To think that the last Armored Core was almost a decade ago is nothing short of baffling. To think that FromSoftware has published no less than five action RPGs in that time is similarly astonishing. I wouldn’t have blamed them for never looking back, especially given that they’ve established an entire subset of the genre – the Soulslike. But now, FromSoftware is returning to what was arguably its biggest franchise prior; Armored Core. And while there was so much room for messing it up, Armored Core VI: Fires of Rubicon never loses sight of its predecessors while still feeling as modern as ever.
Like the previous games, Armored Core VI: Fires of Rubicon takes place in a world where civilisation has fallen. Humanity has found a cradle in the form of the planet of Rubicon, a new Earth of sorts. You play as a scientifically modified pilot named Raven, joined by their handler Walter and an AI named ALLMIND to help Raven while deployed on missions. Rubicon itself isn’t in a good place – burned by countless corporations pursuing a naturally occurring energy source called Coral. As a pilot and a mercenary, you’re stuck in the middle of the war between these corporations.
Even though several years have passed since the last Armored Core, admittedly, there’s not a whole lot different narratively here. Every game in the series has had some commentary on the effects of late-stage capitalism and both the horrors of war and the abuse of natural resources. Fires of Rubicon is no different. While this story is bound to appeal to some, especially with FromSoftware’s characteristic hands-off approach, it was humdrum for me. This is further exacerbated by the game’s minimalist presentation. Characters speak, but you never see them, and there’s not much visual stimuli. I recognise that’s how Armored Core was years ago, but today, Fires of Rubicon feels dry in this department because of it.
It’s a great relief that everything else has been fantastically put together. Equally surprising and delightful, Fires of Rubicon plays just like Armored Core games have played in the past. Rather than try to shoe-horn modern open-world design sensibilities into the game, Fires of Rubicon presents itself as a list of missions to embark on. Some will take players minutes to complete, while others might take hours. But a good variety of missions here are always fun to work through. Of course, while Fires of Rubicon is a challenging experience, some modern tweaks are made to the formula to make it a whole lot better without betraying the spirit of its predecessors.
What took me aback initially was just how playable Fires of Rubicon is. It’s without a doubt one of the smoothest controlling games that I’ve played by the team at FromSoftware. It was initially a bit hard to get my head around controlling the four different weapon types and mobility options I had to juggle simultaneously. But once I did, I felt nothing short of godlike. Armored Core was previously known for how inaccessible and clunky it was, having players form a strange grip around their controller to play proficiently. But Fires of Rubicon is none of that – it’s just as deep and more playable without sacrificing depth of experience.
At the start of each mission, you’ll be able to customise your mech (or Core) for the battle ahead. Owing to series tradition, the customisation options are extensive, but your choices aren’t without consequence. Each part of your mech can be customised, and up to four weapons can be attached as long as they fit within the limit of the mech you’re working with. Making the wrong choice isn’t a big deal either – you can adjust the structure of your mech following death to change up your approach.
This is how Fires of Rubicon differentiates itself from the developer’s other games. For one, you’re never encouraged to stick with a single build. In fact, so many parts often have differing attributes that no individual part’ll ever fit every situation. Similarly, buying a part and selling it back has the same cost, so there’s no tangible penalty for experimenting. It’s a friendly system, and, honestly, its flexibility gives a great opportunity to overcome adversity with adjustments to your setup.
While Fires of Rubicon is difficult – perhaps even the most difficult FromSoftware game I’ve played – some nice adjustments to the game’s design make it a tad more forgiving. All missions incur an expense, and, as a mercenary, you’re expected to cover this expense by taking them out of your earnings. The better you do in each mission means that you’ll receive a better payout, meaning that you’ll be able to buy better grades of equipment in the future.
Where previous Armored Core games penalised you excessively, sometimes even sending you into debt, Fires of Rubicon feels a lot more forgiving in this area. For one, you don’t lose money or fail. Additionally, if you die at a checkpoint, you are brought back with all your heals intact, which is a simple but forgiving design choice. It’s an especially welcome decision, given the intensity and breadth of the boss battles that you’ll encounter.
The marquee standout in Fires of Rubicon is easily its boss battles. There are a wide variety of enemies that you’ll have to deal with, but the boss encounters are some of the most adrenaline-fraught confrontations I’ve had in games. These bosses will test your mettle, and while I never found myself stuck on a boss for as long as I was with (pre-patch) Malenia, some of these encounters really had me questioning my life choices. But, as Fires of Rubicon encourages, the better life choice is to go back to your mech’s build and loadout and adjust to achieve your goals much more comfortably.
Besides the main missions, Fires of Rubicon also offers a separate Arena mode. In it, you’re pitted against other AI-controlled cores in intense battles. They’re fun diversions and enjoyable to engage with because they offer numerous rewards. Every battle completed unlocks that mech’s preset for you to build, allowing you to automatically do so if you have the parts on hand. You’ll also unlock upgrades for your mech’s operating system, granting damage boosts. It’s a great wealth of side content that offers a nice stopgap for those who don’t want to engage with customisation as much. It’s also great to fight a powerful foe, take them down, and then literally become them too.
Certain missions also present you with choices that can be made to alter the course the story takes. While I wasn’t quite resilient enough to play the game multiple times to do so, there are multiple endings. I alluded the relatively dry narrative earlier, so whether it’s worth replaying to see how things pan out differently will be a personal choice. But it’s still a neat touch that, once again, retains the spirit of the original games.
Irrespective of how I feel about the plot, Fires of Rubicon represents the most time I’ve spent with an Armored Core game. I can’t quite quantify whether it’s bigger than previous games in terms of sheer content, but a fresh run will easily take over twenty hours to finish. To top that off, there’s also an online-enabled PvP mode called NEST, though it’s hard to comment on how well that’s working given the pre-release nature of the game.
Of course, difficulty factors into how long I spent with Fires of Rubicon. Sometimes I spent hours on a single boss, knowing what I had to do but still somehow fumbling with my controller or getting too greedy with my hits. It feels like From’s other games in that way. But there’s no getting around it – Fires of Rubicon is brutal. There are no difficulty or accessibility options to assist you through it. As someone who is naturally proficient at these kinds of games, it wasn’t an issue for me, but it will absolutely be one for a specific subset of players.
In terms of presentation, Fires of Rubicon absolutely delivers. While the colour palette is probably one of the bleakest I’ve seen in games recently, it effectively illustrates the dilapidated and overused world of Rubicon. The game looks its best when you’re skating around an arena, shooting off a volley of lasers, missiles or both while simultaneously boosting out of enemy fire. Battles run incredibly fluid, with only some minor slowdown when there’s too much going on at once. I’d perhaps have liked some more colour in the art direction, but overall it’s still a nice-looking game that nails the staunch brutalist vibe the team is going for.
Armored Core VI: Fires of Rubicon manages to succesfully bring back and cultivate an experience reminiscent of the old games for newer audiences without losing sight of what made the previous games so good. While it's still relentlessly challenging and the story can be a bit drab, Fires of Rubicon is yet another success for FromSoftware with it's satisfying and fast paced combat.