If all Armored Core VI: Fires of Rubicon did was come out, that probably would have been enough for a lot of people. It’s been a decade with nothing. 10 years. Nada. For most of it not even a word. Sure, there wasn’t a drought of From Software content in that time—Dark Souls II, Bloodborne, Sekiro, Elden Ring. They were certainly busy making games. Good ones. Some incredible, even. But for the faithful Ravens who survived the Great Destruction and fought on through the National Dismantlement to become veterans of the Verdict War, it was a dire time.
E3s came, and went, and then really went. There were Showcases, Directs, and Keighleys. And still nothing. We sat on a dead rock, in dead metal, waiting for reactivation as From Software and Hidetaka Miyazaki became household names. Critics and journalists wrote articles about “From Software’s legacy you don’t know about.” They didn’t talk about Frame Gride or Eternal Ring, it was Armored Core. A franchise with 15 entries between 1997 and 2013. They wrote about it like a faded legend. Some allowed themselves hope, others thought maybe Daemon X Machina would save us. Others Revisited Dingo Egret in Zone of the Enders 2. We took up Battletech and successive MechWarriors to no avail. In our longing we tweeted through it with banger after banger from previous Armored Core soundtracks. We thought maybe the next Souls game would be a “MechSouls.” We thought it so hard, we started to actually want it. It got so bad we half-joked about things like, “Dark Souls II is a mech game.” We joked about it so often, we even started to half-believe it. “Maybe we’re just Ace Combat people now,” we wondered, jealousy seeping out, as our equally long-suffering jet fighter compatriots finally got their 7th real installment. Could we ever be so fortunate? Could our lost 6th mainline game be that good, too?
And then, at long last, the transmission we were waiting for so desperately arrived. A trailer that brought with it a world on fire, crunchy mechs built for speed despite their mass, colossal weapons platforms hovering on tank treads in ash-choked ruins, collision, explosion, the superfluous details of far-too many moving parts. After 10 years, the mech life was calling us home with the siren song of a new Kota Hoshino soundtrack.
Together with Takashi Onodera and Shoi Miyazawa, Hoshino takes radial saws at oblique angles on steel plate, concrete explodes, pneumatics whine and wail, rebar crunches and splinters. The keening of synthetic life howls with fury, agony, and loss. Holding it all together is a militant collision of drumming. But for every track that evokes a harrowing emotional landscape of a dead planet once scorched by supernal fire, abandoned, and now re-raided by the corporations that made it bleed the first time, there are epic techno bangers. When I first heard the standard boss theme “Unbreakable” I remarked to a friend, “this track makes me want to put all manner of substances in my body at a bombed-out nightclub at the end of the world run by Bai Ling and Michael Wincott.” There are a lot of songs like that on this soundtrack. It all weaves around sound design fully invested in maintaining pressure, texture, and movement. Whether the space is the emptiness of desolation or cramped claustrophobia, terror and exhilaration layer like pancaked skyscrapers of ambiance and explosives.
I bring up sound first and foremost, because the fantasy of being a mech pilot is inextricable from anime bullshit. Armored Core is a game about feeling and looking cool as hell while playing it. And cool can’t exist without a killer soundtrack. Even with the early rudimentary mechs you can put together with minimal weapon decisions, Armored Core VI wastes no time in establishing just how good it feels to pilot a fast-moving mech with four discrete weapon mounts, whether it’s slashing through a half-dozen Muscle Tracers (labor mechs adapted for combat) to boost-jumping high over a squad of more conventional helicopter units only to turn around, establish missile lock, and squeeze both left and right bumpers to unload a full missile payload. Few things are so satisfying as hearing the staggered swooshing of your very own Itano Circus and watching every single warhead collide with its target in a fury of fire. And, then there’s dueling another AC.
When I first watched Robotech (and eventually Super Dimensional Fortress Macross, the original show it’s bastardized from) there’s a scene where two rival ace pilots go head to head in an arcade game simulating the very mechs they piloted for real. A red and blue Valkyrie face off. Soaring above one another, transforming, dancing through missile barrages and bursts of gunfire, transforming again. Swoop and pirouette and change, each pilot giving up nothing to the other, until finally, the blue haired enthusiastic nerd gets a lock and obliterates the green haired alien hottie’s mech. This is the rival she’s been hunting.
Despite the fact that much of the footage of the game is deliberately mirroring actual combat sequences from Macross, it was this representation within a representation that stuck with me for years. Metal Storm on the NES was a terrific side-scrolling shooter, but it wasn’t the mech game I needed. It wasn’t two pilots facing off in single digital combat in a three-dimensional bubble at breakneck speeds slicing through terrain like Michelle Kwan’s bladed feet to narrowly dodge lasers, machine guns, and missiles and missiles and even more missiles. There are many mech videogame fantasies, but this is the one I put all my faith in. And, to some degree, From Software apparently agrees with me because the Armored Core franchise has been chasing a perfected dogfighting model of mech game for five generations now.
Each version has expanded on and experimented with the form, in ways that have gotten close. But I think, finally, with Fires of Rubicon, they’ve achieved it. It’s the first From Software game where I’ve found myself repeatedly thinking I could get truly invested in PVP, and also, that I would absolutely buy expanded arena and boss fight DLCs.
The missions are great, varied, narrative, tense and requiring real skill and mechanical competence. But two ACs dogfighting feels incredible—this is the core of Armored Core, and there honestly could be more of it. Way more of it. Even with the multiple playthroughs, and a wealth of bosses and side content, this is a streamlined game.
People will tell you that Armored Core VI is 12 to 15 hours for a first playthrough, and I’m sure they’re right. Mine took closer to 30. Before I was finally done I had spent days and nights tooling away in my mech bay. I created variant after variant. Light and fast conventional weapon stunlock machines, bruiser tank-men with beam cannons shaped and shaded like the SDF-1. I tried to make Thexder at one point. An Homage to Scopedog. Jehuty. The inclusion of Shoji Kawamori and Kazutaka Miyatake as mechanical designers shines through in many of the parts unlocked through play. And there are so many weapons to create killing machines as elegant and baroque or brutish as you desire or need at the time. The fantasy provided by a mech game is incomplete without spreadsheets and planning each mission accordingly. Armored Core VI isn’t about perfecting a build, it’s about understanding that the Core is the persistence of identity, everything else can and should be swapped to suit the needs of the job. A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of mech pilots who don’t make it home. Make new mechs, save variants you love, and try everything.
For every hour spent slamming up against this game’s missions and bosses, I spent two and a half just assembling new ACs. Not because I had to, but because in the summer of 1993, I walked into a hobby store in Richmond, Va. and bought a copy of Mike Pondsmith’s Mekton II. Mariah Carey had just dropped “Dreamlover,” the first single from her forthcoming Music Box album, gently setting aside Janet Jackson’s “That’s the Way Love Goes” after a long springtime reign. I laid across my bed listening to it on the radio internalizing Pondsmith’s rules for building giant robots with things like Nova Beam Sabers, fangs, and literally a tape deck. In Mekton II it costs .1 Construction Points to include a tape deck in your mech. It’s described as “Useful for going into battle with the proper theme music. The tape deck can also be linked to the P.A. External Address system of the vehicle to allow you to let the world know you’re loud and proud.” It takes no spaces. This was Pondsmith’s way of communicating mechanically that you should always take the tape deck and use it as a means of expression for your pilot. I filled legal pads, sketchbooks, and Mead 5-Star 5 Subject Notebooks that were supposed to be for homework with mechs of my own design. Eventually, I even got around to playing Mekton II with friends. Most of the time we stayed up until 3 a.m. eating room-temperature Pizza Hut and making mechs we’d never actually play with.
Building your own war machine can be a liberatory experience.
At 10 you don’t really think about the politics of giant robots even if Mike Pondsmith and Yoshiyuki Tomino want you to—the best you’ll get out of most anime is War is Bad and slickly produced pop bangers and effortless ballads will occlude the horrors of the giant metal death machines just outside the window. But someone builds mechs, someone else deploys mechs, someones are responsible for an entire system of funding, procuring, and the creation of demand for more mechs. What purpose is there for a giant ambulatory weapons platform if not suffering and extraction?
This is what you know at the beginning of Armored Core VI. In a galaxy far far away there was a resource called Coral. A beautiful and vibrant crimson substance. It expanded humanity’s technological capabilities by leaps and bounds, it became the most crucial substance in known space. And it existed on only one planet—Rubicon 3. Galactic Society was set to flourish. It’s important for the narrative that this goes badly for everyone involved.
Rubicon and its solar system are consumed in a massive extra-planetary burn event known as The Fires of Ibis. Coral, that miracle MacGuffin/fossil-fuel-metaphor substance, is unimaginably combustible. The system was lost for half a century. But then, because it’s important for the narrative that it happens, the stirrings of Coral are discovered just below the surface. And corporations can’t let a resource go untapped.
Most of what happens in Armored Core happens because something needs to. This is not a complex story, the themes are direct and unadorned. There are bits and pieces, information is withheld, endings leave room for speculation. But this is not a game for deep epistemological work. Etymology is explanatory, but not revelatory here. Rubicon has meaning in that From Software has at least done cursory reading of Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars. One of the first real challenges you’ll face is an unhinged, violent AC pilot named Sulla. Does this have any deep hidden meaning? No, not really. You can google it and learn all about Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix if you want. But it won’t truly deepen your understanding of Armored Core VI like every other piece of media, there is no “unlocking” done by understanding the origins of every term. Mostly things are named what they are because it suits a general theme, things need names, and some names just sound more badass than others. Rubicon, for instance, has plenty of historical significance, but mostly people invoke the word “Rubicon” (a truly uneventful river named because of the iron saturation of the riverbed) when they want to either let you know they think they’re being hard as a motherfucker, or they want to call upon the YOLO or Live Más mentality. You know what also sounds pretty hard? “Let us go where the omens of the Gods and the iniquity of our enemies call us. The die is now cast.” That last sentence is actually the translation for the third ending achievement. There. Saved you a trip to Fextralife.
It’s not like Armored Core VI is lacking in gods, omens, enemies, and inequities. This game is all too happy to give you lists of corporations—BAWS, Balam, Arquebus, Dafeng, and so on, to work with and against. There are factions in this game, they have agents and agendas, but none of that really matters. These aren’t demigods or lords-turned-kindling. There’s no secrets here. Corporations are bad. Capitalism is bad. The only pure relationship is the friends who ride beside you, and eventually, you’ll ride against them someday, and that sucks. Capitalism is bad like that. Corporations put pressure on freelancers and employees, they pit worker against worker. That’s how they maintain control. It’s why everyone decided to brutalize that poor Dafeng Student Driver for MechDollars.
Before I realized I never actually needed to buy anything more than two builds at a time, I ran up on that Dafeng Trainee over and over for the COAM. He’s born to die. He dies. And he dies. It’s both entirely possible that each time I replay it, it’s a new trainee, or that for some reason, this kid keeps being brought back from sub-clinical death and thrown back into a new tester AC, a corporate crash test dummy, his “healthcare” deducted from his wages. This replay might actually be a virtual mission that ALLMIND (the AI mercenary network and manufacturer front-end) is running for me, keeping that Dafeng student driver forever uploaded as a corporate flunky to be executed. I mention this theory to my friend and mech connoisseur LowPolyRobot on Twitter and they replied, “Denim and Gene getting constantly killed by Amuro because someone is rewatching episode 1 of Gundam.” Okay, so there’s not really much depth to this game’s narrative, but you can still have fun with it.
In the weeks since receiving my code, I watch a half dozen AMVs made with Armored Core footage a day. I’ve seen anthropoid torsos atop interlocked tank treads in a slap fight like the opening of New Order’s “True Faith” video. There’s been re-purposed Signalis fan art that became 621 and Ayre fan art. I’ve seen Walter and Sulla yaoi. I’ve seen hot young Carla and hot octogenarian Carla. I’ve seen V.IV Rusty looking severely cool and smoking atop his AC named STEEL HAZE. I watched friends and strangers go from never having touched a mech game to having strong opinions about quad legs and commitment ceremonies celebrating their love of the Pile Bunker. And through it all I’ve favorited screenshot after screenshot of AC builds. Armored Core VI made mech people out of ones who never thought they could, the way Elden Ring brought even more people into the Souls family. This is the mech life. And so many people are finally embracing the totality of it.
When I think back on my time with Armored Core VI, I can’t help but think about my fondness for the voices over the radio. The way Rusty was so cool when he showed up to help bail my ass out. Or the progression of Carla calling me a tourist. Then all the arguments and shared triumphs with real world friends over which bosses were too hard and which weapons were too cheesy. The way we share this game with one another. From Software manages to make connections in small, delicate internal ways, and also big messy explosive ones that I don’t think they can possibly plan for. Regardless, there’s a genuine humanity embedded in this game beneath all the ripshit mech action that does bind this game up tightly in the end. Such that when I finally was ready to put my controller down, to let my Raven rest, I was reminded so strongly of this final stanza from one of Ella Standage’s translations of Catullus 51:
“and I remember. I would rather see you again
than all the emergency luminescence of
a major spacefaring nation, burning through the
future like jet fuel.”
Armored Core VI: Fires of Rubicon was developed by FromSoftware and published by Bandai Namco. Our review is based on the PlayStation 5 version. It is also available for PC, Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.
Dia Lacina is a queer indigenous writer and photographer. She tweets too much at @dialacina.