Review: Daemon X Machina

13 Feb 2020

Every so often, you find a game that seems so perfectly targeted to your particular flavors of fascination and enjoyment that it seems like it should, nay, must have been made specifically for you. That is precisely the case for Daemon X Machina, which feels somehow like thirteen-year-old me was given a production role in a Japanese company and told to make exactly the sort of game I thought would be amazing.

Of course, the side effect is that thirteen-year-old me wasn’t exactly great at designing games.

Technically, Daemon X Machina is a re-release of the game which originally released last year on the Switch, but odds are fairly good you didn’t hear of it before, and it certainly managed to miss me completely until I found out about it…well, here. The question, then, is whether or not it actually manages to live up to its aspirations of being a slick and exciting mech shooter like it clearly wants to be, or if it’s another game that manages to fall gently into the also-ran pile but mostly carries on because hey, cel-shaded giant robots. Which one is it?

Well, what I can definitely tell you is that the game is coming out on Steam on February 13th, and that the Steam version was played for this review. And, you know, go ahead and queue up your favorite giant robot anime music while you read this if you’re so inclined.

Gundam It Feels Good To Be A Gangsta

First of all, this has been bothering me from the point of seeing the title, but I’m pretty sure that the intended reference is to diabolus ex machina, the maleficent counterpart to deus ex machina. This really has little to nothing to do with the story, but it’s more related to the story than anything else, so it goes here.

Anyhow, the story is…well…I don’t think that “turn-of-the-millennium robot anime” is actually a genre, but it should be. A part of a moon explodes and collides with a planet, and then smash cut to the future and you’re a new mercenary living on a space station as an “Outer,” piloting your giant Arsenal mech into the Oval Link impact area against AIs and basically getting thrown into the deep end of the pool without much explanation.

Here’s the big problem: while the story does set it up so that you’re not supposed to know much of what’s going on in the world, because you’re coming into an established power structure without any existing affiliation, what actually happens is that the story comes across as largely incomprehensible. Part of the problem here is that the story lacks any sort of central database, expecting you to just keep track of all the mercenary companies, mercenaries, high-level concepts, and world mechanics in the back of your head. But part of the problem is that the game starts off with the first half-dozen missions almost immediately introducing you to about twenty characters, all of whom already know one another or already know of one another.

And then…you keep getting introduced to new characters instead of exploring the ones that have already been introduced.

In creating a feeling that you are a newcomer in an established world who isn’t going to get a quiet sit-down and walkthrough of how the world works? Yes, this is functional. But in terms of giving you any sense of narrative or goals or wants? Not… so much, no. The story never pauses to explain what the Oval Link, Outers, Femto, the main factions, the mercenary factions, or anything are supposed to be. There are scenes that are supposed to be ominous foreshadowing that are derailed because you’ll find yourself squinting and being like “wait… do I know that person? Am I supposed to? Is this vague because it’s subtle or because I missed a name somewhere?”

It also seems to feature a whole lot of people talking about the nature of evolution, the future of the species, and what it means to create purpose in life. In other words, it is very much the sort of story to come out in the late 90s/early 00s in anime, wherein very mechanical machines with faint magic-science overtones form the backdrop of some weird philosophical meandering.

At the same time, though… while this is all bad, it’s also really exactly what it should be if you take the exercise as more of a mood piece. Like, yes, this is not a good way to tell a narrative or communicate effectively, but if you’re used to these genre conventions and just let the whole thing wash over you like a postmodern mood piece it becomes almost… serene.

I also realize that “this story is bad, but it’s bad in a way that’s on-brand so it’s actually sort of good” is kind of bizarre as a logical chain. But it really does almost feel like a more dialogue-heavy version of what Dark Souls does, giving you a tiny peephole into a world in which many of the details just aren’t fully explored. It’s not what I could call good or complete or well-told, but in a strange way it does work, especially if you’re a fan of the genre.

Seriously, though, the game even says there’s a library computer you can access but it doesn’t exist. That would have helped so much. Xenosaga had one.

Macross The Universe

Story is all well and good, but you came here for watching robots fight. On that note, this is a game that delivers. Your Arsenal as a baseline is capable of flying about for as long as you want, letting you move up and down with ease or race along the ground as necessary. Pivot your camera around and attack separately from the weapons in your right and left hand, or on your shoulders or slotted in as an auxiliary item. You get the idea.

And what sort of weapons will you have? Well, that’s all up to you, because as you would imagine, this is a game where custom-building your Arsenal is a huge mechanical element. Every single part has different properties – weight, memory usage, durability against different damage types, health, target lock time, target lock distance, and so on – and as you swap parts around you can build a machine to take on all sorts of configurations. You can fly around like a mechanical buzz-saw with melee weapons and shields and high speed but lower durability, you can be a slower machine with heavy weapons and little close-range ability, you can strike a balance… the only limit is the parts you have available.

That is, unfortunately, a bit of a notable limit; it takes a long time to unlock parts in stores, and until then you’re slowly crafting things or relying on scavenging broken parts from defeated mecha. It’s a good mechanic at face value, but it does mean that you don’t have a full sense of what you can build on a whole so much as what you have the parts for at the moment. Then again, since you can also modify most parts with little add-ons, perhaps that’s meant to be part of the charm to begin with.

Aside from putting together new modifications to your robot and tacking on new paint schemes, decals, and colors, you can also modify your character. This part gets particularly interesting; unlike most games, your skill trees aren’t just passive bonuses but are actually direct modifications of your character. The “Leg” tree, for example, starts replacing your legs with cybernetic modifications pretty early. And there’s no way around it. As you become a better pilot, you become less human.

Of course, that is also kind of a story-genre staple, isn’t it? Dang.

The game’s various missions are all light and breezy in terms of time; most of them clock in around ten minutes of playtime and stay frenetic the whole while, with the automatic lock-on system ensuring that pointing yourself in the right direction is enough to let your shots land accurately once the lock-on appears. It’s fun, it’s fast, and it tends to be pretty straightforward and to the point, with multiple valid approaches to the same basic objectives.

What is a weakness is that because your options start so limited and you don’t have much sense of how all the various parts work together, it’s easy to not really get a sense of how all the stats and mechanics work together until you’ve gotten through a fair chunk of the game – but that’s more of an issue if you’re rushing through than anything. Take your time and farm free missions, and you’ll have more options and more stuff to play around with along the way. And it’s fun, especially if you like…well, flying around with giant mechs, obviously.

Janie Got A Gunbuster

The customization options within the game are pretty amazing, with a huge number of different visual and mechanical changes for both the player character and your Arsenal itself. The actual graphics during the missions are spectacular, too, with a light cel-shading effect that really augments the feel of gigantic mechs slamming against things and opening fire. Unfortunately, the actual maps are a bit on the bland side, and they rely heavily on blue-orange contrast that tends to make things feel same-y just enough that you’ll start to notice.

Then again, as you’re whipping past dozens of little AI drones and blowing them up, you can easily miss parts of the landscape anyhow, so it makes sense as a stylistic choice.

Unfortunately, the character models in cutscenes don’t seem to benefit much from the game’s lighting engine; everything feels oddly lit and just slightly off, with weird shadows and a look to every character. They’re not great models, which makes the non-action parts of the game even more tedious to get through. It’s unfortunate, although not crippling.

Sound effects are nicely on-point throughout the game, with satisfying clunks, explosions, and rattles as you open fire. The music, sadly, is very light in the background; there are actually good tracks here, but they tend to be so quiet that you’ll miss them in the background along the way.

Bring The Zoids

So. What we have here is a game that is distinctly lacking on several levels. Its narrative is kind of a nightmare melange of concepts, its gameplay is fun but doesn’t really onboard you very well, and it does suffer a bit from repetition. At the same time, its narrative is exactly the sort of trash you expect from a game with a title like Daemon x Machina, the fact that customization can feel messy is part of the fun, and if you’re having fun isn’t the repetition a virtue?

Oh, and, let’s also remember that, as I mentioned, this sort of game is exactly my trash. So take that with the appropriate grain of salt.

Here’s the thing – I’ve never actually cared all that much for the Armored Core games despite wanting to, due chiefly to bouncing off some of them really hard when I was younger. But they are, at the same time, my kind of thing. This is, in essence, a faster-paced Armored Core with more anime influence, and this time I was right on board with it and it hooked me in more or less immediately.

If you like the trailer, you are almost certainly going to like this game. If you like the concepts, you are almost certainly going to like this game. It knows what it wants to be and it succeeds marvelously at it. And at the end of the day, I like this game, so even with its flaws, I can’t help but feel that it deserves plenty of love for just being dang fun in exactly the way it wants.

~ Final Score: 7/10 ~

Review copy provided courtesy of XSEED Games. Some screenshots courtesy of XSEED Games.