Although big silly anime robots aren’t necessarily my thing, I’ve bitched about the Switch’s lack of AAA games often enough that I’d look like a bit of a knob if I didn’t buy one when it’s offered – and honestly, Daemon X Machina is pretty damn fun once you get into it, which might be easier said than done because there are two main barriers to entry that may put some people off.
The first might be a barrier to me only – the story. I used to be into anime once upon a time, but I haven’t touched the stuff in over 15 years and for good reason – if you’re into it for as long as I was, it all starts to blur together and most of it is horribly written. Well, the story in Daemon X Machina is one of those anime stories, the kind that thinks it’s deeper than it is, with a lineup of ridiculously-designed characters with conflicting, one-dimensional personalities who would never be trusted to flip burgers in reality, let alone pilot cutting edge weaponry. You’ve got your terse, emo pretty boys who spout pseudo-philosophical deepities; chipper, psycho gothic lolita babes; pink-haired, plus-sized snowflakes; bald-headed man gorillas who want to smash everything; sassy afro and dreadlocked guys; stoic veterans who are really big ol’ softies; and amiable tech-nerd BFFs. All of these characters belong to different mercenary factions in the story, meaning sometimes you’ll fight alongside them as allies, and sometimes against them as enemies.
Unfortunately, you can’t kill any of them, to my immense disappointment. You can only wreck their mechs.
The overall story is fairly simple. Turns out the moon smashed into the Earth for some reason, creating a new type of material called Femto, which caused most of the world’s computer systems and advanced weapon system to become sentient and turn against us. A coalition of organisations banded together to save what was left of the world by creating weapons and technology to fight back, and dozens of mercenary groups formed to offer their services to these organisations. The specifics are where I get a bit fuzzy… okay, a lot fuzzy. There’s some AI-controlled overseer organisation called Orbital, I think, which doles out mercenary contracts and resolves disputes between the various factions. I still don’t know what the “Oval Link” is, despite the characters constantly mentioning it. I also can’t keep track of which quirky merc belongs to which faction and why they’re reacting to each plot development they way they are. I’d need a flow-chart to keep it all straight, but honestly I don’t care. Broad strokes, as you progress through the main campaign, something starts to smell fishy in the upper echelons, as if you didn’t see that coming.
At the beginning of the game, you get to create your male or female character from a decent selection of facial features, hairdos and skin tones, but it’s just eye-candy as you’re nothing more than a voiceless yes-man throughout the game. In no time at all you’re sent on your first few missions, which are super-easy and meant to give you a brief tutorial on the basic mechanics. And this is where the second barrier to entry arises. Daemon X Machina is not as complex as it may at first seem, but the game throws so much information at you – HUD elemets, minimap icons, fiddly weapon-switching mechanics, various control schemes, weapons that work in vastly different ways – that it can be a bit much to take in.
But if you decide to knuckle down and power through it, you’ll start slowly paring away which chunks of information are important at the moment and figuring out the initially-fiddly controls. The game plays like any third person action game, left stick moving, right stick camera; and the ZL and ZR buttons fire whichever weapon is in your mech’s left and right hand respectively. The L button fires your shoulder-mounted weapon and the R buttons boosts your movement. In addition to this, you have two “pylons” on your mech’s back, left and right, which hold an additional hand weapon you can switch between with D-pad left and right, meaning you can have four hand weapons on you at any one time. The Y button uses your special gadget, of which you get many varieties with many uses, and the X button makes your character eject themselves from their mech – more on that later.
As you fight through the game, you’ll encounter all kinds of enemies such as tanks, attack helicopters, drones, AI-controlled mechs and other mercs. Whenever you destroy another mech or merc, be sure to loot their corpse for one piece of new equipment, be it a weapon or a new piece of armour. This is your main way of acquiring new gear, the other options being to research them or buy them from the store at your home base. When deciding what gear to use, you’re presented with pages and pages of stats, which can be kind of off-putting, but if you’re like me, you’ll zero in on the most meaningful ones like weapon damage, clip size, reload speed, armour weight, boost speed, that kind of thing, and ignore the minor ones. You can also save various loadouts if you want, say, a tank build handy for combat heavy missions and a fragile but extremely quick build for exploration missions.
There are two types of missions in the game – Offered Missions, which are the story campaign ones; and the Free Missions, which become available as you progress in the story and allow you to complete them as many times as you want to grind out cash and gear pieces. Most missions are quite short, taking only a few minutes to complete, but a few of them do take a while. They can range from simple enemy eliminations or escorting vulnerable targets, to exploration of new areas and planting explosives at designated points while fending off attackers. There’s also the occasional boss encounter, usually at the point where you rise in rank. The bosses are quite involved and can be approached in many ways depending on your mech’s loadout. I forget the name, but the second boss, the giant airplane, gave me quite a bit of trouble. It’s more agile than you’d think and likes to ram you for huge damage. Also, my initial shoulder weapon, which fired volleys of missiles into the air which rained down on a target for huge damage, wasn’t much use against an opponent that moved so fast. The next time I tried, I equipped a long-ranged, high-speed cannon, and that turned out to be much more effective.
Oh, and earlier I mentioned you could eject your pilot from your mech. Most of the time, you won’t want to do this for any reason, except if your mech is wrecked and you have no choice – but even on foot, you’re not helpless and may still be able to complete the mission. Your pilot has a floating gun pod which deals a surprising amount of damage, and you can throw grenades and set traps. You can also upgrade your pilot at the augmentation clinic back at your base, turning your sexy avatar into a cyberpunk nightmare creature with pnuematic legs that allow you to double jump, enhanced eyes for targeting, and a lightsaber arm for melee attacks, among other upgrades. There are a couple of missions that necessitate being on foot, such as one that has you sneak into a base to steal a newly-developed mech, but you probably won’t be hoofing it that often. There are some other surprising missions that shake up the formula a bit too, but I won’t spoil them.
Between missions you’ll be dumped back at the base, where you can customise your mech, enhance your pilot, sell old gear, buy and research new gear and so on. At some point you’ll gain access to the ice-cream parlour – yes, you read that right, an ice-cream parlour. What this allows you to do is combine different cones and flavours to get temporary buffs for your next mission – a bit like eating a meal in Monster Hunter. Weird, but then what did you expect from a Japanese game?
That’s about all there is to the game – oh, there’s multiplayer too, if you want, just head over to the multiplayer computer panel in the base and choose from a selection of missions to play with friends or strangers. But for the most part, you’ll be progressing through the main story, then mopping up the Free Missions as they appear to earn currency and gear to upgrade, rinse and repeat. I don’t have many gripes apart from some of the boss fights being annoying with their focus on ramming you with their bulk, which can be difficult to dodge if you’re not using a fast loadout. Some bosses also spam irritating super attacks – the plane boss’s laser attack being a prime example. It wouldn’t be too bad if they used them a bit less often.
Sometimes the frame rate takes a few hard knocks, mostly in very geometrically complex areas where a lot is happening – it’s improved over the original demo, but it still happens on occasion. Oh, and the fiddly weapon-switching system can sometimes screw you over in combat. For instance if you meant to switch a weapon, but somehow ended up transferring it to the other pylon, you have to try and figure out which combination of button presses will undo your screw up – sometimes in the heat of combat. Oh, and speaking of mid-combat mischief, this issue isn’t unique to DXM, but it’s in there – stop having talky plot elements happening during the action. I care little enough for the plot as it is, and I’m much less inclined to listen while I’m running and gunning for my life.
The story might not be to everyone’s taste, it certainly wasn’t for me, but DXM is a solid, engrossing action game with plenty of weapons and armour to sink your teeth into to create various builds and lots of varied missions to try them out in. It’s fast and furious, but also tactical and is definitely helping to fill the quota of the kind of quality AAA game the Switch desperately needs more of.