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Metal Unit Early Access Preview

A fox in metal sheep's clothing?

As this is a preview of an Early Access build on Steam the opinions stated are solely based on version 000.902. Bear in mind that as Metal Unit’s planned release date is December 2020, and based on the latest patch notes by JellySnow Studio, version 000.902 sounds like it’s close to the final build.

Although it’s not based on any Japanese source material (to the best of my knowledge, anyway), Metal Unit doesn’t fall far from the Anime tree. It’s evident from the opening cut-scene that this game is heavily influenced by the Mecha genre, and the familiarity of seeing an unlikely hero in the guise of a teenage girl fighting monsters in an augmented robotic combat suit was what drew me to it. The possibility of stepping inside Neon Genesis Evangelion or All You Need Is Kill is a desirable one but those are big boots to fill. Can Metal Unit live up to those expectations?

With the aid of the titular Metal Unit and a floating A.I companion called Falconie, the innocent-looking Joanna joins the Steel Counteroffensive arm of the military. Her reasons are twofold: she wants to destroy the Queen, an alien being who has let her ravenous horde of Garou monsters loose upon the world. Her objective is unknown but her actions have ruined Earth as we know it. However, Joanna’s primary goal is to clear her family’s name and get revenge on her sister Hana, who recently betrayed humanity and is now working alongside the Queen. The story promises twists and turns and there’s definitely hints that suggest Joanna might be reliving events, which I think goes hand-in-hand perfectly with its approach to dying but to say anymore would be spoiling things.

Metal Unit Joanna M-11 Menu

Gameplay is simple and mostly self-explanatory. Being a side-scrolling platformer anyone can pick up the controls quick enough. Taking cues from other roguelites, you’ll find yourself continuously shooting and looting. In fact, it is mandatory to clear each stage before exiting right to the next one, so you’ll find yourself picking up loads of goodies here-and-there. Metal Unit’s methodical nature is easy to get behind: clear room > push forward > kill boss.

There’s some interesting upgrade elements to sink your teeth into too. Using crystals you can upgrade Joanna, your M-11 Metal Unit suit, and Falconie completely separately. Upgrading is expensive though so if you’re going to max out all three skill trees you’ve got plenty of grinding to do. I chose to sink my crystals into M-11 as the suit is your primary health and attack ‘class’ (if it can even be called that).

Weapons and items also have their own experience gauges. Filling a gauge gives you access to newer weapons, and it’s great to see Metal Unit encourage players to master new weapons to unlock more. It’s an addictive, experimental cycle that pays off. You can also visit a vendor who will ‘synthesise’ two weapons together to forge you a more powerful one. It felt like a gamble that I only tested once as on my first attempt I sacrificed a powerful weapon and ended up with something I already had two of. Synthesising has so much potential but while it feels like a lottery it’s frustrating and disappointing to use. Maybe you can unlock blueprints but I never found any. If blueprints do exist I think the Synthesiser is an amazing resource.

Metal Unit Dragon Boss

Metal Unit has a lot to admire, from its 2D anime-inspired visuals, to its unlockable skins, range of suits with their individual perks, to its commitment to offering a plethora of weapons and various game modes… but for a game that is approaching completion I have just as many complaints as I do compliments.

The current build is confusing and complicated. There’s the typical introductory cutscenes that set up the adventure but once the game starts introducing the RPG-inspired elements it’s taken for granted that the player should already know what to do. I think the perfect example to sum up what I mean is the Mastery Points system. In a nutshell, the more weapons you max out the more weapons you’ll discover in chests, and knowing this made things so much more fun. Unfortunately, Mastery Points is poorly explained and is too easily shrugged off if you don’t know what Mastery Points do. There is a brief mention of Mastery Points and what it means but it’s not something you can look up in the menu, and the UI doesn’t do much to remind you why your items have experience gauges. It could do with being communicated better with a brief in-game tutorial.

It’s also not clear what services NPCs provide as you have to speak to them first to find out what they can offer you, and even after your first conversation the floating icons that appear above their heads aren’t logical symbols that gamers would be familiar with. This wouldn’t be such an issue if the game did a better job at communicating what the icons represented (there’s no key to my knowledge). Even using the vendors can seem frustrating and a minefield to navigate. One of my biggest complaints was how you can’t sell your unwanted items. The good news is YOU CAN! but it took me 2 playthroughs of Chapters 1 and 2 to figure out where and how. It shouldn’t be that difficult.

Metal Unit Grim Reaper Boss

Metal Unit kept prompting me to save but I couldn’t find the option anywhere. Dying continuously sends you back to the start of the chapter and from what I can tell this is either because I can’t save, or it serves a narrative purpose that isn’t obvious yet. However, I do not believe for a second that it’s intentional to lose all your progress and have to restart every chapter from the start because this isn’t a souls-like designed by Miyazaki. During Chapter 2 I didn’t feel like I was making any progress; the progression map kept informing me I was returning to the same stage, despite the fact I had already played through multiple stages. Again, if Metal Unit is near completion not being able to save or track your progress is going to be detrimental to its success.

And here is a short list of other problems I encountered that need fixing or simply need better communicating to the player.

Input latency/lag: this might actually be the fault of my laptop or my PlayStation DualShock 4 controller but I have played other Steam games for comparison and I’ve had no troubles with other games. Metal Unit performed slightly better with some tweaks to the options but it still didn’t help with busy combat encounters.

Bullet accuracy: annoyingly, bullets don’t always hit. The animation of the bullet will pass through an enemy. Maybe every gun has an accuracy stat but if so it’s invisible to the player. I wouldn’t mind if this was the case but it genuinely felt more like a bug rather than a spec of a gun. If it is a bug perhaps Metal Unit can be patched to include an accuracy stat.

Metal Unit World Map

Her name: the game can’t decide whether the protagonist is called Joanna or Joana. I know it’s probably pretentious and being overly-picky to point out a mild typo but it’s so glaringly obvious and in-your-face early on in the game it doesn’t bode well for the remainder of the campaign.

Metal Unit has a lot of potential but at the moment its shiny exterior needs a bit of polish. It’ll be interesting to revisit Metal Unit when it has been officially released and see how my criticisms stack up. Fingers crossed some of the issues I have found are addressed because I can see Metal Unit becoming an indie darling among the Anime community.

Thank you to JellySnow Studio and Neowiz. Previewed on Steam.

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