Daemon X Machina Review
I have no trouble admitting that Daemon X Machina never registered particularly high on my radar. It’s not that the concept never interested me — I like mechs, I like combat games, and I’ve generally been a fan of Marvelous’ games — but there was something about it that just turned me off. I tried out the Prototype Demo when it was live, and came away from it feeling largely underwhelmed, in part due to its horrendous performance, and in part because it didn’t really seem to do anything interesting. The final product is a lot more polished; the performance issues are gone, the story is woven into every aspect of the game, and for the most part, you’re left with a nice little package. Having said that, for me, Daemon X Machina is more than just a game about blowing stuff up with a 90-foot-tall mech in a post-apocalyptic hellscape while heavy metal blasts through your speakers — it’s a game about managing expectations.
See, Daemon X Machina is not a great game. That might be a weird thing to read, given the score at the bottom of this very review, but it’s really just not great. It has a ridiculous, convoluted story, way too many characters that don’t really mean anything, a very repetitive gameplay loop, and dozens more things that have frustrated me throughout my thirty-odd hours in the game. And yet… I can’t stop playing it. It’s strangely compelling, and even as I type this review, I can’t think of anything more I’d rather be doing than playing it.
So let’s start at the beginning. Daemon X Machina is an action combat game in which you, the player character, are tasked with piloting a gigantic mech called an Arsenal in various combat missions assigned to you by a series of mysterious, shadowy corporations. Following a catastrophic event that saw the moon break into pieces and crash into the planet, biologically enhanced mercenaries known as Outers are the only ones left to (metaphorically) pick up the pieces, and jump into Arsenals to violently carve out a new future for themselves, and all of humanity.
Every Outer has their own story, their own reason for fighting. Some are in it for the money; mercenary work pays extremely well, and the allure of a future in which they hold all the cards financially is a powerful driving factor for the traditionally disenfranchised. Others are government lapdogs, forced into a life of suicide missions and hard times to pay off their debt to society. And some fight for more personal reasons — to create a future free of war for their offspring, to track down their parents’ murderer, or to find brotherhood amongst other Outers in a time where interpersonal relationships are hard to come by. And of course, some just fight because they like to blow stuff up. Can’t argue with that.
As you progress through the story, you’ll find that not everything is as simple as it seems. For the most part, Outers — who have formed their own little teams with others who have aligning goals — aren’t supposed to fight against each other. There’s a malicious AI taking over other pieces of machinery, like drones and tanks; Outers have enough on their plates without having to worry about in-fighting. But a series of conflicting missions from different organisations have done exactly that, pitting teams against each other as one is tasked with destroying a facility and another tasked with protecting it. This increasing conflict, and the air of secrecy and classified information around it, lays the groundwork for most of the intrigue in the game’s story. It’s not particularly compelling, however.
A part of the problem is that there are so many characters, and it’s hard to keep track of who’s who. There are a few standout faces, characters that pop up more than others, but after a while I found I was just zoning out of which character was saying any particular thing, instead just focusing on what they were saying. Is it Gun Princess talking to me? Maybe Gun Empress? Perhaps it’s the Rose Queen. Who knows, and at this point, who cares? Paying attention to these individual character stories is just not all that interesting, at least compared to the premise of it all. It doesn’t really matter who’s getting caught in the crossfire, the only thing that matters is that somebody is, and that definitely shouldn’t be happening. The storytelling is by far the weakest part of Daemon X Machina, and it doesn’t help that quite a few of the characters are based on some very tired stereotypes.
It helps, then, that the gameplay loop is so addictive, and I’m not sure I can really explain why. As mentioned above, it is very repetitive. You set up your Arsenal, go and fight some things, come back to the hangar to set up your Arsenal for the next mission, and rinse and repeat until you’re finished with the game. The combat gameplay itself isn’t anything flash either, though it does provide a lot of options. There are hundreds of different weapons, ranging from the more traditional like assault rifles and missile launchers, to the more ridiculous like gigantic swords, acid guns, and shoulder-mounted laser cannons.
For most of my gameplay, I stuck to an early, tried and true formula of an assault rifle and a sword — for long-range and short-range combat, respectively — but for later missions that just wasn’t cutting it anymore. I made the switch to a permanent arm cannon, a risk, given if you run out of ammo you can’t just toss it away and pick up a new one like you could with any other gun. It was in these late-game risks that I found the most enjoyment, experimenting with new setups and loadouts, trying to find new ways to play to give myself more variety in the gameplay.
In the field, you’re given a task and (usually) a couple of teammates, and then you’re on your own as you figure out how to approach it. Most missions are fairly straightforward, you beat up the bad guys and then rake in the cash, but others are a little more mixed. Because this is a Video Game, you’ll have to put up with a few insufferable escort missions, in which you’re tasked with protecting a plane, train, or automobile as it very slowly travels from one side of the map to the other, while waves of enemies assault the vehicle from all directions. I found that there’s no real right way to do this, and a lot of the time it just came down to hoping the enemies decided to focus on you instead of the target. All this while managing a variety of meters, like your health, stamina, ammo bars, and femto, a type of energy used for special abilities and certain weapons.
Once you get out of the early ranks, all of this starts to become somewhat of a second nature, with meters and stats fading into peripheral vision so you can focus on the action. Pretty soon you’ll be racing around the battlefield at breakneck speeds, shooting down enemy drones like you’ve been doing it since birth. And that is part of Daemon X Machina’s charm — the ease at which you adapt to its gameplay is one of its greatest strengths. And it’s a good thing, too, because there is a lot of it. I’ve totalled about thirty hours so far, between single-player and multiplayer missions and developing, testing, and upgrading my Arsenal, and I get the feeling I’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s possible.
On the topic of upgrades, that’s another area where Daemon X Machina is a bit of a mixed bag. Upgrading your Arsenal is a fickle affair; you can develop new parts in the factory, but most of your upgrades will come from felling enemy Arsenals in the field. When you take down an Arsenal you’ll get to pick from a selection of its equipment, and it’s by far the best (and easiest) way to get stronger. This creates an interesting dynamic in its gameplay loop, where defeating other Arsenals — an activity that is usually somewhat optional in most missions — is something to strive for.
It’s something that drives you to take even more risks in combat, in the hopes you’ll nab a spiffy new helmet, or a powerful new rocket launcher. It also means that developing new equipment in the factory often feels a bit pointless. Why bother spending a tonne of cash on a new gun when I could just hop into a mission and potentially pick up something better in the field? You have to complete a mission for development to progress anyway, so there’s no time lost by just hedging your bets on a random drop.
Upgrading your Outer is… another story. Outers are, by necessity, biologically enhanced to help them adjust to the piloting of an Arsenal. The next step in that enhancement is cybernetics, and the game does not shy away from plugging you into every kind of enhancement you could imagine. Robot eyes for better vision on the battlefield? You betcha. Replacement pogo legs so you can double jump? Of course. Strapping a rocket booster to your shoulders so you can run faster? You better believe it. While I very much like the idea of showing off character upgrades in a very visible way, it feels a little… harsh? Seeing a character I spent half an hour creating get instantly ruined in the first upgrade by ridiculous glowing robot eyes takes away a lot of the adoration I felt for my creation. I suppose it makes sense, in the grand scheme of things, to watch yourself be turned into a cybernetic monster by the necessities of warfare. It’s a bold, confronting, and often uncomfortable way to drive home the themes that Daemon X Machina has to offer. I don’t particularly like seeing the way it transforms my character beyond recognition, but maybe I’m not supposed to.
As a brief aside on the topic of multiplayer, I’ve completed about a dozen multiplayer missions in my time with the game, and the online performance has been pretty much flawless. It runs and plays identically to single-player missions, with lobbies of up to four players completing tasks that are very similar to standalone missions without the story thrown in. In all of my missions, I didn’t notice a single instance of lag, a single moment where frames dropped. It was just business as usual. And given that ‘business as usual’ is similarly flawless — a stark improvement over the initial prototype demo — it’s impressive that the performance has been able to keep so consistent throughout the game.
I did notice one frankly bizarre issue, however, in a few of the earlier missions. Like many other games on the Switch, Daemon X Machina uses a dynamic resolution to keep things running smoothly, and in some of the early missions, that dynamic resolution falls aggressively low in handheld mode. It’s an odd thing to see, as later missions — which take place in larger, denser areas with significantly more action on-screen — don’t suffer the same fate. Chalk it up to the oddities of game development, I guess.
I want to return to a statement I made earlier in the review: Daemon X Machina is a game about managing expectations. As I’ve said, it’s not a great game, though that’s not to say it’s a bad game either. What it lacks in greatness, however, it makes up for in fun, and it is spectacularly fun. Anyone going into the game looking for a masterpiece in storytelling, or groundbreaking new game mechanics, is going to be disappointed. In this respect, I look at Daemon X Machina the same way I look at films like Fast and Furious, or Transformers: it’s cheesy, action-focused fun. Sometimes it’s just nice to turn off your brain and drive a sports car through an explosion into a helicopter at 300mph, and that’s exactly the feeling that Daemon X Machina captures. It might not be the most groundbreaking game, it might not know how to tell a good story, and it might suffer from some insufferable moments, but ultimately, you’re just there for a good time. And if you can lower your expectations of what Daemon X Machina could or should be, you can walk away with a smile on your face, and money well spent.
Perhaps one of the strangest titles Nintendo has published in the Switch era, Daemon X Machina is far from a perfect game. Its storytelling is underwhelming, its gameplay loop is repetitive, and it’s not really doing anything particularly new. Despite that, it manages to be spectacularly fun, and all those worries go out the window the moment you jump into a mech and blow up some helicopters.
+ Deep Arsenal and character customisation
+ Rock-solid single and multiplayer performance
+ Cheesy action fun
- Repetitive gameplay loop
- Storytelling is a mess
- Escort missions