The bots are back in town
When FromSoftware announced Armored Core VI Fires of Rubicon at The Game Awards in December, a few very predictable things happened. Fans of FromSoftware’s more recent output wondered whether or not this weird mech thing had anything to do with Dark Souls. Fans of Armored Core awoke from their decade-long coma to become immediately defensive, clarifying that Armored Core is a lot older than the Souls superseries, and that the two have nothing in common.
The third predictable thing that happened was that I got interested. I knew of Armored Core in passing because of a handful of friends who are very enthusiastic about mechs, but I had never actually played any of the games. So I got to work checking out some of the older titles in the franchise, and I almost immediately noticed something: Armored Core feels a lot like Dark Souls.
Which came first, the chicken or the mech?
To be fair, it’s more accurate to say that Dark Souls feels a lot like Armored Core. As many Armored Core enthusiasts have pointed out, FromSoftware was in the mech business long before they ventured into the world of gloomy fantasy. The original Armored Core came out in 1997, and Demon’s Souls wouldn’t hit the PS3 until 2009. The present may have clouded out the past a bit – the Souls games are dramatically more popular than Armored Core ever was – but it’s worth looking to what once was to fully understand how we got to where we are.
It’s interesting to see just how similar Armored Core is to its fantastical descendants. Armored Core seems to have laid the foundation for many of the traditions most commonly associated with the Souls series. You know the cryptic way NPCs try to communicate narrative in the Souls series? The way they spout off proper nouns in a manner that makes the world feel lived-in, even if the plot isn’t quite coherent? All of that is right there in Armored Core.
The game bit of the game
Gameplay-wise, Armored Core seems to have built a lot of the mechanical framework that FromSoftware has used for the last decade and change. Armored Core and Dark Souls are both action games focused on mobility (although movement is a bit simpler and more elegant in the Souls games). Both titles heavily encourage the player to experiment with various different builds, and they’re both built around the concept of mastering a build rather than mastering a specific system.
In the Souls games, building out your character is as mostly a matter of assigning stat points in specific places. Gear plays an important part, but leveling is the main crux of upward mobility. That’s clearly different from Armored Core, where your build is entirely based on which components you buy for your mech. Still, it’s obvious that the build-oriented action of games like Elden Ring has its origins in Armored Core.
Penalties are another era where Dark Souls clearly builds on Armored Core‘s foundations. If you die in Armored Core, you’re punished by losing currency – if you die in a Souls game, you’re usually punished by losing souls (or runes, or blood echoes, or sen, depending on how far you’re willing to stretch the word Souls). Souls games are a bit more forgiving in this regard – most of them include some mechanic for regaining your souls, but once you go broke in Armored Core, that money’s gone for good. In fact, Armored Core will let you go into the red, and once you accrue enough debt, you’ll have to restart the game nearly from scratch.
Armored Core is not a Souls game, but deep in its cold metallic heart, Armored Core harbors many of the ideas that would eventually build the modern FromSoftware formula.
I’m not saying anything too revolutionary here. “Developers iterate on an idea until they find a winning formula” is not a radical concept, it’s a fundamental truth of large-scale game development. But every time I’ve heard someone talk about Armored Core VI since its announcement, it’s been in proximity to Dark Souls. Relative newcomers to the FromSoftware family have been curious about whether or not Armored Core is “for them,” while the starving Armored Core fans who have waited nearly a decade for this day have become desperately protective of their game.
I’m just here to toss in my two cents. Armored Core VI probably will feel a bit like a Dark Souls game. That’s not because the folks at FromSoftware are trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Souls may feel like a genre unto itself, and its massive popularity may make it difficult to spot its roots, but at the end of the day, Dark Souls has always felt a bit like an Armored Core game.