The opening of Nintendo’s E3 2018 presentation gave us our first look at a game that seemed quite outside of the Big N’s wheelhouse. It featured giant mechs battling while guitars shredded in the background, the mechanical warriors kicking up dust with their boosters as swords swung and bullets flew. This action-packed trailer was our first introduction to Daemon X Machina, but it would be months before we as players finally got to try out the game for ourselves. That time came after last week’s Nintendo Direct when a demo version of the game called Prototype Missions was released onto the e-shop. While Daemon X Machina hasn’t been on my radar up to this point, the opportunity to try out a demo piqued my interest.
Daemon X Machina opens with character creation, and the tools for designing what’s called your Outer are pretty extensive in some ways and limited in others. You can customize every detail about your character’s head: hair and eye color, hair style, separate designs for each eye, face shape, nose shape, mouth shape, makeup, facial hair, scars or tattoos – there are lots of customizable pieces, but how much you can customize each one varies. For example, there are only six hairstyles available in the game. So while you can make your character any race you can imagine, chances are low that you’ll find hair to match. You can customize each eye separately, yet tattoos are lumped in with scars so really there are only scars.
There’s a bit of variation by gender but not much. Remember how there are only six hairstyles? Those same six are available regardless of gender selection, so there’s no way to expand your options. This is one of the few games I have ever played with character customization where women actually have less compelling options than men. Typically games give guys two boring styles and no potential to accessorize or change things up. Daemon X Machina lacks accessories or outfits, which means that you are limited only to facial features and tones. With women you don’t have the option to design facial hair, so it limits the variety in your character design possibilities. This is also aggravated by the fact that all of the women face shapes are rather similar to keep them into a narrow, stereotypically attractive spectrum. By contrast, men’s faces can look significantly older or more square to give them more dramatic differences.
Now if you end up not being satisfied with the character you design, there’s nothing to worry about – you can easily undo every decision you made in the lab. The lab is where you upgrade and customize your Outer and is unlocked rather early in the demo. Thanks to the power of futuristic surgery, you can change literally anything about your Outer. In most games you’d be locked to changing your hair style and maybe your hair color, possibly your eyes using colored contacts. In Daemon X Machina you can change your mind about any decision you made, even skin color or gender. The ability to switch these on the fly means you can always design your character based on how you’re feeling in the moment, but don’t expect anyone in the game to acknowledge the dramatic shifts in style that you are making. Your Outer has no character or personality – they may as well be a featureless robot for all it impacts the game.
Once you’ve designed your character you are given a quick introduction to the world of Daemon X Machina, and by world I mean closed-in mech hangar. You are given a single room to move around in when at your base. You can see your mech suit – called an arsenal – on display, as well as look at some set pieces and see characters milling about in the background. You can walk up to and touch these individuals but they do not acknowledge your presence or speak – again, they may as well be robots. The same goes with any interesting background elements in the room. There’s something that looks to be an ice cream machine, for example, but you can’t interact with it in any way. The only thing you can actually touch is the terminal where you accept missions. The message is clear: your base is not a fun way to blow off steam between missions, it is a glorified loading screen.
This is further solidified by the number of weird technical issues I encountered while trying to explore the small room. The game’s camera does not handle the base well, and often if I walked somewhere that caused an object to pass between the camera and my view of the character, the camera would suddenly jerk and spasm. I also found some objects that my character could partially phase through. My hope is that these kinds of errors are simple fixes and are unique to the demo version of the game – if they stick around, it doesn’t bode well for the technical presentation of Daemon X Machina.
Once I was done running around the base, I walked to the terminal to see what it was all about. Here you can accept Orders, which are your missions for the game, as well as making changes to your arsenal. The concept here is that your Outer is part of a group of mercenaries who execute jobs in their mech suits. These orders are the jobs your mercenary company has accepted. Before I took on the first order I decided to check out the options for my arsenal.
In the hangar you can change the visual style and the equipment loadout of your mech suit. Customization options include changing the colors or adding decals to the various parts of the mech. The actual design of the arsenal’s body or face aren’t things you can edit aesthetically – any dramatic changes to the shape of the thing are tied to equipment pieces that have different stats. Speaking of stats, in the beginning you don’t have any way to edit them. Your arsenal has a set loadout that you’ll only be able to change after jumping into the action. I don’t recommend trying to figure out what the different stats mean, either – the information that the game gives you seem too dense in the detailed view, so I always stuck to the simplest view. In my limited experience, the stats didn’t make as much of a different as the type of equipment itself: a gun feels different from a shield, but two guns with different stats feel pretty similar to one another.
Now if you find yourself trying out the demo, I do not recommend you do what I did and spend a lot of time looking around trying to find interesting things to interact with. As you now know, there’s nothing for you except to paint your mech. Do that if you want, but the optimal way to experience this demo is to jump in right away and execute an order. Doing so allows you to immediately experience the meat of the game, as the entire focus of Daemon X Machina is on the missions themselves.
During missions your Outer pilots your Arsenal in battle. You move around with the left stick and adjust the camera with the right. On the ground, the A button allows you to enter a skating mode where you move faster and smoother. B jumps into the air, and holding B allows you to sustain flight. Y is a boost on the ground or in the air. ZL and ZR operate your weapons (left and right respectively), and L fires your shoulder-mounted weapon. These controls make sense and feel pretty natural during play – I never had an issue pressing the wrong button because the mappings felt off. If you do have a problem, there are two other preset control schemes you can try, or you can save up to three custom control settings to load up whenever you want to change.
On screen during a mission the HUD gives you lots of information to work with. You have a radar which highlights enemies, allies, and points of interest like item drops. A targeting reticle indicates where you are currently looking. Your Arsenal’s vitality and stamina are displayed, as well as the amount of Femto you’ve charged. Femto increases the power of certain types of attacks based on how much you have charged, and it builds naturally as you fight. The HUD also shows you the remaining ammo in your various weapons, the names and general status of your allies, and your mission objective. With so much information displaying, the screen always feels quite busy, but it makes sense for a game in which you are piloting a mech suit. It is part of the aesthetic rather than interrupting it.
All of the orders in Prototype Missions are focused on combat. You’ll generally be fighting tanks or flying drones, but from time to time you get to battle rival Arsenals and there is a boss battle that wraps up the demo where you face a giant machine called an Immortal. With smaller enemies, fighting is pretty straightforward – shoot them until they blow up while dodging their bullets. Immortals are more complicated, with multiple weak points along their body for you to find and blast. They also have bigger attacks that require different strategies to dodge. The one in the demo has a laser that first targets you and then fires, giving you only a moment to dash to the side, and it also creates a shield around its body that pushes you away while damaging you.
Mech combat feels pretty good on the ground when you can get a good skate going. You move quickly and can maneuver quite easily, shooting and sliding in one fluid motion. I enjoyed air combat a lot less – it feels slower and lacks the smoothness and fluidity of skating on the ground. You also feel more like a target in the air, as it opens up more angles for enemies to attack from. What feels even worse than that, though, is when you lose your Arsenal entirely and are left to fight as an Outer.
When the mechs are gone and only pilots remain, pilots must bring the battle to an end with their own two hands. The thing is, as a pilot you’re not fighting other pilots – you are still trying to shoot down mechs from the sky with a much more limited set of weapons available to you. In some ways the Outer feels better than the Arsenal – you have unlimited shot ammo, rapid shots and charged shots, plus more weapon variety thanks to having mines and grenades at your disposal as well. But as cool as these weapons are, they aren’t suitable for battles against giant mechs, particularly the Immortals. In the moments where your Arsenal has been destroyed, you are effectively waiting for your AI allies to finish the battle for you.
It’s a pity that they didn’t do more with Outer combat, because you have a large number of options for customizing your Outer’s combat abilities. In the lab between missions, in addition to changing your appearance you can also have surgeries which give upgrades such as new functionality or enhanced stats. The blade attack shown in the screenshot above is the result of one such upgrade. What’s really interesting is that some of these procedures alter the appearance of your Outer. To upgrade your sights, for example, your natural eyes are replaced with glowing mechanical ones. Weapon upgrades replace your arms, booster upgrades give you robot legs – by the time I was done with the demo the majority of my Outer’s body was mechanical, with only his torso and parts of his head remaining unaltered. Again, it would have been interesting for these changes to be commented on in some way by characters in the game, but your Outer is effectively featureless to them.
So how do rewards work in this game? When you defeat an Arsenal during combat, you can scavenge its ruined chassis for parts that survived the fight. You can harvest these new parts and equip them to your own Arsenal. You also get money for completing Orders and can spend these funds on upgrades for your Outer. This is the core gameplay loop of Daemon X Machina: execute an Order, obtain gear and money during the mission, upgrade your pilot and your mech at the base, and then execute the next Order. Each Order has some brief dialogue advancing the game’s story, but the focus of the game is fully on the mech battles.
So now you know what’s all in the demo – how did I feel about it? As I stated, Daemon X Machina’s core gameplay loop focuses hard on the mech battles and customization, with little else to brag about. The story is vague and the hooks they tried to establish in Prototype Missions didn’t hook me at all. There are no character interactions that aren’t scripted during Order briefings and you can’t interact with your base in any meaningful way outside of customization tools. Your Outer has cool weapons but you never want to be in a situation where you have to use them because you don’t ever fight other Outers. Where Daemon X Machina sings is in those moments that remind me the most of that first opening trailer at E3 2018 – shooting giant mechs with your arsenal while guitars shred in the background.
I rarely say this about games, but I think Daemon X Machina would benefit strongly from multiplayer. I would venture to say that this game would actually excel more as an online multiplayer experience rather than a single player game. Some of the mechanisms that currently feel worthless to engage with would be infinitely more interesting when playing with friends online. You can talk to each other about the neat changes you made to your Outer and admire the customization on your Arsenals. When your Arsenal is destroyed and you are grounded as an Outer, the folks still fighting for you are real human allies instead of computer characters. If the enemy mechs were other players, the Outer combat options would make more sense because you could then fight their Outers when you are on the ground. As a single player game, I am unimpressed by Daemon X Machina, but I think it could have some potential as a squad-based competitive multiplayer title.
Ultimately, I’ll give the Daemon X Machina demo a middling grade. There were aspects of the game that piqued my interest and that I think have interesting possibilities, but those possibilities are not realized in the game’s current form. I had the most fun when I was sliding along the ground, shooting drones and tanks while dashing narrowly out of the way of deadly laser beams. But those moments did not convince me that I want to play this game any more in the future. If you played the demo as well, I encourage you to share your thoughts in the comments. Did you enjoy the demo more than I did? Less? What were your favorite and least favorite features? I’d love to hear your impressions of the game!