Serving Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County, MI
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

New game by Elden Ring developer delivers ace apocalyptic mech combat

Bandai Namco

Let's be clear from the start, Armored Core VI: Fires of Rubicon is not Elden Ring with giant robots.

If you were already a fan of the series, which was FromSoftware's staple before their decade of Souls games, that's probably welcome news. If you're newer to the developer and curious about their first major release since Elden Ring, Armored Core VI is also worth your while, but it's best to approach it on its own terms.

If you cross that Rubicon, so to speak, you and your ever-present mech suit will crash land into a world ravaged by extraplanetary corporations vying for control of a mysterious substance called Coral (think "Spice Melange" from Dune and you've got the idea). You play as a voiceless mercenary; an augmented human "hound" managed via voice transmissions from a gruff "handler" named Walter who briefs you on operations for any faction willing to pay for your services (sometimes at cross-purposes).

Boost, thrust, and dodge in fully three-dimensional combat.
/ Bandai Namco
/
Bandai Namco
Boost, thrust, and dodge in fully three-dimensional combat.

Those combat and reconnaissance missions, and the cutscenes and dialogue that pepper the space between them, drive the gameplay and advance the story. The plot unfolds pretty much entirely through dialogue and conversations happening around and at your speechless avatar, but the refreshingly solid writing and voice acting sell it well. It's a lot more exposition than you'd typically get from Dark Souls or Bloodborne, and if anything it reminded me more of Hideo Kojima's Metal Gear, another beloved series involving mechs.

While I'm all-in for the gothic fantasy of the Soulsborne games created by FromSoftware president and auteur Hidetaka Miyazaki, I came to Armored Core relatively cold. My only direct touchpoint was 2008's Armored Core 4: For Answer, which I recently played to see how the series progressed. I honestly wasn't sure if the gear-centric mech combat would mesh with me, but after dozens of hours of gametime, nearly halfway through the story and with numerous NPC arena duels under my belt, I found myself increasingly engaged and drawn-in.

A walled-in world with unrestricted movement

You can't freely wander the world of Rubicon, and at first I resisted the game's mission-based rhythm. You'll drop into a contained map, achieve your objectives, beam back to a garage menu, tinker with your build, rinse and repeat. I love a game that gives me the option to abandon forward progress in favor of exploring hidden corners. But in time, as I eased into Fires of Rubicon's story, I came to appreciate its streamlined design. As a hired gun with no evident morals or agency — and certainly no whimsy — why would I meander?

Enemy attacks can and will utterly surround you.
/ Bandai Namco
/
Bandai Namco
Enemy attacks can and will utterly surround you.

While you'll advance through maps with ruthless efficiency, you're at least given incredible freedom of movement thanks to the omnidirectional action that's fundamental to the Armored Core franchise. In the comparatively grounded tradition of Soulsborne games, famous for roll-dodging and deliberate attack animations, players considered Elden Ring groundbreaking for finally allowing players to jump.

In contrast, fully three-dimensional combat is Armored Core's centerpiece. You can boost and thrust your mech suit in any direction while simultaneously firing multiple weapons, and you'll have to get used to all that flying and shooting, because enemy attacks will also be coming from all corners.

Observe, adapt, overcome

Unlike action RPGs, your character won't be locked into a single class or play style. Before you drop into each mission, you can customize your mech to suit personal preferences and the particulars of the task at hand. You might choose a beefy tank toting massive explosives one mission, then opt for a sleek and fast mech with pew-pew lasers the next. You can glean a little about what might work best from your mission briefings, but the rest you'll learn directly through gameplay.

Build assembly is key. The player community will doubtless find some meta builds optimized for a variety of scenarios, but the game encourages you to experiment and adapt your mech assembly to different missions, and will sometimes outright necessitate it.

A tanky quad-build I used when I needed to prioritize survivability.
/ Bandai Namco
/
Bandai Namco
A tanky quad-build I used when I needed to prioritize survivability.

That's especially true because you can't level up in Armored Core. A feature called 'OS tuning' does offer some limited attack and defense upgrades with hard caps, but you can't grind to pump stats until you're strong enough to crush opponents with ease. If you find yourself dying repeatedly, you'll be forced to change your approach: you can retool your mech assembly in search of a combo better suited to the scenario, and/or learn enemy attack patterns and get better at responding to them through practice.

Speaking of dying repeatedly, Fires of Rubicon does have some qualities familiar to Souls and Elden Ring fans new to Armored Core — most notably, in its high difficulty and epic bosses.

Familiar Ground

Giant boss battles were the most recognizable to me, and — whether despite that or because of it — the aspect I struggled with the most initially. I found myself pining for the comparatively limited movement of Dark Souls or Elden Ring. The everything-everywhere-all-at-once environment of an Armored Core battle more than once tempted me to treat the game like a button masher, but as I adapted and settled into the pace, that familiar and rewarding experience of learning a boss and precisely mastering its patterns emerged.

You might pilot a giant robot, but that doesn't mean you won't face even more gargantuan enemies.
/ Bandai Namco
/
Bandai Namco
You might pilot a giant robot, but that doesn't mean you won't face even more gargantuan enemies.

If you're turned off or intimidated by the notorious difficulty of FromSoftware games, Armored Core isn't likely to change your mind. Multiplayer co-op and friendly summons made Elden Ring one of the company's most approachable titles, but Armored Core's online component is so far limited to 1v1 and 3v3 PVP battles.

Conversely, if you're a glutton for punishment yet unsure about your interest in a mech game, give Fires of Rubicon a shot. You may find, as I did, that the core philosophy of Miyazaki and FromSoftware is precisely what wins you over — that difficulty (and frequent deaths) deepen the stakes and the joy you'll feel when you finally prevail. Also, it's a blast to zip around in robot armor with shoulder cannons and laser guns.

James Perkins Mastromarino contributed to this story. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Justin Lucas