Given how rough the demo for Daemon X Machina was earlier this year, I had honestly written off the final product. Sure, the developers had said they would use feedback from the demo to make adjustments to the game, but with a 2019 release date promised, how much could they change, really? It felt like the game was doomed to be a subpar product, unable to fill the gap that the absence of Armored Core, and other mech games in general, has left this generation.
It’s a pleasant surprise, then, that Daemon X Machina is as good to play as it is. The actual controls feel extremely smooth, there is a satisfying weight and heft to combat that was missing in the earlier build, and on the whole, the game appropriately seems to convey the presumed enormity and thrill of piloting a gigantic mech suit outfitted with the latest and greatest gee wiz gadgets and weaponry.
The story in Daemon X Machina – which feels surprisingly intriguing, at least in terms of its broader setup – does a good job of framing and contextualizing your mech action shenanigans. At some point, the moon sort of exploded in a cataclysm caused by a neutrino burst, causing it to crash into the earth. That cataclysm almost caused the extinction of all life on earth, and it also led to the rise of a mysterious race of AI, called the Immortals. The crux of the game revolves around a group of mercenaries piloting mech suits (called the Arsenals) to take on the Immortals, and defend against them.
"Another thing the game shares with Monster Hunter – its general inability to tutorialize properly. There’s a lot going on in the title, in terms of mechanics and story, and the game doesn’t actually explain most of it that well."
This manifests itself in you being given missions as a rookie mercenary, and going out in your Arsenal to clear them for rewards. There’s a Monster Hunter style element to planning for these missions, the further you progress. Your Arsenal can be freely kitted and outfitted with any technology currently available to you, and you need to decide how you plan on approaching the upcoming mission. Every mission plays differently, and there’s a different pattern and strategy to the enemy, so you have to balance the optimal strategy to take on them with your playing style. Is rushing an aggressive enemy that hits hard really the best way to go about things, or should you go for a defensive build, and turtle and chip away at their health slowly and one hit at a time? Do you want to hit hard and wide, or have the ability to line up your shots – but risk the time it takes to set one up? Do you use your Femto ability early, or do you use it as a finisher?
This turns Daemon X Machina into a game as much about planning as it does about skill. Yes, how you perform during a mission is paramount, but your reparation can lead to the difference between you being able to improvise a win, or your best laid plan going awry. It leads to a sort of, as I mentioned, Monster Hunter style rhythm to proceedings, which is only a sense that gets further reinforced when you consider the staggering wealth of customization options available to you from the off (now all your mech building fantasies will come true!), the fact that you can play any mission in co-op with up to three other players, and the fact that you can even pick up one part from some of your vanquished foes at times.
Another thing the game shares with Monster Hunter – its general inability to tutorialize properly. There’s a lot going on in the title, in terms of mechanics and story, and the game doesn’t actually explain most of it that well. There are tutorial screens trying to make sense of it all, to be sure, but you can never quite shake off the sense that you were just sort of thrown into the deep end, though eventually you start to make sense of it (which in itself is a feeling of accomplishment).
Once you’ve mastered the mechanics, aided in part by just how customizable everything, from the controls to the HUD, is, there’s a thrill to things, especially once the game starts ratcheting the stakes up, in terms of story and missions alike. I have to give credit to Daemon X Machina for how unpredictable it keeps things, both in terms of mission variety, and in terms of where it takes the story. Some late game battles feel incredibly tense, because of not just how tough they can be, but also because of where the story is going. I was pleasantly surprised by where the story went, and how much I cared about where it went. It took a very long time – long enough that I wouldn’t blame someone for losing patience and interest and giving up on the game – but I felt the payoff was worth it.
"There’s a striking art style to the game which catches the eye, and which also makes it easy to follow the action."
The remarkable thing about Daemon X Machina is how flexible it is, once you get past its non-negotiable eccentricities. Apart from the fully customizable controls and HUD I already mentioned, missions are designed to be completed in 5-10 minutes, which makes them as well suited for a long mech action session at home as for a quickie on the train, right before you get off at your station.
Another thing I am impressed by is how well everything holds up. The game has a frenetic pace to its action, but to my knowledge, I never saw a hitch or a framerate drop, and Daemon X Machina maintained its framerate as well in handheld mode as it did in console mode, as well when there were a lot of explosions on the screen as it did in the quieter moments.
It’s just as well, because it looks really good. There’s a striking art style to the game which catches the eye, and which also makes it easy to follow the action. The developers are clearly intimately familiar with the intricacies of the Switch hardware, and they’ve built the game around its strengths and limitations.
It’s a fun romp, and while I can’t even call it the best science fiction action game released on the Switch in the last month (that honor would go to the excellent Astral Chain), it’s a well made, surprisingly engaging, fun game with great production values, and a surprising amount of engaging content. By definition, given its genre and aesthetic, Daemon X Machina is not a game that will appeal to everyone, but I am surprised at just how accomplished and polished it is.
This game was reviewed on Nintendo Switch.
The controls feel great; the mission variety is impressive;the combat is fun; the game's core structure feels addictive; it looks and sounds great; a surprising amount of value for money.
The game can be extremely overwhelming at first; the game is pretty bad at explaining things; the story takes a very, very long time to get going.