Lambgoat Plays: Armored Core VI: Fires of Rubicon
From Software bring their cult classic mecha series back and set fire to the action game genre once again
After years and several attempts of trying to get into From Software games, nothing really clicked. Dark Souls is cool, Elden Ring is cooler, but neither held my attention long enough to make it any considerable amount through either game. I thought Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice might do it, but it also proved to be an insurmountable wall. It was mostly due to their very specific brand of difficulty which became all the rage (literally) for the last decade with other games like Blasphemous and Salt & Sanctuary. Then Armored Core VI: Fires of Rubicon came out.
Despite not being familiar first-hand with the Armored Core franchise, the marketing that led up to this game’s release really grabbed me. Trailer after trailer, and some choice gameplay impressions from creators I trust, got me a ticket for the hypetrain. I enjoy mecha stuff so surely this will resonate with me somehow, right? Well, if completing three back-to-back playthroughs of Armored Core VI isn’t resonant, I don’t know what is.
Let’s set the scene first though - if you don’t know, Armored Core is a long-running action game series starting way back on the first Playstation console. It remained on Playstation consoles until the seventh console generation when Armored Core 4 and V both released on the Xbox 360 along with one standalone expansion for each of those games, For Answer and Verdict Day respectively. That was back in 2013 - it was ten years since the release of any Armored Core game.
They all have something to do with a mercenary pilot of some sort using their skills and Armored Core (just a fancy, in-universe term for mech, shortened to “AC”) to wrest money and/or fame from their post-apocalyptic, sci-fi worlds teeming with conflict. Armored Core VI leaves our solar system to take place on a fictional planet, Rubicon-3. Rubicon and, by extension, Armored Core’s greater universe is ruled iron fist style by corporate profits and interest, and violence chasing resources that assure your strength to commit more violence. It’s harrowing and cold - corporatism and capitalism brought to an exploitative extreme with a matte finish and the scent of spent ammunition.
Each of Armored Core VI’s factions are absolutely lost in the throes of survival with greatly differing power disparities between them all. Arquebus Corporation and Balam Industries are two warring, interested parties when it comes to Rubicon’s Coral, a highly destructive substance with some oddly biological, almost sentient properties. All they do is throw their own internal AC squads and seemingly endless money at each other to be the first to find a great Coral convergence somewhere on Rubicon and exploit it. You also have the Rubicon Liberation Front, planetside natives some of whom survived a devastating cataclysm decades prior called the Fires of Ibis only to be left fighting for their survival and home with nothing but scraps to work with on a doomed, cratered, wounded planet. Even more, the PCA - Planetary Closure Administration - seeks to stop corpo dogs from exploiting Rubicon by enforcing a quarantine on it. They’re basically space cops.
You play as augmented human C4-621, someone altered and basically enslaved to be an AC mercenary pilot with little choice or agency in the matter with a Handler to keep you on a leash. This allegory is even stronger given that you’re regularly dehumanized by being called a “hound” or a “mutt”, as if being reduced to an identification number wasn’t bad enough. Hardly anyone in Rubicon’s orbit or on its surface is interested in you as a person - you are a tool, an asset to be utilized in the interests of others with the money to payroll you, and you have a job to do.
What jobs you do is up to you however. Though the game is very linear and mission-based, you’re free to make key choices that affect your pay, the plot, your ending, and sometimes even what rewards you unlock. Will you join a mission given to you by Schneider, an Arquebus Corp subsidiary, that’s tantamount to their pursuit of the planet’s Coral, or will you support the Rubicon Liberation Front and their cause of freeing the planet of its hyper-militarized takeover? The nuance is there, but it’s not very fleshed out at the start of the game - this is fine as you’re still getting oriented to the game and its world.
This is more of a warning than a spoiler, though tread lightly in this paragraph either way, but Armored Core VI expects you to play through its main story at least three times to see everything and have a chance at unlocking each of the game’s achievements/trophies. It’s largely the same game each time, but there’s more. More or different dialogue, characters, enemies, sometimes even entire missions or choices to make that just aren’t available in the first playthrough no matter what you do. Think how Platinum Games set up NieR: Automata and you got the right idea. FromSoft really did a great job with prioritizing replay value, and with the relatively vast customization of ACs, it’s not a hard sell. It’s good, then, that after the credits rolled the first time all I wanted to do was play more and differently, but I imagine there’s people out there who won’t feel motivated to play through it all again - you’re missing out on the best the game has to offer.
If you’re interested though, there’s a lot to do. Your AC can be equipped with four weapons or “units” - one in each of its two hands, and two larger units mounted to the back of it. You’ll have to balance raw firepower with the weight of your overall AC and the energy capacity it’s capable of distributing when selecting units in order to properly sortie. The AC frame itself is made up of a head, core (body), arms, and legs, each with their own weights, energy requirements, and armor points - your AC’s health. You can mix and match anything you want as long as you don’t overburden your legs’ weight limit or tax your AC’s internal generator that provides energy to power it all - you can swap those out too along with boosters for mobility and a firing control system that alters how well your AC’s weapons lock onto targets at various distances.
The combinations feel endless, even if they’re literally not. Do you dedicate your left arm to a lightweight, high-impact laser sword, or sortie with oversized guns akimbo? For your back, do you rock dual missile launchers - of which there’s tons of permutations - or sling an almost comically, impractically huge plasma cannon over a shoulder? Do you go with bipedal legs for a lighter experience, a tetrapod set that enables you to hover in air for a very long time for aerial assaults, or tank treads that offer the highest weight capacity and armor? The choice is yours, and outside of one mission, you’re never expected or forced to take a specific unit or frame part to succeed. It makes you feel like a kid again, playing in a toy box replete with action figures and cool parts to give them before you smash them together in a contest of resiliency.
All of Armored Core VI’s missions are fun and offer a surprising amount of variety and depth. Yes, boiled down, they mostly have the end goal of “go here and destroy this thing”, but the way the missions unfold, take big turns, and send you on capital-E Epic boss fights is something else. They’re challenging too - in true FromSoft fashion, even the first tutorial boss has laid people out for hours, enough to make some negatively review the game and get refunds.
The chapter one boss after that - who you may have heard of - is the game’s first true test, and when everything in the game starts to click, from managing your boost meter for defensive dodging, to ideal timing of weapon volleys to stagger for high damage. Coupled with intense, crescendoing music, it’s not a fight I’ll forget any time soon. Somehow, I managed to beat this boss in two attempts. Others weren’t so lucky. Such is the nature of a FromSoft game.
What really ultimately sold me on Armored Core VI though, besides everything I’ve said above, is just how it handles difficulty. Souls games fans will be accustomed to dying, sure, and while you always return to your last peaceful bonfire or site of grace, in true mission-based action game fashion, you just restart at a checkpoint, fully loaded on ammo and your repair kits replenished to give you a fighting chance. This surely will turn some people off, but the fights will still steamroll you from time to time, giving you opportunities to adjust your approach by switching parts or units mid-mission and attempting from that checkpoint again, and you will have to do that eventually. I was pretty stubborn pushing my tetrapod AC build with preference of swords, rifles, and missiles uphill to the end of the game like Sisyphus’ boulder, but even I had to relent and adjust to keep fights from taking up too much time or becoming overly frustrating. The game gives you opportunities to learn and acclimate - take them. You’re still in for a hell of a fight. In fact, this is one of the hardest, yet satisfying action games I’ve played since Ninja Gaiden Black, and part of that fun and challenge is finding that right combo of weapons and parts to nuke your adversaries.
All of this makes navigating through Rubicon a sheer joy, even if the world is anything but. Although you’re a silent protagonist and don’t even have as much as a human form that’s seen in-game, interacting with the planet’s many personalities gives it life, however cold they may seem. Your Handler, Walter, is an astute and to-the-point man with many secrets. He doles out commands and faint praise alike, beginning almost every mission briefing with “Got a job for you, 621”, eliciting an almost Pavlovian response to get ready to fight again and again, and again. G1 Michigan, the leader of Balam Industries’ jarhead AC squad addresses you with the candor and dark humor of a staff sergeant, even assigning you the callsign “G13” (pronounced “gun-thirteen”) when you’re doing work for them because of the number’s unlucky association. V.IV Rusty (pronounced “vee-four”) is the warmest person you encounter - a top gun in Arquebus Corp’s Vespers AC squad, he addresses you as “buddy” earnestly, lamenting the lack of time between jobs to get to know you, and fighting alongside him makes for some of the most intense and memorable set piece moments of the entire game.
Aside from completing missions for corporations or liberation groups, you can test your mettle (and metal) in a virtual mercenary arena, pitting you against other talented (computer-controlled) AC pilots you encounter throughout the game’s story. Some serve as a way to replay boss fights from the story missions and you get valuable OS chips that you can use to alter your AC’s performance for completing them. There’s also online multiplayer in the form of “Nest” mode which allows you to play 1v1 or 3v3 squad battles with your own custom AC, no loadouts or limitations that I could find - have fun dropping in your AC with planet-busting weaponry to see how you fare. It’s the most straightforward, underbaked aspect of Armored Core VI and it’s still a fun time.
Early on, like the first mission, you steal borrow the pilot license of a fallen AC to legitimize your mercenary work on Rubicon (you were basically smuggled onto the planet by your Handler). It gives you the callsign “Raven” to use, a longstanding story element of Armored Core where the player is referred to as Raven. Thematically, it fits - as you play through the game, again and again in my case, you’re teased, chastised even, by some for the association and you living on “borrowed wings” and others who want to clip them. You’re constantly taunted and underestimated because you have generation four human augmentations, something seen as antiquated, flawed, or even dirty by others who are several generations ahead of you and see themselves as newer, better, more deserving. At a few points within the game, you're implicitly asked, are you a hound or a raven?
As you play, you’re given the chance to fly with those wings, to trounce hundreds of enemies, take down goliath installations and autonomous weapons built for surgical destruction, to see the stars. In a mission, someone you’re fighting tells you, “The raven is a symbol of resolve”, and by the time you reach the true ending of Armored Core VI, there’s nothing more fitting to represent your journey as Rubicon’s most infamous merc. From that plotline to the fast, fluid, ballet-esque fights you engage in, this is a beautiful game, resplendent with brutalist, futuristic chic as much as it is genuinely awe-inspiring scenic views that divide the harsh ultra-technological scourge the planet became.
Armored Core VI is my favorite action game since Bayonetta. Ridiculously competent, empowering, and diamond-hard at times, it’s a complete experience straight from the PS3/Xbox 360 era of games that rode a much more straightforward throughline to fun. No live service bullshit, no excessive bugs, just a compelling experience that you can customize and choose how to tackle, well worth the asking price if you got what it takes to engage with its systems and rules. Goddamn, it’s good, and further adds to From Software’s pedigree of progressive yet polarizing games that others are bound to emulate to various degrees of success for years to come. My only question now is, when’s the expansion coming?
Armored Core VI: Fires of Rubicon is available to purchase and play on Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Playstation 5, Playstation 4, and PC via Steam. It was developed by From Software and published by Bandai Namco Entertainment.