Metal Unit is an action-sidescroller platformer with roguelike elements about a hotshot pilot against an invasion that isn’t what it seems.
Foreword: published December 16th, 2021
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Gameplay: published December 16th, 2021 (4/5★)
You’re going to die at least once or twice throughout the game; Metal Unit is a difficult roguelike with platforming and bullet-hell gameplay. Once you leave the “home base”, there’s no turning back until you defeat the boss. Between “mission start” and the big baddie, you’ll need to conquer a string of randomly selected rooms. Healing is few and far between, so it’s really important to master the controls and learn your enemies; everybody telegraphs their attacks, and all attacks are highly predictable. If you don’t learn to avoid damage, you’ll have to face the consequences — losing everything.
Each room offers at least one piece of randomized gear, insuring you’ll always have a new toy to play with. It’s tempting to stick to your favorite weapons, but there’s a good reason for branching out; by “mastering” everything you find, you’re able to skip RNG by spawning your favorite weapons! Through repeated use, you may collect up to one “Mastery Point” from each item. Mastery Points are used to unlock tiers from the “Armory”, a mechanic that allows you spawn previously discovered items based on rarity. As long as you have enough mastery points, it’s possible to replace any previously discovered gear — including gear that needs to be “mastered” to unlock the next tier!
The Armory is a big safety net when you die. It allows you to maintain quality gear even after losing your inventory. Until the Armory is sufficiently leveled-up (using Mastery Points), you’re forced to replay easier levels to gamble on randomized loot and farm bosses for high-value crafting materials. Yes, Metal Unit offers a crafting system; not only does it allow you repurpose lower-rarity gear, it’s a source of the most powerful items in the game! It sucks grinding for materials to craft weapons each time you die, but the Armory saves you from the trouble. Unless you’re skilled enough to forgo high-value weapons, most of your playthrough is going to be collecting sweet, sweet Mastery Points.
Metal Unit is a hard game. If you’re a casual scrub like me, you’ll need all of the help you can get. The Armory isn’t the only form of permanent progression; by collecting “Crystal Cores”, you may acquire a wide variety of useful abilities. For example, “Air Jump” grants an additional jump, and “Auto-Repair” provides healing whenever you clear a room of enemies. Whenever you die, your inventory is converted into a handful of Crystal Cores, financing “Upgrades” to take with you on your next run. Thankfully, you don’t have to die to claim Crystal Cores — they are dropped by bosses or may be found in place of items.
Sexual Content: published December 16th, 2021 (NA/5★)
Despite having a user-defined tag for “Sexual Content”, there isn’t so much as nudity anywhere in the game. When I purchased Metal Unit, I had hoped there would be lewd mechanics. After reviewing the store page, I was skeptical — but I maintained hope for an off-hand sex-scene. Having beat the game, I can confirm there is no sexual content.
It’s been nearly two years since I last played this game, and JellySnow Studio has since implemented Steam Workshop support. I was so excited for an opportunity to see Joanna naked (even if I’d have to do all of the work myself)! Unfortunately, my dreams were dashed once again; at the time of this article, there is no support for player skins.
Story: published December 16th, 2021 (3/5★)
Thrust into a losing battle, Joanna (or “Unit 11”) is a member of the Steel Brigade, sworn to “serve and protect humanity.” Piloting a “Metal Unit” suit, she is able to match her foes in strength and speed. Emerging from fissures on the planet’s surface, the Garou have waged war on mankind. When her captain is stolen by the Garou, Joanna embarks on a solo rescue mission. As she pursues her captain, she uncovers secrets best left unseen. Digging deeper into “classified” information, she is destined to repeat her mistakes.
The story of Metal Unit is characterized by loose ends and misleading foreshadowing. It seems like every episode introduces new characters and subplots — they go unused, only convoluting the narrative. It’s as if JellySnow Studio wanted rolled up everyone’s ideas into one. They should have created a streamlined narrative that’d better suit the gameplay.
For example, before Joanna becomes a full fledged member of the Steel Brigade, she swears to “avoid all contact with Wunpyrs.” It’s not until the fifth episode they make an appearance, where their mystery and motivation are spoiled by an exposition dump. The oath foreshadows an encounter with the “Wunpyrs”, but they have so little plot presence they might as well be left out; if the plot was “destroy all Garous”, that’d be preferable.
A complicated narrative in unsuitable for a game like Metal Unit. The gameplay doesn’t bode well with long exposition-heavy cutscenes. As a punishing rogue-like, players may be inclined to abruptly start and stop the game. However, the story is too complicated to be a “start and stop” experience. It can take hours of dying and grinding before reaching the next cutscene. At that point, you may have forgotten what happened in the last episode!
As bigger and stronger Garou have crawled onto the surface, the Steel Brigade has been pressured to manufacture increasingly powerful suits in an alien arms race. Not only are the Garou increasing in size and numbers, they have learned to adapt to mankind’s weapons. Led by a highly-intelligent, manipulative queen, they are a sufficiently interesting adversary to carry the story of Metal Unit all by themselves! Anything that isn’t outwitting the queen or outgunning the Garou is more than Metal Unit should try to be.
Sound: published December 16th, 2021 (5/5★)
Where’s the soundtrack? I thought I saw a soundtrack for Metal Unit a few weeks ago, but I guess I made that up; there isn’t an in-game “jukebox” either, so I had to replay the game to resample each track (so I could write about them!)
I wish the tracks were longer, but they make the most of every loop. I didn’t even notice the transition until I stopped playing! There’s different music for each explorable area, often providing a stark environmental contrast. The music meshes well with the background noise. I thought the ambience was part of the music!
I loved the sound effects — from the “swish swish” of my sword to the “pew pew” of my guns, I don’t have any complaints! In addition to visually telegraphing attacks, enemies provide useful audio ques to let you know when it’s time to dodge!
Visuals: published December 16th, 2021 (4/5★)
The sprites are attractive and functional. Enemies visually telegraph attacks, making it possible to weave though baddies without guesswork. Projectiles are brightly colored, preventing them from blending into the background. It’s easy to navigate your inventory with color-colored rarities and informational item cards. Considering the time I spent managing my inventory, I’m glad the interface looks and feels as good as it does. For the most part, the art team did a good job, but I can tell they definitely cut a few corners.
Metal Unit criminally abuses the “scale” tool. When a sprite is “scaled” like a traditional image, it doesn’t magically increase the resolution. If I have two pixels, and I double the size of one of them, although it looks bigger it’s not the same as doubling the number of pixels. In practice, scaling-up pixel-art produces images that appear blurry or blocky when compared to neighboring sprites. For example, have a look at the following image: pay close attention to the “shuriken” sprites, and then compare them to the nearby arrows. That’s what happens when you try to “scale-up” sprites by software instead of hand!
In JellySnow Studio‘s defense, the aforementioned photo is the product of the “Amplifier”, a piece of gear that doubles the size of ranged attacks. I can give them a pass for not designing “amplified” versions of every weapon, but I needed an extreme example to illustrate my point. There are no excuses for the following image; Joanna’s weapon is under-scaled; the projectile (the green plume) is over-scaled; and the “Blue Dragon” is so grossly over-scaled it’s insulting! The reason why his body looks so blocky and jagged is because his sprites were designed for a dragon that’s maybe a quarter of his size!
The sprites may have been consistently sized at some point, but JellySnow Studio could have scaled them up and down to meet visual and gameplay needs. For example, to increase the range of melee weapons it’d be easier to scale them up than redraw the sprites. If the gun-sprites were “to scale”, they’d look comically big. Instead of redesigning firearms with half the pixels, JellySnow Studio probably decided to scale them down.
Most people probably won’t notice the inconsistencies in Metal Unit, but as someone that practices pixel-art they bother me. I have a feeling the artwork was restricted by budget and/or time constraints. The cutscenes seem to decline in quality as details are simplified and less dynamic angles are used. Metal Unit consistently reuses artwork by switching a few a colors or waiting a few “episodes” between showings. In the following image, you can see how the same sprite is copy/pasted (I couldn’t even fit them all in the same edit!)
Verdict: published December 16th, 2021 (4/5★)
Metal Unit drops the ball on story telling, but as long as you can tolerate the punishing grind it’s a solid rogue-like! Metal Unit is not a game you can simply “pick and and play” on a whim. Lacking basic save functionality, each “episode” is about an hour of your undivided time. Until you take the time to “master” enough weapons, it can take hours to recover from death. I spent most of my playtime grinding for weapons until I found a “build” that was able to contend with the hardest enemies in the game. There’s plenty of weapons and armor to keep the game interesting — but only if you’re willing to branch out with new (and not necessarily better) items. If death and grinding aren’t your cup of tea, the “accessibility” menu offers cheats to enhance your experience. Metal Unit may be an unfinished game, but it has enough RNG and “new game plus” challenges to keep you busy. It’s not a bad buy now, but I recommend waiting until the story is finished.