Despite its impressive setpiece battles and enjoyable dystopian drama, Armored Core 6’s best mode isn't the main campaign. Unlocked relatively early on in the story, the game’s arena mode has the player face off against simulated versions of a roster of NPCs, many of whom are significant to the story. While the arena rewards players with currency and OST chips for upgrading their mech’s core stats, the real joy of the game mode lies in the battles, themselves.
These contests offer variety, depth, and, most importantly, personality. The symmetrical combat also allows Armored Core 6 to best show off its slick combat mechanics. Rapid boosting and use of the 3D space becomes far more straightforward in the context of the arena. In Armored Core 6, even the slowest mechs will be constantly jockeying for position in battle - a habit shared by your NPC arena opponents.
So, too, is it easier to appreciate the contrast between the game’s varied weapons in this new environment. Your rapid-fire assault rifle will handle palpably differently to your opponent’s grenade launcher, a difference which will, in turn, affect how you move. Dealing with a constantly firing rifle requires constant movement to throw off targeting while avoiding a grenade launcher takes a rapid dodge, performed at the right moment. These sophisticated layers of interaction are brought to the fore in the arena’s minimalist environment; where there is nothing to distract from the balletic movements of the two combatants.
In the arena, the enemy mechs have access to the same tools that you do, creating a sense of parity. If you so chose, you could build an exact replica of any mech on the arena roster. Should you perish in one of these battles (and you will), you can rest assured that the enemy defeated you using combat techniques that are, unambiguously, also available to you. It creates a sense of honesty and transparency - both of which are necessary to make difficult player-death-fueled games not only bearable but rewarding.
Rock, paper, scissors
Arena mode stands in contrast to many of the setpiece boss battles in Armored Core 6’s campaign. Taking a leaf out of the soulsborne book, FromSoftware has included numerous bosses that take the form of enormous super-mechs, dwarfing even your tower-block-sized war machine. This asymmetry creates a sense of unfairness, turning your Armored Core into an underdog.
While this can be satisfying in its own right, it rarely allows Armored Core 6 to fully flex the muscles of its combat mechanics. This is because these larger-than-life battles are often better addressed simply by building the right mech for the job - not deploying the one that you have carefully created and molded to your preferences. Though it can be satisfying to win this game of rock-paper-scissors, something is lost in having to dilute your mech’s look and feel to jump through some specific mechanical hoops.
Take the notorious Balteus boss battle at the end of the game’s first chapter. This flying, missile-spewing, flamethrowing menace makes constant use of an energy shield, meaning that specific, shield-disrupting weapons are near-mandatory. If you like energy swords or are more of a bazooka-friendly kind of pilot, you will have to abandon your own signature style in favor of a solution to the Balteus puzzle.
The arena doesn’t penalize players for doubling down on their own personal touches or styles
The arena, however, doesn’t penalize players for doubling down on their own personal touches or styles - in fact, it celebrates them. In classic FromSoftware tradition, not only are the fundamentals of Armored Core 6’s combat polished to a mirror sheen, but, also, the interactions between the different available range of mech archetypes are well calibrated, ensuring that any given build has a range of competitive options in combat with any other.
Say, like me, you favor a fast, light, melee-centric mech. If you come across a lightly armored foe, your battles will likely become rapid jousts, where pinpoint precision is rewarded with devastating damage. Conversely, should you find yourself facing off against a heavy mech laden with armaments, you will be rewarded for playing more conservatively, putting time and effort into dodging powerful (but slow-moving) enemy attacks until the perfect line of engagement presents itself.
Rather than having to play a convoluted puzzle game concerned with building the “right” mech, the arena allows you to build the mech you want, instead of pushing you to just adapt your piloting style to fit the enemy in front of you. By way of a happy extra benefit, this approach also trains players to be more adaptive, helping them to better adjust their approaches in combat to suit the demands of the battlefield.
Getting in the robot
Perhaps its most impressive facet, however, is how skillfully arena mode captures the look and feel of the mech pilot fantasy. The consistency at the heart of arena engagements helps evoke the feel of a contest between two rivals, where only skill and wit separate the winner and the loser.
At its heart, the mech pilot fantasy is rooted in the romanticized idea of dueling fighter pilot aces. Similarities between Armored Core and Ace Combat, both in terms of linear mission structure, storytelling devices, and emphasis on vehicle customization are no coincidence. In both series, ace pilots form friendships and rivalries that prove fundamental to the melodrama of the story.
To its credit, Armored Core 6’s main campaign doesn’t shy away from these tropes, but it’s the arena where this emphasis on characterization really shines. Every NPC in the arena not only has their own distinctive biography but also has a mech build and emblem that offers further insight into their personality.
The mech pilot fantasy is rooted in the romanticized idea of dueling fighter pilot aces
For instance, “Chatty” Stick may seem like a pilot of few words, but their mech “Circus” and its vibrant blue and yellow color scheme betrays a playfulness that lurks just under the surface, a quality we see reinforced during main campaign missions that feature them.
Ultimately, a mech is an extension of the pilot’s personality, be that pilot an NPC or the player themselves. Someone who chooses tank treads is just different from someone who goes reverse-limbed. Rather than ask you to compromise your vision to fit the demands of a puzzle posed by a specific boss encounter, the arena encourages you to get playful and creative with mech builds. The arena allows for personality to erupt from under the surface of Armored Core 6’s bleak, hyper-capitalist dystopia, offering an experience that’s more than just a sequence of scripted battles.