It’s no secret that the Xbox was unsuccessful in Japan. Microsoft’s complicated relationship with that market is a huge topic of its own. Look carefully at the Xbox software library and you’ll find very few Japanese exclusives and even fewer Japanese role-playing games. JRPGs should fill an important spot in a console’s library. It’s a lesson that Sega learned with their Mega Drive and Sega Saturn; you can have all the action-packed titles in the world but eventually players will crave something deeper.
JRPG developers clearly favoured the PlayStation 2, where genre heavyweights like Disgaea, Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts did great business. Whilst the Xbox did get some good RPGs made outside of Japan, the JRPG genre was almost entirely neglected. Outside of Japan in fact, there was only one JRPG ever released on the Xbox and that’s Metal Dungeon.
An English version of Metal Dungeon was released in late 2002. Xbox owners were feeling the pinch even this early on in the console’s life, as is evidenced by the GameFAQs Reviews section for Metal Dungeon, where submissions from the time have wonderful titles like “Better than nothing” and “Like you have any choice.” In a rather inspired turn, that latter review by author Heatmiser compared the Xbox JRPG scene to the Soviet Union food shortages of the 1920s!
Metal Dungeon landed in an uncrowded market then, and whilst this did help the game stand out, it was quickly torn apart by the gaming press who panned its lacklustre presentation and repetitive game mechanics. I had similar impressions when I briefly played it in 2003, only to wonder later if I had given it a fair chance. With this new blog series underway, now seemed like the perfect time to revisit the game and settle that particular score once and for all.
Players create a mercenary team who must descend ten floors of the titular dungeon to assassinate some crackpot sorcerers who are threatening the world with bio-engineered creatures. There are a few more beats to it, but otherwise the concept really is that simple. The story is pretty non-existent here. There are no NPCs or cutscenes; the most you get is an occasional audio recording that accompanies your descent.
Those recordings are one of the few characterful things about the game, as the various narrators dispassionately tell you what a “hassle” this place this and how “annoying” the traps are. Way to sell the game to me, peeps!
In fact, the writing here gets increasingly funnier as the floors go by, exclaiming things like:
“This was not a fun area.”
“This area will be your worst nightmare.”
“We leave this record for insistent and reckless morons.”
“I’d like to meet the person who created this dungeon … I’d really love to smash his face in.”
Away from the scant and risible voice work, Metal Dungeon is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a game driven by dungeon-crawling. It shares elements with a Dreamcast RPG series called Evolution, where players go exploring, defeat a boss, and then head back to HQ to outfit and upgrade their party. Unlike Evolution though, there are no vignettes or dialogue to help drive the minimal story forward, so the entire game depends on its mechanics to keep players invested.
At first it doesn’t seem so bad. Players begin their adventure at HQ and create a roster of mercs using a lightweight creation tool. You’ll determine each member’s name, appearance and character class before shipping them off to the dungeon. Players can build their 5-person party with as many spell-casters or melee combatants as they desire. It’s a novel feature backed by some decent help menus that will acquaint players with the various gameplay systems and associated jargon.
After entering the dungeon, the mercenary party must wander the semi-randomised hallways in search of a boss room for the floor they’re exploring. What’s unique about this setup are the gimmicks that change how each floor behaves. Floor 1 presents the straightforward goal of accessing control panels to proceed, with subsequent floors being much trickier by design. One floor has boobytrapped panels that will teleport your team into a “murder zone” full of roaming underwater creatures, whereas another floor pumps in a constant stream of poisonous gas that slowly erodes the party’s health as they explore.
In a way, Metal Dungeon does stick to its grim theme rather well. The dungeon is a terrifying place at first. It’s full of confusing geometry, deadly traps, and roaming droids that will summon monsters for you to battle. There is a risk-reward element of going deeper down. A player needs to carefully assess their remaining resources with the likelihood of finding valuable treasure in the lower floors. If the party is defeated before they can escape, they’ll be killed and interred in that floor’s morgue, which forces players to create a backup team to find and retrieve the bodies for revival back at HQ, although you’ll probably be better off reloading a save and losing some progress in that case.
Like something out of the novel House of Leaves, the party explores deeper and deeper into this randomly shifting hell, with the rare voices on the radio being the only thing close to a human connection. In a perverse sense, it kinda works for a while. Each floor feels unique because of the varied obstacles they present, and some of the monster designs are also quite creative. As the game goes on you’ll encounter anthropomorphic pig snipers, massive bosses and ghostly heads that suck the souls from their victims. Players can also battle giant crabs that have cannons on their back, which as a general principle is pretty damn cool.
The game also has a surprisingly epic scope for completists. If a player manages to put in the considerable number of hours needed to clear the tenth floor and see the credits, loading their save file afterwards will introduce remixed floors that go all the way up to Floor 100! The shininess of the loot and the deadliness of the traps and monsters continues to scale on the journey there; a daunting and immense test of patience if ever there was one.
One of the foremost challenges that Metal Dungeon itself contends with, however, is unattractive presentation. Repeated metal textures are in use that make every floor look dry and lifeless. The player character models resemble early Gerry Anderson puppets, with the controls and animation sometimes feeling quite jerky. It’s difficult to forgive when the developers had such a powerful console at their disposal.
There’s no way to check stat changes or item effects in battle, attack animations are too long, and whilst the music isn’t terrible, it becomes very repetitive to listen to, especially when there’s only one battle theme that players will be sick of hearing by the time they reach the second floor, assuming they even last that far.
If the monsters could be seen roaming the dungeon and players could ambush them, again similar to how Evolution does it, this could have given the gameplay some much-needed texture. Sadly, things don’t get better when combat begins.
Battles play out in a turn-based manner with monsters and mercenaries punching and zapping each other. Strangely, these actions are performed automatically with the player only intervening when they want to cast a spell or use an item. Otherwise the battles will happily play themselves out like some kind of elaborate idle game.
This lack of engagement makes combat tiresome when it should be a highlight. With the speed turned up and combat animations turned off, players need only watch as damage numbers silently pop onto the screen like spectator comments during a livestream. It’s an extremely bizarre and passive way to play, but you’ll need to do it because of how prevalent the grind is.
Players only need to clear ten floors to see everything on offer, but it’s a task that only strong parties who have spent hours boosting their vital statistics will ever achieve. Thus the game enters this highly repetitive loop of explore, gather items, return to HQ, sell items, use money to upgrade party, and repeat many times over until everyone is strong enough to defeat the next boss.
The final nail in the coffin is the severe balance problem with the classes. The melee-orientated Fencers and Gladiators completely outdo the other options because their vitality and damage can be upgraded so cheaply. Vitality is an especially crucial stat because it scales extremely well. Any character class who can’t level this stat quickly will naturally be much weaker in exchange for very little benefit. Bringing an Analyzer along helps players disable traps and reveal monster HP, but otherwise it’s perfectly winnable by creating a team of Fencers or Gladiators and pumping their stats to the point where they become nigh indestructible.
This is how how I defeated the tenth floor. I created a single Gladiator to handle combat and soak incoming attacks whilst an Analyzer sat comfortably in the rear scanning for traps and using the occasional item. With my lone Gladiator’s vitality granting him tens of thousands of health points, he would happily plow through enemies without even healing. This strategy worked especially well considering many bosses will abuse savage area-of-effect attacks that the frailer character classes simply can’t withstand. Why waste money inefficiently upgrading weak characters when you can just pump one or two stronger alternatives to the moon?
Really though, it’s hard to imagine most players putting up with the game long enough for some of these issues to become apparent. A certain niche may enjoy the epic grind of building their characters to astronomical heights, and maybe even the novelty factor of playing a JRPG on Xbox to begin with. In any case, the bottom line is that Metal Dungeon’s budget presentation and budget gameplay make it a tedious and impersonal experience not worth expending precious effort on.