Armored Core VI: Fires of Rubicon Review

FromSoftware is famous today for its sprawling action role-playing games, a proud lineage that stretches from 2009’s Demon’s Souls to last year’s Elden Ring. But before FromSoft invented the Soulsborne genre, it was most well known for its long-running Armored Core franchise, first released in 1997. Spanning numerous sequels and re-releases, Armored Core was FromSoft’s bread and butter for over a decade. Now, after a decade-long hiatus, Armored Core is back, and with it a huge new potential audience of fans built up over FromSoft’s long march into fame and influence. Is it a good game? Will it meet the expectations of players who have never touched the series but have their own expectations of what FromSoft makes? And what are the Fires of Rubicon?

Get in the AC, Shinji

The most important thing that has to be said about Armored Core VI is that it is emphatically not a Soulsborne game. While there are certainly recognizable FromSoft flourishes in the writing, as well as a Moonlight sword to be found, there is precious little else about the game that evokes Dark Souls or Elden Ring. There is no leveling, there is no open world structure, there is no co-op gameplay, and there are no thinly veiled reskins of spells or weapons that directly transfer into the game. This is a totally distinct experience, and whether you like any of the company’s more recent games–even Sekiro, which is itself not much like the others–has little, if any, bearing on whether you will enjoy Armored Core VI.

But for all the things that Armored Core VI doesn’t have, it has quite a number of its own idiosyncratic and engaging systems. The core of the game is its blistering mech combat. Each mission you embark on will task you with some objective: destroy artillery positions, defeat an enemy Armored Core (AC), gather data, or any number of other things. Regardless of what you’re trying to do, the answer is always to pilot your multi-ton mechanical suit to where you need to be and destroy whatever you need to. These missions are shockingly fast, with many lasting little more than five minutes depending on how efficiently you clear them.

If that sounds shallow, Armored Core VI compensates by making mech customization an incredibly in-depth affair. Your AC is comprised of four body parts: head, torso, arms, and legs. You may equip four weapons: left hand, right hand, left shoulder, and right shoulder. You have four utility slots: boosters (jet engines, essentially), engine, and Fire Control System (FCS) chip (this modifies your accuracy at various combat ranges). Finally, you have a utility slot for one of several abilities that can give you an edge in battle. Each of these slots dramatically impacts your performance on a mission. Your AC’s legs, for example, determine how much weight the AC can support; you won’t be able to carry heavy weapons with light legs, but the reduced weight will improve your speed and mobility. However, legs also come in several broad categories that determine your mobility, whether it’s nimble bipedal legs that allow for higher mobility or a tank chassis that sacrifices grace for gobs of Armor Points (AP, the game’s equivalent of HP). With each piece of the AC impacting your AP and energy use, tuning your mech to your exact preferences quickly becomes a game unto itself (although you can always just combine parts from the same manufacturer or even model to get something tuned for a general purpose). Personalization is extended to a custom decal editor with which users can make and share unique images to plaster on their ACs. The power of the decal editor is greater than it first appears, and players have been making and sharing jaw-dropping decals.

Customizing your AC is so important because, as you will quickly discover, different loadouts are better for different tasks. The game allows you to save AC loadouts to swap to at designated points, including if you get a game over and have to start from a checkpoint, and this becomes hugely important as you advance. A mission may task you with destroying strategic items, for which a hovering tetrapod build may be ideal; you can float through the air and rain down artillery at your targets with ease. However, the end of the mission may demand you defeat a skilled enemy AC in one-on-one combat, and an artillery platform may struggle in such a scenario. At this point, a defeat means simply starting over from the checkpoint, with the option to change your loadout, and there are many times where changing your AC loadout can turn a seemingly impossible task into an almost trivial one.

Lock and Load

For as absorbing as AC customization is, we still need to discuss the actual combat of Armored Core VI. For the most part, it is a rather straightforward third-person action title. You view your AC from behind, although you can turn the camera so that the AC moves towards rather than away from it if you so wish. On a PlayStation controller (and using the default control scheme) triangle is used to interact with things (such as doors or wrecks), square is used to dodge, x is used to jump (holding the jump button will cause you to rise in the air, while pressing it a second time while using tetrapod legs will cause you to enter a hover mode), and circle activate or deactivates the boost mode to let your AC move faster. Meanwhile, the D-pad is used to activate a repair kit for quick healing by pressing up and to scan the area for enemies and items of interest by pressing down, and clicking the left stick launches the AC into a jet mode for rapid traversal. An energy meter (that works like a standard stamina bar) governs all your movement actions, and the difference between your current energy load and the maximum possible energy output for your engine determines how fast it regenerates when depleted (though it is always rather zippy).

Where things become more exotic is the weapon loadout. You have four weapon slots, each corresponding to a hand or shoulder of your AC. The trigger buttons (L2 and R2) correspond to the hands, and the shoulder buttons (L1 and R1) to the shoulders, with left and right matching the AC. So if you have a shotgun in your AC’s right hand, you fire it with the right trigger (R2), and if you have a missile launcher on the AC’s right shoulder, you fire it with the right shoulder button (R1). It takes a little getting used to, but effectively aligning the weapons with the default perspective of the AC helps them become second nature relatively quickly.

But, as you might imagine, having four weapons, each with their own reload timers and maximum ammo (which cannot be replenished mid-mission save at specific checkpoints), there can be a lot to juggle. And unlike a game like, say, Mechwarrior, Armored Core VI is shockingly fast paced. Even an AC using the slowest tank legs can move fast enough to drift like a street racer, and lightweight biped loadouts can spring around like caffeinated grasshoppers. The key to success is almost always in leveraging your mobility to your advantage, whether that’s simply positioning yourself as a tank to hit the enemy effectively or zigging in and out and around and through enemy formations for hit-and-run as a lightweight AC.

Hitting an enemy fills up a stagger meter, with different weapons being more or less effective at staggering. Once staggered, enemies pause for just a moment and take increased damage while the meter remains full. Learning how to leverage your weapons to effectively apply stagger is very important, though it is possible to make builds that can largely ignore it. Unfortunately, enemies can stagger the player, too, so it is important to bear the Attitude Control stat in mind when building an AC, as this stat helps mitigate the effect.

Finally, the lock-on system and camera controls warrants some discussion. By clicking the right analog stick, you can lock onto an enemy. This causes the camera to better track them when, but it does not force the camera to perfectly track them as you might expect from other games. You can still rotate the camera wherever you’d like. Importantly, your AC will automatically target enemies within view when they are on-screen even when not using the lock-on function. This is one of the more esoteric elements of the controls, but your AC is actually significantly more accurate when you are firing at a target without using the lock-on system. You should strive to use lock-on only when facing the most nimble of enemies, while relying on the default targeting whenever you can keep an enemy in your sights without using lock-on. This is a very strange setup that I truly cannot fully explain, but moreso than any other game I can think of, you should consider maximizing camera sensitivity when playing.

All of this combines to make Armored Core VI a shockingly fast game, one where fights can be won or lost in seconds. When you understand the systems at play sufficiently well, you’ll enjoy taking whole clusters of enemies down in short order. If you’re struggling to learn, you’ll find the game to be rather punishing. So punishing can the game feel that I think it is important to discuss its difficulty in greater detail.

Built Ford Tough

Part of FromSoftware’s modern reputation is the idea that they make incredibly difficult games. While the precise degree of difficulty for any given title is up for debate, at the least it can be said to be true that FromSoft expects players to accept each game on its own terms and rise to a fairly high level of challenge. Armored Core VI is no different, but it has the strangest difficulty curve of any FromSoft game of the past decade.

Armored Core VI tutorializes itself much more heavily than any of FromSoft’s more recent games, except, perhaps, Sekiro. It introduces players to the most important functions of the AC as well as the unique and relatively complex control scheme, in which the AC’s hand weapons are matched to the controller triggers (L2 for the left hand, R2 for the right) and the shoulder weapons to the shoulder triggers (L1 for the left shoulder, R1 for the right). It teaches you how to dodge and boost and lock on, and there are even dedicated tutorials for specific types of AC loadouts. Armored Core VI makes sure that you can learn how every function of your AC works. It also demands that you defeat a giant helicopter at the end of the tutorial with little guidance for how to use your weapons, which at that point include a sword. Are you prepared to bring down a helicopter with a sword? You’re going to have to be.

And that’s the crux of Armored Core VI’s difficulty. Many missions are actually fairly easy, and I don’t mean “easy by FromSoft standards.” You often just have to destroy a lot of relatively weak enemies, or even simply specific points of interest–like artillery nests–and can ignore everything else. But then the game will pull out a boss encounter that will be absolutely uncompromising and will feel impossible as you fiddle around with your loadout to find something, anything, that works. I spent hours on some bosses, grinding earlier missions to earn funds to buy new components (although you can also resell anything you have bought for full price, meaning you can easily change your whole loadout if need be) and then slamming my head again and again into an immovable wall. But then I’d finally clear the obstacle and would have many missions’ worth of smooth sailing. (Pro-tip: dual shotguns in your hands and dual artillery cannons on your shoulders are the easiest answer to most of the bosses.)

One of the most peculiar things about the game’s difficulty is that, despite there being no true leveling system–outside of the Arena, in which you can earn points that provide passive buffs–the game gradually trains you to be able to handle whatever it can throw at you. You learn what weapons are good for each general task, and the best timing for your attacks. You learn which legs are the best for each task, and whether you want speed or just more AP. The boss that took you hours to fell the first time is trivial in NG+, even though you aren’t really any stronger numerically. It’s absolutely rage-inducing while you are learning the game and almost effortless once you’ve reached the heights of skill you’ll cultivate. Like Sekiro, it is one of the most brutally punishing FromSoft games–in spite of generous checkpointing and the ease with which you can alter your gear–and one of the easiest, at least once you’ve finally clicked with it. If you click with it. I don’t want to downplay that: this game is very hard until and unless you finally master it, and I cannot say with confidence that every person who attempts it will have the patience to do so. I might well have given up myself if I had not enjoyed the less punishing early missions enough to want to push past bottlenecks.

Let the Last Cinders Burn

Contextualizing all the mech action is a story that manages to both impress and underwhelm. You play an independent mercenary operating on the planet Rubicon 3. The planet was once the only source of Coral, a miraculous substance that was used for a great many technological advancements. Fifty years prior to the events of the game, however, the Coral was ignited and the entire planet burned. The Planetary Closure Administration (PCA) quarantined the world, but ruthless corporations have infiltrated the containment zone and are plundering whatever they can, while the remaining citizens struggle to hold their own. As the story progresses, you’ll learn more about your handler, Walter, and his enigmatic goals, as well as have the opportunity to decide the fate of this ravaged world, with great implications for the galaxy beyond it.

It’s an interesting setup, bleak (as FromSoft games tend to be) and filled with numerous factions and characters, each with their own motivations and personalities. As the situation on the planet develops, you’ll be thrown into impressive setpiece battles, will betray and be betrayed, and experience up to three distinct endings, one of which isn’t available until a second New Game+ cycle.

However, the story is held back by two primary issues. First, everything is conveyed entirely in voiceover. You will never see any character’s face (and some characters do not even have what we would call a face). Your character is a mute blank slate, though there are times when you can make explicit decisions. It’s a very detached method of storytelling, and one that saps a lot of energy from the narrative. On top of that, much of the dialogue is delivered as mid-mission chatter, and paying attention to it in the heat of battle can be challenging.

Second, FromSoft is even more ambiguous and vague here than in many of their other titles. Say what you will about Dark Souls, by the end of the game you will basically understand why you are being asked to do what you are doing. In Armored Core VI, I still don’t fully understand what the issue with Coral is. Some characters want to destroy it, and it is vaguely implied to be hazardous, but they never come out and say what the key issue is. I think the primary concern is that it might spontaneously set the entire galaxy on fire, but nobody says that in as many words. This makes it difficult to fully care about the various options available to you towards the end of the story, since your decisions are being made on the basis of very little hard information.

And that’s a terrible shame, because FromSoft does some very clever things with the narrative. Branching paths in the campaign are just the start. Once you reach New Game+, you’ll suddenly encounter choices that weren’t available the first time, which can lead to alternate versions of missions or even wholly new ones. And in NG++, an entirely new ending becomes available that significantly alters the entire campaign. It’s a fascinating approach that kept me engaged for over 40 hours as I worked to see everything there was, and I walked away impressed with it all despite finding FromSoft to be far too willing to obscure when they should have explained.

As an aside, I think this game has one of FromSoft’s funniest characters, G1 Michigan, a boisterous jarhead who feels like an extremely specific, semi-affectionate joke about Americans. He’s a war hero who pilots the AC Liger Tail and busts his subordinates’ balls constantly, and he’s extremely funny if you pay attention.

Engaging Combat Mode

I quite enjoyed Armored Core VI. Its furious combat and engrossing mech customization paired with an ambitious campaign structure kept me in its grip for far longer than I would have expected. But I also don’t know if I can recommend it easily. It’s very weird, mechanically, and I can so easily imagine even people who love FromSoft’s other games hating Armored Core VI with every fiber of their being. It demands you rise to a level of challenge beyond even Sekiro, and even though meeting this demand will make the bulk of your playtime very reasonable, it is quite a high wall to climb. For those who aren’t sure they want that kind of challenge, maybe give the game a pass, or wait for a sale. For everyone else: engage combat mode.