It’s been a while since renowned Japanese developer Level-5 launched an IP that didn’t come complete with accompanying merchandise lines, manga, and anime to complement its latest game property. Professor Layton, Ni No Kuni, Inazuma Eleven, Snack World, and of course, Yo-kai Watch have all benefited from the franchise treatment, and newcomer Megaton Musashi is no exception. Released exclusively in Japan in November 2021, Megaton Musashi is a mech-combat RPG that resembles the giant mecha work of fellow Japanese developer Sandlot, but in actual practice plays more like a hybrid of Level-5 stablemate, Little Battlers Experience and, of all things, Atlus’ Persona series.
Released on Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4 (although it began life as a 3DS title in early development), Megaton Musashi welds the overworld navigation and extensive chit-chat of the Persona series to periodic ‘mecha-versus-alien’ showdowns. You see, the basic Megaton Musashi plot is downright Matrix-y: The Earth has been destroyed and terraformed by alien ‘draktors,’ and the remaining 0.01% of Earth’s inhabitants – who all live underground in an environment that looks suspiciously like a Japanese suburb – are somehow blissfully unaware that the planet has been overtaken by the invading species. A few select ‘chosen ones,’ however, are aware of the situation, and pilot giant robots called ‘rogues’ to do battle with the extraterrestrials. This is where you come in.
Like Little Battlers Experience, Megaton Musashi is a mecha-themed action RPG, except where LBE went micro – pitting school kids and their Gunpla-like mech models against each other in Virtual On-style tournaments – Megaton Musashi’s stakes are thematically greater, in which young pilots man super-powered ‘rogues,’ each of which clearly draw inspiration from vintage Japanese mechs like Tetsujin-28 (Gigantor in the West), Mazinger Z, and Gaiking. Although the machines in Megaton Musashi are original, the game’s mechanical designs are clearly an homage to Japan’s golden era of giant robots.
Megaton Musashi’s prioritisation of its anime tie-ins over playability – at least in the between-sortie explorations – are immediately apparent thanks to the sharp, hand-drawn character art, each of which is animated in a motion graphics style that never leaves the 2D plane – unlike, say, Little Battlers Experience’s 3D characters and backdrops. Navigating the game’s environments is handled in a distinctly Persona-esque fashion, switching between topographic world maps and close-up locations like schools, laboratories, and rogue hangars. This visual style is attractive and smoothly animated in conversation, but makes movements abrupt since each character (you control a handful of predetermined characters, but mostly the main protagonist, Yamato Ichidaiji) only faces four directions – up, down, left, and right.
It’s a visual approach that looks sharp regardless of the version you’re playing, but the majority of the patter is merely preamble to the game’s meat and potatoes: Full-metal mayhem. Megaton Musashi’s battles against the alien draktors are, to be blunt, exceedingly repetitive. The cycle is almost always the same: A cargo ship airlifts you over the battlefield, your rogue lands superhero-style on the ground, you move through a series of areas clearing the field of alien grunts and, eventually, battle a giant boss or two.
The buildings that populate each stage are never used for tactical reasons, either. Where environments in games like Earth Defense Force and War of the Monsters might offer temporary cover, in Megaton Musashi they’re merely destructible obstacles that disintegrate underfoot. Combat in Megaton Musashi revolves around equal parts offence and evasion. Fortunately, your rogues are up to the task, with a rechargeable boost meter that allows for rapid dodging. The bulk of your offensive moves are executed either through simple melee or ranged attacks, with rogues carrying up to three weapons of each type.
Every mission – whether a Story, Replay, or Free mission – results in loot rewards after every successful sortie, and like most loot-based games these weapons and rogue parts (arms, legs, bodies) are randomised. Grinding through ‘Free’ missions (in optional Normal or Expert flavours) keeps players in the hunt for statistically superior gear, each piece assigned a ‘Normal’ to ‘Epic’ rating, all of which helps players advance in increasingly tough story missions. Players collect sword and shield sets, dual swords, knuckle type weapons, along with ranged variants of hand cannons, machine guns, shotguns, and bazookas. Each weapon type has varying degrees of effectiveness against specific draktor enemy types, which encourages the full use of one’s loadout in battle.
The level of customisation is impossibly deep, too. Aside from the ability to adjust the colour of each body part and weapon, these can also be adorned with a vast variety of unlockable decals, which themselves can be stretched in any conceivable direction to suit one’s taste. Besides the seemingly endless array of parts and equipment you earn in battle, each with its own potential special traits, you can further customise each part with a random number of behavioural chips which further strengthens each part and your overall rogue effectiveness.
Exponentially increasing the effectiveness of your ‘franken-rogue’ is the ability to upgrade your motherboard by swapping, rearranging, and upgrading the chipsets that adorn it. Here you can choose which special moves to equip (more of which unlock as the game progresses) along with your ultimate ‘Kabuki Function,’ which can vary in style from an all out high damage attack or a restorative healing area of effect. Moreover, you can upgrade your pilots by pouring points into improving weapon or ability effectiveness, while also selecting from a variety of onboard navigators.
Unlike thematically-similar games – such as the Armored Core series – Megaton Musashi is less concerned with finicky weight management and more with tricking out your ride for maximum effectiveness in battle. There’s almost nothing so difficult in the game that going back and grinding out a level or two and earning some new, more effective loot (especially a couple of Epic pieces) can’t cure. That said, while the game is pretty easy to navigate without a proficient understanding of Japanese – every objective is explicitly labeled, showing you where to go next – the sheer, almost ridiculous depth of the rogue customisation will be lost to those without at least a basic understanding of hiragana and katakana, and even then, the nuances of each part, chip, and component will be a mystery otherwise. And that’s a shame, because this is where the game really shines.
Spicing up the repetitive but increasingly challenging ladder of mission types is a thoughtful array of multiplayer modes. While it requires multiple persons (up to three) each with their own copy of Megaton Musashi, local multiplayer on Switch is supported, which is nice considering how many recent multiplayer games lack such basic functionality. Better yet is Megaton Musashi’s online support (also for three players). Braving the online waters for the purposes of this review, we were always paired up with jacked-up rogues who helped us clear every area with ease, with the upside being a stack of Epic rewards at the end, which we were able to take back into the story missions and tackle that boss that was previously giving us a hard time.
Visually, the Switch version of Megaton Musashi holds up very well against its PS4 counterpart, with cutscenes and models not suffering from the drop-off one might expect between the two console versions. In conversation and CG cutscenes, things look mostly identical – although the PS4 version enjoys less compressed visuals in its animated sequences. One suspects Level-5 used the Switch version as its baseline so that its Japanese fan base wouldn’t suffer from having a markedly inferior version on the most popular platform there. However, the PS4’s reveals its advantage in the real-time combat segments, running smoothly where on the Switch the loading of large-scale special attacks and Kabuki Functions causes hiccups and brief freezes in battle.
From an audio standpoint, Megaton Musashi is an astounding showcase of exuberant, top-tier voice talent, and crunchy, ’70s-era robotic sound effects. It’s hard to state exactly why these sounds are so authentic to the era that Level-5 is clearly pulling from here, but for anyone who grew up with the giant robot shows of the ’70s and ’80s – all the way up to Voltron – will find much to love from an aural perspective. Hearing your pilot scream out an overly-excited “MEGATON PUNCH!” never gets old. In terms of design, the style of the various mech pieces draws most of its inspiration from the Tetsujin-28 era of Japanese giant robots, specifically the cat-eared rogue that graces the game’s key imagery, and fans of this style of mecha will find lots to enjoy here.
In a very Monster Hunter-esque move, Level-5 also plans to support the game with monthly updates all the way until the release of Megaton Musashi Kai, which is scheduled for a late 2022 release, giving adopters of the base game incentive to keep plugging away until then. That’s good news for fans and importers of Megaton Musashi, and with any luck they’ll listen to the feedback and make a substantial leap with the follow-up.
Once you get past Megaton’s weird disparity between its storytelling sections and fully-realised combat segments, you’ll find a deeply enjoyable, endlessly customisable game that really caters towards mecha-themed gearheads. Unless a first-party like Nintendo secretly has this up its sleeve for localisation as a shock first-party reveal this year, we’d have to say that Level-5’s shuttering of its Western office bodes poorly for a localisation otherwise. The game has a lot of text and would be a monster localisation project (although it’s telling that every cutscene is skippable, unlike in Little Battlers Experience, where lengthy pre-battle cutscenes were not) and we can’t help but wonder how much we’re missing without the accompanying anime to fill in the big picture.