In 2004, a young joined FromSoftware. Before becoming a household name in gaming circles, he cut his teeth working on the studio’s long-running Armored Core series, serving as a planner on 2005’s Armored Core: Last Raven and then as director on Armored Core IV and Armored Core: For Answer.
Following the success of Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, FromSoftware went on to release two more Armored Core games, though Miyazaki wasn’t directly involved in those projects. Since then, the studio has been busy building on the Souls series, culminating with the runaway success of . Now, for the first time in nearly a decade, From is revisiting its mech franchise. Armored Core VI: Fires of Rubicon also marks the directorial debut of one of the studio’s most promising up-and-coming talents — Masaru Yamamura the lead game designer on Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, and a designer on Bloodborne. Armored Core VI is not a Soulslike, but a lot of its best ideas feel informed by Sekiro and Bloodborne. And if it’s any indication of what’s to come, Yamamura has a long career ahead of him as one of the studio’s premier directors.
If you’re reading this review, there’s a good chance that, like me, you haven’t played an Armored Core game before. Even at its peak, the series never enjoyed the kind of global popularity Dark Souls achieved in the span of five years. But if you’re curious if there’s something here for you, the short answer is a resounding yes. However, as with almost all of From’s games, a little — okay, a lot — of patience goes a long way.
Here’s the thing you need to know about Armored Core VI: It is uncompromising. Like Sekiro before it, prepare to be frustrated until you wrap your head around how Yamamura wants you to approach combat. I’ll admit, I died about a dozen times to Armored Core VI’s first boss, which appears at the start of the game before I managed to eke out a victory. Even then, it took me several more hours before I felt like I had a narrow grasp of AC 6’s interlocking weapon, piloting and mech assembly systems.
Part of what makes From’s latest so intimidating is that there’s so much going on all at once. To give you a sense of the complexity involved, the game's mechs — called Armored Cores — can carry up to four weapons, and fire them independently of one another. Moreover, there are dozens of different weapons archetypes, each with its own set of tactical considerations. Missile pods, for instance, fire a salvo of rockets either at a single target or multiple enemies simultaneously. Since most feature a lengthy reload or cooldown animation, you can’t rely on any one weapon alone to win an encounter. Each requires thoughtful consideration and use, all while keeping a hulking robot skillfully evading fire.
Movement is everything in AC6. Armored Cores have three different boosts available: one to increase their regular traversal speed, one to dash away from attacks and one that allows them to catapult themselves at enemies and quickly cover a lot of ground. They can also jump, and ignite their boosters to fly.
All of an AC’s more advanced movement abilities consume energy, which is represented by a bar along the bottom of the interface. Landing on the ground will begin to quickly replenish that resource. Most enemies don’t have anywhere near the mobility of the player’s mech, but some can hit hard if they’re allowed to land a shot. There’s also a stagger mechanic within the game that applies to both the player and opponents. One difference between AC6 and From’s Soulsborne games is that dashing doesn’t give invincibility frames. As a newbie to the series, the need to consider spacing on top of reacting quickly added to the game’s learning curve.
Since you’re not tied to the ground like you would be in Dark Souls or Bloodborne, combat is far more vertical than in any of From’s other recent games. A lot of enemies have access to wide, horizontal sweeping attacks that you can’t avoid through lateral movement. Conversely, gaining the high ground on opponents is often the most effective way to dispatch them. Knowing when to take to the air is probably the most important skill to grasp in AC6, and, if you’re a Soulsborne veteran, likely the most difficult to learn as well.
How nimble an Armored Core is depends on the parts it’s built from, and with hundreds of options to choose from, there’s a lot of room for creativity. Some offer simple stat boosts while others change how a mech travels across the battlefield. For example, a set of quadruped legs allow an AC to hover in the air without consuming energy, a feature that’s useful for missions that require a lot of aerial combat. By contrast, a mech with tank treads isn’t great at getting off the ground, but it can drift after dashing and charge up a weapon without stopping.
Like I said, there’s a lot to learn and unpack. Thankfully, Armored Core VI is also one of FromSoftware’s more accessible games. After the initial hurdle of the first boss, the first few missions that follow are smaller in scale, and feature less formidable enemies. At the same time, the game offers training missions that are there to illuminate the finer points of Armored Core VI’s mechanics. At most, these take a few minutes to complete, and provide useful mech parts as rewards. It’s a structure I felt eased me into the game before throwing harder challenges my way.
Yamamura and company have also wisely done away with some of the series’ more hardcore elements. Past games featured a system that allowed the player to go into debt if they didn’t play well. That’s not something that’s present in AC6. I found I always had spare funds to modify my mech, thanks to the amount of credits the game doled out for completing missions and the ability to replay them for even more money. It also helps that every component available to purchase can be sold for the same price it costs to buy it. As a result, I found I was free to experiment with different loadouts to find the combination that suited my playstyle without having to consider a punishing in-game economy.
AC6’s mission structure also does a lot of heavy lifting to make the game more approachable. The inclusion of a checkpoint system meant I never lost much, if any, progress when I died (and I died a lot in my early hours). It’s also possible to modify a mech between deaths without restarting a mission. Unless I was chasing an ‘S’ ranking when replaying a mission, that meant I was free to use one mech to reach a boss and another to defeat it. In fact, the game encouraged me to do exactly that after dying multiple times in a row to one boss I encountered midway through chapter one.
Still, there were some frustrations. Boss battles felt overly difficult relative to every other enemy, perhaps to balance the game’s checkpoint system. Most opponents — including opposing Armored Cores — have a limited pool of attacks. Bosses throw out that script. To give you one example, Balteus, the final boss of the game’s first chapter, starts with a moveset that consists of about a dozen attacks, a few of which flood the arena with homing missiles. When the battle enters its second phase, Balteus’s moveset doubles and the boss becomes even more aggressive. It’s a punishing encounter and a brick wall of an early-game skill check.
Sometimes the controls also don’t feel up to the task of what AC6 is asking you to pull off. It’s especially noticeable if you go with what’s known in-game as a “double trigger” build, which involves equipping an Armored Core with a pair of weapons that ideally should be fired in unison.
By default, Armored Core VI maps all of a mech’s weapons to left and right triggers, alongside the bumper buttons. The right analog stick, meanwhile, controls the camera and the square or X button is for dashing. The game includes a target assist mode that locks the camera to a single target, but it’s not ideal to use when fighting more than one enemy. When I felt I struggled the most, it was because I had to give up control of the camera to boost away from an attack. It’s possible to remap the controls, but I didn’t find a configuration that worked as well as the default setup.
Those frustrations aside, I never felt like Armored Core VI was anything short of compelling. Even in its most challenging moments, the game gave me little victories to celebrate. It is an incredible achievement in game design and thematic cohesion, and, I think, a promise of what we can expect from FromSoftware’s next generation of talent.
Armored Core VI: Fires of Rubicon arrives on PlayStation, Xbox and PC on August 25th.