenty of the usual costume changes as well. The Field Bus is available for free until the end of December, and there are plenty of other crazy tanks to download as well. Heroes from previous titles can be recruited, and numerous optional bosses can be had both from the limited edition and pre-order bonuses as well as via the in-game store. All in all, there's almost enough DLC available to match the game's original price point, should anyone wish to fork over that much in micro-transactions. But the best part is, none of it is critical. Not one bit of DLC is necessary to further an understanding of the game or its plot, to unlock new areas or content, or to experience anything short of the craziest adventure to be had on the 3DS. Crea-Tech may be willing to make us pay through the nose for extra sprinkles, but the game itself is the whole cake, with more than enough icing to satisfy. In fact, it's eighty to one-hundred hours worth of cake — and that's no lie.

   So, for everyone in the audience without a Japanese 3DS, my condolences. Let us all curse Nintendo for the decision that prevents you from experiencing this game. For those who do possess a Japanese 3DS, what are you waiting for!? Do you not feel up to the task of hunting the Kong-sized security droid known as Djangorilla? Does the thought of the arboreal behemoth Baobaboonga make you quake in your boots like a fleshy aspen? Is the thought of facing down Scissor Stan the Scorpion Man too much for you? No? Well then, put down that glass of milk, toss back a few Manhattan Project martinis, and grab your grenade launchers. There's a space station up there that needs help with its giant anthropophagous carrot problem, and it's time to ride.

   See ya later, steel cowboy.

Review Archives

© 1998-2017 RPGamer All Rights Reserved
Privacy Policy