About 10 hours into Daemon X Machina, Marvelous and Nintendo’s new third-person, mecha action game, I finally hit the moment I’d been waiting for. My machine explodes forward across the tarmac with white hot speed and leaps into the air, charging towards a flock of enemy drones. An opening blast from my bazooka goes wide, but I boost forward anyway, whirling in the air and unleashing a barrage of rifle fire that eviscerates a rooftop turret. With my back secure, I pivot around in the sky, and let loose with everything I’ve got, dropping each foe even as they slide in and out of formation.
A high pitched whine grabs my attention, and I turn again, to see not one, but two automated, wide-winged fighters charging towards me. I pause for a beat. Line up the shot. Another beat. When the rocket leaves the barrel, they’re close enough to touch. It slams into the rear vessel, which careens into the near one, and the two explode into an inferno. Two birds, one stone.
This wasn’t a story-critical moment or a climactic showdown with a rival. The area wasn’t particularly striking, especially in contrast to the game’s many other gorgeous locales, and the enemies weren’t notably more difficult than any others I’d fought before. It wasn’t perfectly executed, even—frankly, it was pretty sloppy play. All said, there was nothing “special” to mark this moment, there was only the fact that as I lifted into the sky, the game’s crowded UI seemed to disappear, the blaring voices over the comms went quiet, and each tiny maneuver felt like an extension of me. Which is, when you’re playing a game about story-tall mechs, really all that matters.
That’s it above. I know it looks like any other video game battle—definitely not the transcendent experience I described, but you need to understand that that’s how it (and so many other moments) felt. And that’s how I know that, even though I need to offer a handful of caveats, Daemon X Machina is finally the spiritual successor to Armored Core that I’ve been waiting years for.
Armored Core vets won’t need to reach this ten hour point before seeing that comparison, either. Like FromSoftware’s dormant mech series, Daemon X Machina casts the player as a new (silent) mercenary in a world that walks the line between post-apocalyptic and cyberpunk. Soon after the planet was badly damaged by a calamitous moonfall event, a group of powerful, hostile AIs called Immortals arrived and began attacking anyone who approached the location struck by the moon’s detritus. From that premise, DXM weaves a conspiratorial yarn about powerful AI, flailing governments, opportunistic corporations, and the people caught in the middle of all three.
The way it tells that story is the first (and most dramatic) way that Daemon X Machina separates itself. While many games in the mech space—not only Armored Core, but also franchises like MechWarrior and Titanfall—lean towards stylized, milspec “realism,” DXM wears its anime influence on its sleeve (and not only because Macross co-creator Shoji Kawamori helped design DXM’s mechs, nor because of the inclusion of Gundam voice actors Toru Furuya (Amuro) and Shuichi Ikeda (Char) in the game’s Japanese voice cast, though those help).
The most striking way it does this is in its visual design, which is not to say that the above games aren’t sharp looking or even, occasionally, breathtaking in their visual design. But while even the most outrageous Titanfall or Armored Core level anchors itself to our own reality, Daemon X Machina tries its hardest to snap that connection with spectacular post-apocalyptic tableaus painted with garish and halting color palettes. Even its most restrained levels, like the desert battleground above, turn up the color saturation to the point that the world itself feels somehow hyperbolic.
Daemon X Machina doubles down on this strategy with its supporting cast. Though your pilot remains silent throughout the game, you’re surrounded by a couple dozen larger-than-life characters, each of whom belongs to one of the aforementioned mercenary organizations which push the story forward over the course of its 80+ missions (made up of both mandatory and optional assignments).
Daemon X Machina uses a broad brush to characterize these pilots, which leaves the bulk of them somewhere between archetype and stereotype: Savior, an aristocrat with a noblesse oblige moral code and a goth’s closet; Red Dog and Klondike, maniacal prisoners working off their sentences by blowing up malevolent robots and shouting about it; Artist, the dreadlocked, loud-music loving, uh, graffiti artist, who shares a merc company with the native-coded Falcon, whose (too limited) dialog is too often the sort of shared aphoristic wisdom given to such characters in lieu of meaningful characterization.
Thankfully, committed voice performances, memorable visual designs, and a few great narrative beats make the bulk of these characters stand out in a way that the NPCs of most other mech games rarely do—even the eyebrow raising ones get their moments in the sun, or a touch here or there that keeps them just on the right side of likable. Which is important, because they offer a sense of vitality and personality to a game that might otherwise fall into a repetitive rhythm.
Once again like Armored Core or MechWarrior, DXM is a game split between two phases of play. In its action phase, you accept a mission and launch into battle with your giant robot to fight drones, tanks, and other mechs (called “arsenals” in this setting). You zip around sizable mission areas with a constantly re-charging booster, wielding weapons in hands and on shoulders.
The speed with which you do this might change based on how heavy a build you have, but it’s always pretty damned fast. I spent a my first hours getting a handle on all that speed, learning to see through the (blessedly customizable) UI, and figuring out how to not only fight but excel in combat. What I was glad to learn was that success is mostly about positioning, weapon choice, and timing. This isn’t a game about precision aiming—your machine will lock-on to enemies as they come into range (which is dependent on the equipment you’ve equipped to your frame).
Managing that equipment is phase two. After a mission, you come back to base with a fat paycheck and a few ideas for how to make your mech even better. So, you spend as much time as you did in the mission (if not more) tinkering with your build, swapping out weapons, parts, and paintjobs until you’re ready to get back into action.
What makes Daemon X Machina feel like an evolution of that old Armored Core formula—beyond all the color and character—is how its focus on looting fallen enemies ties those two phases together. DXM isn’t the only mech game with loot—one of my favorite parts of Battletech (my 2018 Game of the Year) was seeing the list of salvageable loot at the end of a mission. But DXM does it differently, in a way that brings it closer to action RPGs, or even Monster Hunter.
Most of the enemies you fight are total fodder, exploding and vanishing on defeat. But when you defeat against another arsenal like yours, the wreck stays on the map like a treasure chest for you to open. Inside will be from one to four of the mech’s parts, from which you can choose to nab one, either sending it back to HQ or taking it on the spot to replace one of your spent weapons or damaged components.
At first, this is just a great vector for a classic, video game-y endorphin rush. Ooh, what did I get! Each busted mech was a buffet for me to pick over. Within a few hours, that generic hunger for new parts developed into a discerning palette as I began to anticipate what an enemy’s broken shell might hold. Ah, yes, I do need a new missile launcher, and the one she was firing at me seemed pretty good. In the game’s final missions, by which time I’d filled out my catalog of basic gear, my looting took on a more hurried (and harried) intensity, as defeated enemies went from being sources of new equipment to being mid-mission resupply points.
Adding even more Monster Hunter DNA to the mix is the way the game locks its most unique gear behind rare drops from boss fights against “Colossal Immortals,” monstrous machines that tower over even your own mech. Many of these fights occur naturally through the story content, but can be repeated in side missions or through the game’s co-op play (which I unfortunately was unable to try by time of review, though that content is available even offline, allowing you to team up with campaign NPCs you’ve successfully impressed through the main story.)
If there’s a mark against this system, it’s that the gear itself is never as distinct as that in many of those other mech games. Unlike the MechWarrior franchise, every Arsenal is basically the same scale—sure you can go heavier or lighter, and that does matter, but you’ll always be piloting a mech that’s about 5 meters tall. It will also always be humanoid—unlike Armored Core’s quadrupedal, reverse-jointed, and tank-tread based mechs, arsenals are always bipedal and human-shaped.
There are also simply less parts than in the most recent entries in these competing franchises, both in terms of overall count and type of part. You won’t be choosing your machine’s generator, fire control system, heat sinks, armor plating, or other more fiddly parts here. There are still plenty of stats to pore over and optimize—I personally became obsessed with finding an arm with great precision and fire rate, to ensure that my rifle was able to pick out a distant enemy with a quick flurry of shots. But Daemon X Machina is more interested in rewarding you for paying attention to those stats than it is in requiring you to build a spreadsheet just to progress. (There’s even a simplified overall mech-score that rises and falls with your equipment choices: Pick the parts that make that go up, and you’ll basically be fine).
More than anything, though, Daemon X Machina is interested in the feeling of controlling a larger-than-life, high-speed, humanoid war machine. Yes, that means it comes up short in other parts of the mech fantasy: It isn’t as fun to build arsenals as it is to design BattleTech’s mechs. It’s drama has none of the human weight of Heaven Will Be Mine, and only a third of the humor. It doesn’t come close to Into the Breach’s tactical choreography or its confrontation with collateral damage. At launch, at least, it won’t have the white-knuckle competitive fights that made later Armored Core games shine.
But there’s more than one way to make a game about giant mechs, and like most of the best examples in this wide genre, Daemon X Machina zeroes in on its own vision and realizes it as best as it can. It is bright and energetic and filled with character, and those are the qualities you need to carry a curious, new generation of players into the fray long enough for them to find their footing in such a niche style of game. That DXM feels so distinct beyond that is just a bonus.
Under the moonfall, our mechs are idealized bodies, irrepressible, ever changing, and often faster than we can keep up with. They do what we want to, sometimes, and it’s beautiful when they do. Consciousness slipstreams behind them, tethered and rocketing through the red sky towards violence, daring us to hang on tight.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.