Metal Max fans in the west are not what you’d call spoiled for choice, especially in regards to English-language releases. It would be more accurate to say that series fans are “Metal Max-starved.” In the span of the series’ 31-year existence, only two games have been released in English —2006’s Metal Saga (thusly named due to trademark issues at the time) and 2018’s Metal Max Xeno. For English-speaking fans, it’s Metal Max Xeno that’s relevant here, as Metal Max Xeno: Reborn is, as the title suggests, a reimagining of that game.
Originally released on PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita and PC, Metal Max Xeno was unlike the traditional turn-based RPGs that comprise the majority of the Metal Max franchise. Xeno was, instead, a free-roaming action game with hybrid RPG elements. Free to roam and explore largely barren environments, travel was frequently interrupted by randomly-spawning enemies ranging from an assortment of insectoid creatures, tanks, mechs, and the occasional ‘wanted’ boss enemy.
The game loop consisted of journeying out into the wilderness to find additional survivors to join your cause, level up on the endless parade of cannon fodder, and destroy big bosses for profit. At the end of the day you’d return back to headquarters —named Iron Base— and upgrade your tanks and acquired vehicles, improving your loadout in order to venture out farther and survive your next sortie. As futuristic tank-based action-RPGs are something of a rarity, Xeno was a light, linear, and limited diversion that left you wanting a little more depth to sink your teeth into. Xeno Reborn was created to scratch this itch.
Xeno Reborn is more than a simple remix of the original game’s elements. While much of the basic framework from Xeno remains, the visuals, character art, game mechanics, progression system, and plot elements have all been revised and redone, to the point where it’s often unrecognizable from what came before. The original Xeno now feels like a prototype for what has ultimately become a fundamentally different game.
What hasn’t changed are the game’s characters, although the character art has been revamped. OG Xeno’s character portraits were provided by hentai illustrator, Non Oda, but have been replaced by designs by Takeshi Oga (character designer of Gravity Rush 2). This, combined with the adjustment of certain plot points and character discovery, has resulted in the removal of some of the original Xeno’s overly sexualized character art. There’s still some scantily-dressed characters that join your crew, but for fans of the original art style, Oda’s art can be unlocked after completing Xeno Reborn’s story mode.
Another visual upgrade is the redesign of Iron Base, which no longer looks like a laughably disco-fied smartlamp from the future, and now appears as if the development team actually put a 3D modeler on the job. Your team’s HQ now looks like a proper fortress, replete with steely gates and an industrial façade that lives up to the name.
Whereas the original Xeno was extremely linear — which was felt deeply as there was little to do in that game except drive from point A to point B in the questline — Xeno Reborn alleviates some of this linearity by overhauling how players interact with enemies. Instead of enemies randomly spawning around the environments, in Xeno Reborn they’re already on the battlefield, which allows you to decide whether to engage them or simply drive past.
Driving your tanks is also handled differently now. In Xeno, all you needed to do was push on the left analogue stick to move forward, etc. Xeno Reborn instead puts the acceleration on ZR and reverse on ZL, which in actual practice feels a bit like controlling a Warthog from Halo. It’s an interesting touch, as it gives each vehicle its own feel, with a dash of dune-leaping physics to boot. Main character Talis’s tank feels heavier and tanky, while repair specialist Yokky’s buggy is lithe and nimble, and is often a little too lightweight for its own good. The specific vehicle you control can be alternated with a tap of the Y button, which is useful for tactical reasons.
While you might want to use your low profile buggy to zip past and fit into tight spaces to snipe enemies, your tank’s higher calibre cannons and greater range may better reach targets from afar. This is the type of tactical consideration the original Xeno never offered. Unfortunately, the game’s collision is pretty unforgiving when it comes to ledges and structural geometry. If you’re rolling down a hill in your tank and aiming for the ramp into the next area, if you clip the slightest edge of an errant polygon, you’ll just come to a dead stop. This makes a sort of vehicular logic, since a real dune buggy would be able to jump the majority of the game’s contrived barriers that are blocking you from accessing certain areas too early.
Moreover, in Xeno you were either in battle or you weren’t, but now in addition to sniping enemies from afar, you can also fire a shot and then back your vehicle up out of aggro range. This allows players to ‘pull’ certain enemies to you, one by one, allowing you to either thin out a crowd that could quickly overwhelm you, or eliminate the flunkies surrounding a much more difficult boss.
While this is in no way a great tactical shooter, it’s possible to even use occasional cover, like a broken-down bridge, to shield yourself from missiles and aerial enemies. However, enemy placement isn’t very clever in their arrangement. Enemies have a field of vision that —when you come in range— is indicated by long, coloured ‘beams’ paired with a rapidly filling ‘Alert’ bar that, when full, engages you in battle. You can pre-empt this by approaching closely enough and choosing to attack first. If you manage to destroy the enemy before it has a chance to attack, the alert meter will vanish, allowing you the chance to sneak up on the next enemy and so on. It’s less a stealth game and more just being proactive on the battlefield, but it adds a depth to the Xeno Reborn experience that the original game lacked. Most battles can be abandoned, too, although with bosses it is much harder to escape.
You can even exploit janky geometry recognition by firing through seemingly solid objects, like rising sand dunes and bridge stanchions, to hit enemies while reaping the protective benefits offered by these same obstructions.
Despite this, it’s still a much, much tougher game than the original Xeno. Bosses can be really tough here, requiring you to repeatedly scour environments, grinding on enemies for money and materials, completing missions for rewards, and exploring ruins for upgrade parts. Upgrading your tank and its weapons, as well as each character’s personal equipment loadout, is essential for surviving the ruins of Dystokia. Instead of merely levelling up as you did in the original Xeno, in Xeno Reborn you earn points to upgrade each character’s skill tree. Certain characters lend themselves to certain discipline types, like Drive, Repair, Medical, Militia, and Survive. Certain characters have specialized skill categories, like Talis’s NephTech tree. Even Metal Max mascot and 4th support character, Pochi (an exclusive addition to Xeno Reborn who has his own recently-released spin-off game, Metal Dogs), has his own skill tree simply labelled ‘Dog.’ This allows for deeper customization for your squad’s effectiveness in battle, and adds considerable depth when combining these skills in tandem with your vehicular arsenal.
However, the thing that mitigates any real sense of consequence here is the lack of a game over state. Regardless of whether your entire crew wipes out on a boss, or suffers a nearly-destroyed tank out in the field, whether by K.O. or returning to Iron Base by choice, you simply get healed and repaired to optimal condition and out you go again, none the worse for wear. This is probably helpful for newcomers and veterans alike, given the game’s tougher challenge level than in previous versions of the game, but it saps Xeno Reborn from having any real sense of risk. The ability to save anywhere makes a quick reload just before a tough boss a possibility, too.
Speaking of reloads, the load times in Xeno Reborn are significant. While hardly a deal breaker, prepare to wait a while on Switch as the game loads whatever zone you’re fast-traveling to. The framerate is also a bit chuggy at times, hazy blur/speed effects (particularly while driving) are distracting, and monster models often look low budget. This is not a high production game, and it shows at almost every turn. Weird glitches often occur, too, such as pockets of enemies that —if left alone for a while— will start ‘popping’ around their AI paths instead of just walking. Funky lighting effects, while clearly meant to be one of the great visual improvements in Xeno Reborn, are often so blinding that it’s hard to read the menu or see which target you’re aiming at during battle.
Minor UX tweaks could also have made the game less frustrating. For example, when perusing items such as weapons in the shop, a comparison display showing how X-weapon may compare against the ones you have equipped would have been helpful. Similarly, when in battle, it’s up to you to remember the nuances of every item, as only names and not item descriptions are displayed. If these types of oversights had been given as much attention as some of the other features, Xeno Reborn would have felt like a much more complete overhaul, rather than an almost-there experiment.
Still, on the whole Reborn is definitely the version of Metal Max Xeno that anyone should play. Visually, the vehicles look a little more worn-in than their previous cel-shaded counterparts on PS4 and PS Vita, and another nice visual touch is how characters, like Pochi and Toni, will ride atop the vehicles you drive. Likewise, any character whose vehicle is destroyed in battle will also hitch a ride on your tank/buggy/van until you return to Iron Base.
If you’ve considering importing this title, fortunately the English release of Xeno Reborn is due out soon, and unless your Japanese skill is proficient or better — considering the number of item descriptions, monster glossaries, and quest objectives provide — this is not a very import-friendly game. Luckily that will soon cease to be an issue, so we recommend holding out for the imminent English version to drop.
While it might seem like our gripes outnumber the improvements in Xeno Reborn, this is still a weird, unique, and overall enjoyable entry point into the Metal Max world. Squad-based, single-player tank-centric games (set in a post apocalyptic world) are few and far between, to put it mildly, so this is still worth your time. And to their credit, instead of simply moving on to a sequel (which they’re doing as well in Metal Max: Wild West), Cattle Call and 24Frame took the time to improve on the foundation laid by Metal Max Xeno, to ambitious if flawed results in Xeno Reborn. You can’t fault the teams for the effort made, and whether they were totally successful or not, the whole of Metal Max Xeno Reborn is still greater than the sum of its parts.