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Raw Metal review: a brawler that thinks it's a stealth game

Et ceteraw, et ceteraw

Two Raw Metal miners prepare to engage in some fisticuffs.
Image credit: Team Crucible

At first glance, this shadow-hopping top-downer looks like a nostalgic stealth game designed to evoke the boxy subterranean environments of the first Metal Gear Solid. But really it is a tough single-player fighting game with stealth bits attached. It is closer in design to kung-fu brawler Sifu than it is to any of Solid Snake's various mischiefs. And while this mash-up of influences intrigues me, it can also feel like a layer cake of awkwardly clashing flavours. Like that very pretty but questionable cake, Raw Metal feels a little underbaked.

You are a sneaky person infiltrating a sci-fi mine. Who, what, when, and why are not important questions (Raw Metal doesn't have much in the way of story motivation - but more on that later). Only the "how" is significant here. In time-honoured stealth tradition, sticking to shadows keeps you from enemies' sights. Crouch-walking will keep you quiet. Cameras will slowly swivel from one side of a room to another. And tip-toeing directly behind enemies will grant you a sneak attack.

Fighting a large, pickaxe-wielding miner in Raw Metal.
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Team Crucible

The catch here is that sneak attacks do not outright kill your target. This is not a game of silent neck-snapping. Instead, dealing a stealth blow to unsuspecting enemies will halve their health for the subsequent fight. Any enemy who catches you off-guard, by contrast, will require a heavier beating to defeat. The overall goal is to semi-sneakily beef your way through floor after floor of these enemies, descending deeper into the mine via the same elevator. Get off at floor -1, beat some guys up, grab a keycard, head back to the elevator, head to floor -2. And so on.

The brawls themselves feel scrappy, claustrophobic, the camera coming right down alongside you in a Yakuza-esque manner (often too close for comfort, your own body or that of enemies making it hard to know what's happening). It is sometimes hard to judge spacing and footing, especially if you're hapless enough to provoke three enemies at once (something you quickly learn to avoid). This is not the kind of game in which enemies "take turns" launching attacks at you. Their baton strikes or taser shocks come whenever they damn well please. As a result the dodging and parrying does not always feel reliable. Trying to single one enemy out and prioritise them can be difficult.

You biff with a bevy of light punches, heavy punches, light kicks and heavy kicks. A simple combo will launch your foe into air and a follow-up heavy attack while they are airborne will send them flying across the combat space like a sack of dried beans. If they splat up against a wall you get even more chances to deliver extra pain to their stunned noggin. It feels very fighting game-y, the wallsplats and juggling reminiscent of arcade fighters or 3D ragers like For Honor. Whether this flavour of combat pairs well with the stealthy aromas of Solid Snake sneakery will come down to your own palate. (Myself? I like fish and chips a lot. I like ice cream a lot. I don't want to eat them together.)

A top-down view while exploring the mines in Raw Metal.
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Team Crucible

Your fragile body makes even seemingly straightforward fights difficult. Our hero can only stomach a few strikes before being knocked out cold. You do regain all your health automatically after each battle (a subtly intelligent decision I often appreciate in games). But despite this mercy, death comes fast, and when restarts involve getting kicked right back to the game's main menu, to start again from the first floor, it can make small missteps frustrating.

This will either be a source of grouchiness, or a beautiful red flag to Sifu-likers. For me, it's the former. Punishing fights would be easier to stomach if it always felt possible to avoid them - something the Metal Gear overtures seem to suggest. But this is deceptive. A sneaking-only approach doesn't feel truly viable. Running away when discovered is not wise, for example (you just end up attracting more attention). And tough bosses are mandatory. It becomes painfully clear that mastering the combat is a necessary part of the game, and I'm not gelling with it. The parry window is narrow, the fight space is cramped, the camera often compromises the brawl. And that's before you even get to the spongey bosses who barely flinch at many of your strikes.

In other stealth games, there are options and approaches to direct conflict whenever it breaks out, such that getting caught often elicits a nervous chuckle. You can run, hide, throw a punch or two then scarper, dive into water, into vents, into cardboard boxes, escape to rooftops, kick down a stack of fruit in the market to slow pursuers, the list goes on. Here, the stealth elements are, intentionally or otherwise, secondary to the combat. Enemies run as fast as you do and corner you quickly. While getting caught is not an insta-fail, it is an insta-boxing match you are expected to play out.

A Raw Metal character escapes an explosion.
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Team Crucible

In other words, I found it hard to identify what this game truly wanted to be. While it's fine at tutorialising individual features (your equipment, your attacks) it is not great at explaining its philosophy and its overall design ideas. For example, it is not a roguelike, but it sometimes looks like one. You can return to the surface at any time using the elevator, and you can sort of "bank" items for later runs. But at no point does the game tell you this is part of the whole shebang. It's only through a patient process of repeating the same early floors again and again that you understand what it wants from you as a player.

That repetitiveness isn't helped by the sameiness of the levels themselves, which are mostly a conglomeration of boxy rooms without clear purpose apart from breaking line of sight. The floors have the same layout every time (no procedural generation here), which means this is more a matter of seeking mastery over a known space, of learning optimal routes and best practices. At times it weirdly reminded me more of Hotline Miami than Metal Gear Solid. It has nothing of the same urgency and risk, but as in Hotline Miami, it becomes a game of finding a perfect order in which to dispatch guards.

There are gadgets to help out with this: a noisemaker to distract enemies, a concussion grenade to knock them back briefly, a taser to disable cameras, an electromagnet to freeze foes in place. But the most imaginative of these is a "tear" grenade that warps guards to another random room. It feels deliciously smug to eject an enemy from an already crowded fight, evening the odds.

But that's the only gadget that I felt excited to use. When it comes to the crunch, the taser, electromagnet, and concussion grenade all more or less perform the same role - they all get you a brief moment of respite in marginally different ways. That lack of excitement extends to the wearable gear with bonuses. You might find gloves that increase the effect of concussion grenades. Helmets that negligibly increase your chance of finding certain items. But again, I never felt like any of these changed the way I approached a run in any significant way.

Raw Metal's gear selection menu.
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Team Crucible
A stylish yellow banner that says "Raw", with Raw Metal characters fighting overlaid on top of it.
A stylish yellow banner that says "Deadly", with Raw Metal characters fighting overlaid on top of it.
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Team Crucible

One thing the game has in spades is style. From the grim industrial colour scheme to the Persona-like menus, it can be a very swish-looking thing. The fighting animations are punchy in more ways than the obvious. Each final knockout of a brawl comes accompanied by a jazzy silhouette of your character donking your opponent one final time as they ragdoll through the air, a big word splashed against the background. "NICE" the game yells, textually. "SICK," it announces. And, perhaps with a knowing wink to the industry as a whole: "VISCERAL."

But for all that style, I felt a lack of motivation. You descend further and further into these futuristic mines. But... why? Narratively speaking, there's chatter. Boss monologues to hear and audio diaries to find. And although this develops slightly, there is no early hook to keep me moving. Sifu had a basic revenge plot driving you from the opening moments. Raw Metal? There are... bad guys doing bad things?

And I return to that comparison with Sifu knowingly. Because as cool and white-knuckle as Sifu was, I ended up putting that aside long before I reached its conclusion. And it's the same with Raw Metal. I don't have the patience to fight through another three floors, die to a boss, then repeat that process. I know there are more punitive pugilists who absolutely will have that patience and drive. But like a certain bandana-wearing himbo, I'd rather hide than hit.

On the one hand, Raw Metal is confounding for somebody like me with certain expectations for the genre (one of my favourite elements of the stealth genre - that of pursuit, hide and seek - is greatly nullified) but it's also clear that the designers have played with the founding principles of their influences enough to make something distinct. As a mash-up of inspirations, I respect the nerve and work required to bind together previously unpaired concepts, even if does end up being a raw fusion of ideas that doesn't quite hang together.

This review was based on a review build of the game provided by developers Team Crucible.

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