[Game: Armored Core VI: Fires of Rubicon, FromSoftware, 2023]
Crossing the Rubicon:

A Thorough Critique Detailing the Mechanical Flaws of FromSoft’s Armored Core VI



I’ve spent a lot of time over the past couple years running a fine-tooth comb through FromSoft’s recent works, with articles on Sekiro and Elden Ring which highlight an array of small issues and minor annoyances that crop up in those overwhelmingly great games. That’s not really what I’m doing here. The issues I’ll be discussing in this article feature in nearly every level or mission through the entirety of Armored Core VI, and detract from the game as a whole.

Don’t get me wrong: it is still a good game. I like both halves of its primary gameplay, the mech customization and the mech combat. But even those aspects of the game are far from perfect, and the issues don’t end there. For reference, at the time of writing this article, I have played Armored Core VI: Fires of Rubicon through three times (including two new game + cycles) in order to access every mission, every arena fight, and every ending, and have spent multiple entire chapters playing as each of the four principal mech archetypes in the game.

I’ll be avoiding story spoilers in this article, but will be showing screenshots of gameplay from throughout the campaign. So, let’s sortie . . .

Armored Core VI Fires of Rubicon screenshot with first mission cutscene - FromSoftware, mechanics, critique

The Equipment Balancing of Armored Core VI:

Armored Core VI is marketed and broadly construed as a game that is very heavy on mech customization, with the understanding that the various types of mechs one can build have tradeoffs which make them better suited for some situations than others.

A light, agile mech may excel at dodging and striking targets of any speed with close-range attacks, but struggle against enemies with a lot of health or excellent weapon tracking. A heavy, slow mech might be tankier and capable of wielding more raw firepower, but struggle against enemies with a lot of speed or large attack animations. That’s the idea.

That’s not the reality here, though. The reality is that, in this particular game, small agile mechs have a balanced set of pros and cons, but big heavy mechs are good at everything—to the extent that building an AC that supports heavy weaponry utterly trivializes every encounter in the game. Energy and weight limits are so generous, ammo costs so irrelevant, and even the lowest boost and jump speeds so high that larger heavier machines have almost no actual drawbacks. Certainly they have no drawbacks significant enough to outweigh the insane weaponry and health pools they can haul around. Not to mention the fact that heavier leg parts, such as tetrapod and tread legs, have reduced or removed recoil with heavy weaponry.

From the moment in my first playthrough when I added a second pair of legs to my robot suit, the game became a cakewalk. Nothing could handle the onslaught of explosives I was carrying around with me, and the four legs had the added bonus of being able to hover for long periods of time above grounded enemies (a tactic which many enemies and bosses couldn’t address at all).

Armored Core VI Fires of Rubicon screenshot with mech hovering out of range of boss - FromSoftware, mechanics, critique

In other words, all mech types are great at most things if piloted well, but some mech types are great at everything. And as a result, outside of going for S ranks when replaying missions (which benefits greatly from raw speed), the game otherwise doesn’t do a good job of pressuring the player to reconfigure their build, which I’m told is something older Armored Core games excel at.

But one of my strongest builds was a biped; tetrapod and tread legs are merely catalysts of the balance issue under study here, because they make it so easy to equip so much high-impact weaponry. If such weapons are carefully chosen and paired with bipedal or reverse joint legs, then those builds can be just as overpowered.

This is because the weapon balance is lopsided in tandem with the frame balance. Rather than offering meaningful tradeoffs, many methods of attacking are simply worse than others. Against bosses and enemy ACs, energy weapons are frequently outclassed by similar options of other types. And artillery and standard guns are just slower ways of getting the same results that rockets and gatling guns provide. Combine those facts with the impact system and—with the exception of a couple shotguns—it’s heavy machine guns, rocket launchers, and melee weapons that rule the day. They devastate opponents, while other choices merely pester.

The devs have been making minor adjustments to balance in patches, but no small measure is likely to address the root cause of these issues: that damage and impact go hand-in-hand. The set of weapons that deal the most damage per second and the set of weapons that deal the most system strain per second overlap almost completely, so the importance of building system strain to the combat as a whole means that such weapons will always be the best. Presumably the devs thought all of this would be adequately balanced by energy and weight concerns, but I’ve already told you that’s not the case.

Maybe some folks would say that so many builds being so overpowered is not a problem because the game is just meant to be a power fantasy. And I guess that’s possible. But I have a hard time reconciling that with its presentation as a brutal dystopian mercenary sim. I don’t think I was actually supposed to win two out of the three S-rank arena fights, including the top rank fight, on my first attempt in my first playthrough with no editing of my build. And in all of the arena fights exclusive to New Game + cycles, I never lost once.

Armored Core VI Fires of Rubicon screenshot with heavy biped mech wielding ridiculous weapons - FromSoftware, mechanics, critique

On the other hand, some may object that the option is available to artificially restrict oneself to weaker parts in order to raise the challenge. But those people need to remember that mech optimization is a major selling point of the game. We’re talking about half of its four primary build archetypes making its missions trivial. Cutting out all of the relevant frame parts and some of the relevant weapons would mean cutting the content of the mech construction gameplay almost in half. And it’s not as though this stuff has to be sought out. Sufficient parts to put together an almost-game-breaking unit are either given to you or made available in the shop by the middle of the first chapter. Good luck telling most new players to just not use the stuff under those circumstances.

The Enemies of Armored Core VI:

Armored Core VI has some great boss encounters. In addition to offering fun challenges, they have pretty good variety, in terms of having distinct designs and unique fighting styles or contexts. The only negative thing I’ll say about them is that the game does that obnoxious thing where each fight has a dialogue script that repeats with no variation in every attempt. There are only two bosses in the game that took me more than a few tries, and even then only in my first playthrough—and yet the dialogue for each of those two still got on my nerves.

But the bosses aren’t the main topic of this section. In fact, the boss battles and enemy AC fights are by far the best parts of the game. The big folks you find at the end of most missions are not a problem; the small folks you meet along the way are the ones that disappoint.

Most regular enemies in the missions just hold perfectly still and wait to die. Even many enemies that clearly have legs just stand in place and fire at you like morons. Others will slowly walk in a straight line, or jump a little. The smartest among them will quick boost sideways when first shot at, and then hold perfectly still. It feels like the code governing their behavior could fit on a cocktail napkin. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, their weapons all do laughably little damage.

Armored Core VI Fires of Rubicon screenshot with regular enemies that walk slowly in a straight line - FromSoftware, mechanics, critique

The standard enemies’ near-total inability to dodge or even really fight means that as soon as you have hand weapons that can one-shot them (which happens in chapter one), most of the occupants of the levels cease to offer any engagement at all. You might think the interactions offered by regular enemies start out like that, but significantly ramp up in complexity across the campaign. You’d be wrong. With only a couple exceptions, regular enemies in the last missions of the game exhibit the same behaviors as in the first (though sometimes with slightly more health).

This issue is especially confounding in light of the zealous checkpoint system included in Armored Core VI, which kicks in before every mission segment and replenishes all resources when used, as it makes damage taken in early segments basically irrelevant to ultimate mission completion. So, when you combine the mindless design of the enemies with the checkpoints, it just makes the opening parts of most missions feel like busywork that has to be perfunctorily waded through to reach the actual content waiting at the end.

This asymmetrical challenge design (where all of the actual engaging gameplay of a mission is usually found right at its conclusion) is even worse for the small group of missions that have nothing for you to do but fire at regular enemies and other stationary targets, as they’re left feeling incomplete on top of being tedious.

The Levels of Armored Core VI:

Armored Core VI has pretty good mission diversity, in terms of what you’re tasked to do changing a reasonable amount for a game where nearly all of the objectives ultimately amount to making something explode. They didn’t need to withhold quite so many missions, arena fights, and story threads until a second or even third playthrough—given that the higher difficulty of those missions and fights already discourages new players from completing them first—but the main problems I want to highlight in this section are not about the missions or their objectives; they’re about where they take place.

Armored Core VI Fires of Rubicon screenshot with mech boosting toward generic metal structure - FromSoftware, mechanics, critique

The majority of the missions are set in minimally differentiated, muted white-and-grey industrial zones. It’s a bland choice, and the layouts generally don’t do much to mitigate this blandness. Memorable architecture and memorable geography are both rare. Not absent, but rare. And the environmental storytelling for which the studio’s past decade of output is so acclaimed is almost nonexistent here as well. Thank goodness FromSoft decided to have Rubicon’s coral resource be bright red, or else the most exciting change of scenery we would’ve gotten would be grey caves and tan deserts.

The biggest disappointment in this regard comes in the latter half of the game, when we reach an area built by a completely different group of people than those that built what we’ve seen so far. And what is this strange land like? It’s a grey city. Massive missed opportunity right there.

Moreover, considering how few missions there are overall, and how infrequently the levels feature entirely new groups of assets, it was surprising to me that a noticeable chunk of the missions still reuse earlier areas.

Worse still is the fact that the few landscapes you’re offered are heavily locked down into linear corridors by invisible walls. Tightly arranged invisible walls surround every mission, and every mission segment, and every boss arena. There’s a disgusting abundance of them, and no effort has been made whatsoever to not plunk down mission objectives and ACs for you to fight right next to these silly barricades. Since you don’t know where such walls are until you’re about to bump into them, and the fighting in the game is frantic and fast-paced, there will certainly be times when you collide with them at an inopportune moment and get hit or miss a shot. And your opponents clearly aren’t programmed to handle them either, as the same happens to them.

Armored Core VI Fires of Rubicon screenshot with mech fighting while back is against invisible wall - FromSoftware, mechanics, critique

I’m at a loss to understand why they’re so insanely overused here. What is the negative consequence of letting the player wander off or fly high into the air? It’s not as though I’m going to get lost; I have a compass that points unerringly toward objective markers and enemies, and a little hovering arrow pointing toward the objective as well. Hell, the sharp falloff in accuracy for most weapons at long range already enforces proximity to combatants. And my mech can fly. You don’t need to put overbearing guardrails around every arena. Let me slide off. Rest assured: I will fly back as soon as I am able.

And if there are places the developers really didn’t want me to go—because, say, they would provide a means to cheese certain boss encounters, or get completely out-of-bounds—then the levels should’ve been designed to reflect that; pits and cliffs and overhangs and ceilings and doors and bodies of water and sheets of thick glass or ice and, you know, actual walls are available. Just slapping big flat planes through the air around every little snippet of gameplay is the kind of lazy, illogical parental oversight from a dev team that is the antithesis of the trusting, high-effort, art-first design philosophy that caused me to love FromSoftware in the first place.

And that reminds me: it’s hard to imagine that Rubicon 3 came from the same studio that gave us the stunning geographical consistency of Lothric, Lordran, and the Lands Between, because the way the world in Armored Core VI is accessed makes no sense at all. The entirety of chapter two is dedicated to the effort to cross an ocean to an ice field. The launch is built up across several missions, directly follows a dramatic boss encounter, and gets a dedicated cutscene with narration about how dangerous and unusual it is. Yet one mission after that cutscene concludes, we are immediately given a mission back on our original side of the ocean . . . which we just drop into like nothing has changed.

And it’s not like this is hard to notice. It’s literally a mission where you return to the site of the much-discussed Operation Wallclimber from chapter one. In fact, popping from continent to continent between missions is routine from chapter three onward, as though FromSoft’s writing team and FromSoft’s design team rarely spoke to each other while working on the game. That would also account for why the narration sometimes tells you to search around for a path forward at the same time that the game puts an objective marker on your screen. But really, I don’t see what other excuse they can offer for there being an entire chapter (of a game with just five chapters) dedicated to something that is so instantly and so definitively invalidated by the level order.

Armored Core VI Fires of Rubicon screenshot with mech cargo launching into horizon - FromSoftware, mechanics, critique

The Sluggish Sortie of Armored Core VI:

After you’ve finished all of your fun, methodical tinkering in the garage, and after you’ve selected a mission and pressed the ‘sortie’ button, are you then launched into the action? No, you are not. You must first wait a while, as the game exhausts its ritual of fanfare that a mission is beginning.

Every transition from garage to mission is broken up by (1) a phony system loading screen; (2) a slowly delivered mission briefing cutscene; (3) an additional menu display where you have to confirm that you want to start the mission; (4) an animation of a large metal apparatus moving your mech around, often while Walter or Ayre comments on the briefing; (5) a real loading screen; (6) sometimes a simple cutscene showing your mech being launched or dropped into the mission as Walter or Ayre offer further commentary; and (7) a short pause where the mech can’t move while an animation of the HUD plays. Transitioning back into the garage after a mission’s end is not much better, and is in a way worse because the Metal Gear Solid-esque phone calls, conversations, and messages that follow a mission are unskippable (even in New Game +) and are also accompanied by a slow and completely useless ‘notification’ display.

The solutions here are obvious: the briefings and ‘codec calls’ should be tightened up and played concurrently with loading the missions or garage; the notification display, second menu confirmation, and fake loading screen should be removed; the mech should be able to move as soon as the level loads, during the HUD animation; banal Allmind announcements about recent trainings or arena fights and any messages that aren’t directly plot-relevant should just play in the background after loading the garage menu; animations and cutscenes of the mech being moved around the garage or dropped into a mission should only ever play before the first mission of each play session; and the approach segments of the levels at the start of the missions should’ve been slightly lengthened to allow Walter and Ayre to provide all of their commentary on the briefing while the player dashes in.

This is a huge density of unforced errors for a development team that finally achieved breakout success by releasing games that, among many other virtues, respect their players enough to get the hell out of the way of them playing the game. It’s not that FromSoft isn’t learning from their mistakes; they’re not even learning from their successes.

Armored Core VI Fires of Rubicon screenshot with mech being moved by metal arms - FromSoftware, mechanics, critique

Their remarkable implementation of prefetching back in 2011 made it possible to walk from one end of Lordran to the other without encountering a single loading screen, and yet now apparently they can’t manage loading a level and playing a briefing cutscene at the same time. While I’m confident it’s not the first to do it, Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a mission-based game that was doing exactly that with its briefings back in 2012. Instead we’ve teleported in time back to the release of Demon’s Souls in 2009, which was the last time a FromSoft game required a long segment of downtime between selecting a level and actually entering it, or ending a level and getting back to the hub. And that was for actual loading of level assets, so the situation in the new title is far more worthy of criticism.

The HUD and UI of Armored Core VI:

What I like about the design of the game’s Heads-Up Display (HUD) is the amount of information it squeezes around the large circular aiming zone in its center (especially the compact centered displays of enemy health and enemy ACS strain). What I dislike about the game’s HUD is practically everything else. The HUD of Armored Core VI occupies a strange middleground where it falls just short of providing all of the information one might possibly desire at a glance, and yet still clutters the screen with redundant or unnecessary information.

If it were to be minimalist enough to avoid cluttering the screen unnecessarily: it wouldn’t include a useless altimeter and speedometer flanking each side of the screen; wouldn’t display a braindead objective description at the top left at all times; wouldn’t use a big rectangle to display remaining expansion charges; wouldn’t bother having a bar to tell you when you can scan again; wouldn’t tell you when boost is on since you can plainly see that on the mech; wouldn’t display enemy health and strain in two separate locations; and wouldn’t have two separate sections for ammunition and cooldown info.

Alternatively (since this seems closer to its intention), if it were to be maximalist enough to be thoroughly informative: it wouldn’t have the only source of cooldown status be tied to the reticle so that it flails all over the screen when facing fast enemies; would have some symbolic or explicit labels next to each of the magazine displays that surround the reticle to indicate which is which without testing; would have symbols next to the total ammo counts to indicate the relevant weapon type; would have some way of indicating when you’re in close, mid, or long range of a target other than memorizing the categories and reading the little distance number; and wouldn’t use the exact same color for the bars denoting AC health, enemy health, ammunition, and energy.

Armored Core VI Fires of Rubicon screenshot with full HUD active during boss fight - FromSoftware, mechanics, critique

The level of control over the HUD granted to the player, by the way, is the thinnest it has been in a decade and a half of FromSoft games. It actually can’t be any thinner than it is here—because there are no HUD options at all . . . unless you’re willing to count the option to disable subtitles.

Moving on to other aspects of UI, though, while the decision not to display the entire stat screen for every part by default was a smart one (as the full breakdown would be beyond overwhelming for most new players), the decision to display exactly three specs other than energy and weight for every component type was a dumb one (as some have more than three that really matter). There are certain important values—like the effective range of the weapons and the ideal weight for the boosters—that should never have been hidden away.

Meanwhile, while that’s a case of something being overly streamlined, the opposite is also present: there’s absolutely no reason that buying, selling, and equipping had to be accessed through three separate menu branches.

And finally, Armored Core VI’s primary method of tutorial is, like Sekiro, pausing the game to display big chunks of text (again with no options for experienced players to disable them). Games have so many tools available to them to teach players with gameplay. Developers of games of widely varying complexity, from Portal to XCOM to Infinifactory, have found elegant ways to teach their systems with minimal friction. Sekiro could and should have taught all of its fighting mechanics through characters like Hanbei, and Armored Core VI could and should have taught everything other than its control mapping across a series of carefully composed early-game missions. The real beauty of something like that is it’s not an impediment for veterans, who can just breeze through those missions as though they’re ordinary levels (because that’s exactly what they would be).

Armored Core VI Fires of Rubicon screenshot with tutorial text - FromSoftware, mechanics, critique

Instead we’re taught by PowerPoint; the game’s training missions are a series of featureless hallways broken up by text slides. Now, Armored Core VI gets a point from me for having its training missions be optional, but then has that point deducted for arbitrarily gating the training missions by campaign progress, not making them available before the first mission, and having the training missions themselves be such dry, text-heavy affairs that they feel more like study than play. But I’m straying a bit from the topic of this section now, so I’ll just move on.

The Mysterious Grading of Armored Core VI:

After completing a mission, it can be replayed (as, I suppose, a simulation or something) in order to earn additional money, find logs and weapon caches you missed, and attempt to earn an S rank. This quick section is just about that last part.

Now, here is what the game tells you is required to earn an S rank: keep your time, ammo expenditure, and damage taken as low as possible, and never use a checkpoint. Not using a checkpoint is clear enough, but what’s going on with those others? How fast is fast enough for each mission? How low do you need ammo expenditure to be? How many hits can you take? Is it a percentage of your health? Does using health kits affect it? The game provides no direct info; you have to intuit this stuff from playing and replaying the missions.

Why on earth are we still having to guess at which of the listed factors are most important for high ranks in games like this? They could so easily provide the times and other benchmarks that have to be hit for an S. Even indie releases from 10 years ago, like Dustforce, Kingdom Rush, and Super Meat Boy, have found ways to provide unambiguous criteria for max-rank performance.

The requirements for an S rank actually seem to vary from mission to mission without bothering to inform the player. Even though there’s no mention of kill count in the tips for max rank, certain levels will grade you low for dashing past all of the enemies. There’s just no reason whatsoever that the grading system needed to be an opaque, trial-and-error affair.

Armored Core VI Fires of Rubicon screenshot with tank mech potentially putting in S rank performance - FromSoftware, mechanics, critique

But with all that being said, there’s no actual reward within the game for getting all of the S ranks, so—even though it’s annoying—at least it’s the only thing I’m covering in this article that’s an optional annoyance.


Given that you may find the tone of this article and the tone of the articles I published about Sekiro and Elden Ring somewhat similar, I’d like to provide a quick clarification of how my feelings toward Sekiro and Elden Ring compare to my feelings toward Armored Core VI.

I quietly maintain for myself a list ranking what I consider to be the 100 best games I’ve played. It started as part of an article idea that I ultimately decided against writing. But now I like having the list for my own reference, so I tend to check on it a few times a year to decide if it should be adjusted or if anything I’ve played recently should be added.

When I opened my article on Sekiro by saying I don’t love it and it’s not one of my absolute favorites, what I really meant is that: despite its general excellence, the array of little things that annoy me about Sekiro held it back from cracking the top 10 of that top 100 list of mine. As you might imagine, that’s a pretty exclusive club. Yet Sekiro is still in the top 30 there, and Elden Ring is listed only a few spots behind it. I’m not exaggerating when I say that there’s a solid chance I’ve already played over a thousand games in my lifetime, so top 30 is pretty phenomenal.

To make a long story short, I’m not sure whether I’ll be adding Armored Core VI to the list at all. It’s the first FromSoft game I’ve beaten that didn’t immediately jump into my top 100. It’s a good time, but it’s neither exceptional, nor memorable, nor unique, nor innovative. It doesn’t feel like a product of the major disruptor of the industry that FromSoft has become; it feels like a product of the workmanlike mid-sized purveyor of middling-reviewed games that FromSoft used to be, only now with the budget for more and better artists.

Armored Core VI Fires of Rubicon screenshot with mech in vague factory zone - FromSoftware, mechanics, critique

I’ve seen a few negative reviews from longstanding fans of the Armored Core franchise who are annoyed at the relative streamlining of mech parts and gameplay, as well as at the translation of stamina into system energy, estus into armor recovery, and posture into ACS Strain. They feel things have changed too much. But my position is almost the opposite: that FromSoft didn’t innovate on the old mecha genre near enough to make Armored Core VI an outstanding title. Even if it doesn’t fit perfectly alongside the previous Armored Core games, I still think it slots in just fine among the dozens and dozens of subtly varying mech games that have released since the late 80s.

It’s not quite a mindless junk food game where you mash buttons to watch things blow up . . . but when you’re in the early parts of a mission, following an objective marker through a generic factory or cityscape and occasionally pressing one of the buttons that makes the cardboard enemies disappear, you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for one.

Now, even if it is one of their existing franchises, I am glad to see FromSoft branching out from the melee-focused fantasy fare that has dominated their recent output. But many of the underlying design virtues championed by the Souls games and their offspring are not genre-specific—making every minute unit of gameplay worthy of the player’s time and attention; placing total trust in the player; not obtruding unnecessarily on player autonomy or action; avoiding the replacement of in-game experiences with cutscenes; taking big mechanical risks where it suits the gameworld; and investing every level and environment with rich, distinctive, immersive realism. An effort should have been made to retain more of those virtues. Other than some of the bosses, FromSoft hasn’t included much of what now makes them special to the design of this game.

And I can already feel the game’s characters, story, missions, and locations fading from my mind. Armored Core VI: Fires of Rubicon is an enjoyable, solidly above-average title . . . yet it’s a far fall from being a habitual creator of legendary and near-legendary experiences to being a creator of something that is merely above-average.

[Game: Armored Core VI: Fires of Rubicon, FromSoftware, 2023]
Crossing the Rubicon:

A Thorough Critique Detailing the Mechanical Flaws of FromSoft’s Armored Core VI

was last modified: September 20th, 2023 by Daniel Podgorski
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