Branching Path: If the rumors are true and FromSoftware is making another Armored Core, I hope it maintains its identity instead of borrowing too much from the Soulsborne games
I recall a distant, specific memory every time I think about Armored Core. It was a 1-on-1 online match in Armored Core 4. My foe and I drop into a barren desert littered with dozens of huge satellite installments at opposite ends of the map. I was testing out one of my new mechs; it was lightly equipped and opted for a high-risk, high-reward playstyle. Frankly, this new machine was tuned to bet it all on a single strike. If it was spotted first, the duel would likely not end well for me.
As the match began, I quickly scurried into the field of satellite structures. I made sure to move carefully and not cause too much noise; it was imperative that I spotted the enemy first. A few seconds passed by… and I spotted my prey. It was time to go to work.
I wanted them to come to me, so I got their attention by firing several flares from a safe distance. The enemy was filled to the brim with ranged weaponry. It was an arsenal I wouldn’t last long against in a prolonged encounter. Once I saw it face my way, I snuck behind one of the satellites and placed a powerful ECM emitter into the ground. They could no longer rely on their radar by the time they reached where I once was.
After deploying the ECM emitter, I made my trek around several satellites to angle myself at its blind spot. As it reached my previous position, it stopped for a moment to look around. That was the moment I needed. Before my prey could discern the trap they fell into, I overboosted toward them in a flash.
It was all over in a single moment.
They turned toward the sound of my thrusters blasting into overdrive, but it was too late. My mech’s specialized arms had a devastating repeating shotgun integrated into them. Needless to say, they were very difficult to use unless you somehow found a way to get a clean, point-blank strike. In just a few key milliseconds, I rushed up to my foe’s position at top speed and thrust my arms into its body to shred all its armor before they even knew what hit them. I was the victor in the blink of an eye.
It’s been quite some time since FromSoftware has shown any love for one of its classic, long-running IPs. Armored Core: Verdict Day came out in 2013; after that, most of you know the story - Dark Souls II, Bloodborne, Dark Souls III, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, and soon, the long-awaited Elden Ring.
Those hoping to see another new Armored Core (that’s me!) had almost given up on FromSoftware ever revisiting the series, until ResetEra user Red Liquorice rekindled that hope a few days ago. In a forum post here, they claim that they received a consumer survey detailing a new FromSoftware game in development that pretty much sounds like the next installment to the Armored Core series; they shared the full description and some screenshots to verify their statement, but they’ve also seen two brief gameplay videos that have not been publicly shared as of this time.
Of course, I’m still very skeptical of the validity of these rumors and truly won’t be excited until FromSoftware officially confirms the existence of a new Armored Core themselves.
Regardless of that for the time being, Red Liquorice detailed one of the short gameplay videos they saw with the following.
The boss fight seemed very Souls in terms of speed and style. It looked like an industrial-looking brown room, the player started afar, locked on firing guns, then closed in and attacked melee and the speed/movement all seemed very familiar Souls style. iirc the boss had a domed head and was bigger than the player but not huge. If I had to guess, I'd say this was like an Asylum or Taurus Demon style early boss, obviously total speculation there, but it didn't seem grandious or particularly impressive as an encounter. Boss had a life bar on screen (at the top of the screen iirc) - very simple but it was more red LED-styled, futuristic as you might expect, angular edges on the lifebars rather than straight rectangle.
This boss fight seemed Dark Souls to me rather than Sekiro, when the player got in close the pacing was like attack/dodge/attack. I don't think the player dodge rolled but the boss retaliated and the flow of the combat was familiar in the classic Dark Souls way. The far away gunfire was not Souls like obviously and reminded me of Virtua On as the player was locked on. This was all ground-based.
I know some people are like "Yes! Sci-fi Souls" and others are like "No, I want AC to separate and not just mech-Souls" - but just to say this was short footage of ONE boss fight. There's aerial combat and distance gun-play in the game, so obviously it won't be just mech-Souls. If I had to speculate further, the screenshot of the tall tank boss I would guess was not a melee encounter just due to its size and not being a humanoid mech, it was like a rectangular tall tank with guns, a non-cartoony Metal Slug type thing.
With Armored Core on my mind once again, all the recent rumors begged the question - should the next Armored Core be a Soulsborne?
A lot of people have seen hypothetical glimpses of what that would look like, largely thanks to artist MONO73004236’s beautiful “Armored Souls” gallery shared by @VideoArtGame on Twitter here. It envisions a dark fantasy world filled with armored mecha imagery; the idea is sound and would certainly look pretty, but is that really the direction Armored Core should go? If God of War can pull off a similar stunt, surely Armored Core would have no problem, right?
After having played nearly all of the games in Armored Core (I missed out on the Armored Core Mobile entries) and all of FromSoftware’s Soulsborne entries, including Sekiro if you count it, I’m not exactly sure how Armored Core remains Armored Core if it were to be molded into a Soulsborne. To be fair, I am not entirely opposed to the idea, but the end result would need to convince me that what I love about Armored Core is still intact somehow.
One of the first things that make me question Armored Core’s reimagining as a Soulsborne is the fundamental shift it would have to make to a semi-open-world structure, rather than the traditional split into individual levels. I think its stage-based nature is imperative in defining what Armored Core’s identity is.
Part of Armored Core’s charm to me is its pick-up and play structure. Players simply advance linearly from stage to stage with a short mission briefing giving context for why they’re being sent on a mission. The narrative premise has always been straightforward, ever since the beginning of the series; players take on the role of a silent protagonist that belongs to a mercenary group, known as the Ravens. These Ravens can operate Armored Core machines, obviously, and have no restrictions over what kind of jobs they can receive and accept - no matter the client.
From then on, each game has various factions employ your Raven to undertake missions for them. There is a story in most of these games, though bigger-picture revelations are largely obtuse until you dig deeper beyond what’s fed at face value.
There were genuinely shocking story moments for me throughout the whole series. Armored Core 2 antagonist Leos Klein, for example, is heavily implied to be the original Armored Core 1 protagonist that you, the player, controlled. This was such a cool revelation at the time, because Armored Core 2 was the fourth Armored Core game in the series and the first Armored Core game on the PlayStation 2. It was a launch day title in North America for PS2, so seeing how far the series had come with the next generation of PlayStation was such a treat and that story twist was a nice subversion of expectation for players who followed the series up till that point.
Although sticking to individual stages complement the premise of the story already, they aren’t necessarily the reason I think they’re integral to the Armored Core experience.
Levels allow for tailored-made challenges that push players to explore new solutions. In Armored Core’s case, players often have to switch out different parts and tune their mechs accordingly when roadblocks inevitably arise. Sometimes a sequence of consecutive missions will have wildly different demands.
Silent Line: Armored Core contains a series of missions that demand players to either find a solution and/or improvise a way to proceed forward. It starts off with a sandstorm that jams their Fire Control System (FCS), so they can’t lock onto enemies they encounter. Of course, the enemies will have no problem locking onto the player, though. The next mission takes place in tight corridors that lead to a central computer that players have to destroy; the problem is that it’s an endurance test of unlocking doors as swarms of enemies rush to the player’s position and some parts of that mission rely on an AI partner to trigger certain parts to proceed. A few missions after these, players will be placed in a high-temperature fiery environment, so they have to outfit themselves with parts that can withstand the heat as they try to locate the system that will extinguish it.
These are all interesting problems to solve; they all encourage players to make alterations to what they’re comfortable with. It’s not something that they can grind on to level up and brute force a solution through inflating stats.
Another aspect that makes me question how Armored Core can fit the Soulsborne formula is the impact on its world design philosophy. Environments in the Soulsborne games are lovingly detailed and cleverly structured to unlock shortcuts in-between different zones to traverse them faster on subsequent visits. They often provide a sense of relief, since the players probably had to traverse through hell to get to these points. The scope of Soulsborne worlds work because they are meant to be traversed carefully and slowly on two feet.
Meanwhile, Armored Core mecha can move insanely fast. Older ones topped out at roughly around 1000km/h while more recent entries easily tripled that amount. How big would the map of a Soulsborne-ified Armored Core need to be to feel satisfying to traverse without sacrificing that sense of speed? And even if FromSoftware managed to settle on some map size, what will they have to sacrifice?
I imagine the sheer magnitude it would take cannot accommodate being as detailed or intricately structured as any other Soulsborne game. This is also only accounting for mech builds that want to go fast. What about the bulkier, tankier robots that are willing to take a hit on their speed in exchange for defense? Will they just have to accept that it will take considerably more time to traverse the world because they want to embrace the Big Bulky Body Life?
This makes me wonder how FromSoftware would handle exploration too, especially since thrusters would have to be added into the equation. How would verticality be accounted for? Different thrusters have differing power outputs that can be further tweaked through manipulating the weight of each other part. Would critical path routes have to be bland to account for players that intend to stick with the default set-up no matter what?
As odd as it sounds, I appreciate that the Armored Core games don’t really give a face or model to its characters. Players identify and recognize returning characters by their name/callsign, their emblem, their mechs, and/or their weapon loadout. I’m a bit afraid that FromSoftware will reimagine Armored Core in this respect by giving the cast a face. It was a nice touch that reinforced the cold, anonymous atmosphere behind the life of a mercenary in the Armored Core world.
When I saw old rivals make a return in other games, I was always interested to see what sort of spec upgrades they received. Encountering Bolt in Armored Core: Last Raven was terrifying because they showed up in the main story so early on; Bolt was previously in Armored Core: Nexus as a difficult arena fight. They still had the LX laser cannon that did a crapload of damage if they hit, even more so if you’re walking into Last Raven for the first time. I think there’s a simple, memorable charm to that and it’s becoming more rare as modern games continue to push to be more cinematic. I don’t want the game to tell me I recognize this foe through a cutscene with flashbacks; I want to figure that out for myself, if I actually do have history with them as a player of these games.
The shift to a Soulsborne approach makes me also ponder how its music would be handled. If FromSoftware were to take Armored Core in a fantasy direction akin to the Dark Souls line, I’d be very curious to see how its soundtrack and sound design would be handled. The fantasy mecha subgenre is a fascinating one for sure; stuff like Magic Knights Rayearth, The Vision of Escaflowne, Knight’s & Magic, and The Five Star Stories stick out in my mind when I think of it. There’s a common thread between them though and it’s how the mechs themselves are meant to be depicted visually. They’re grand, majestic, and beautiful when eyes are laid on them.
If Armored Core were to follow in those footsteps, it would seem antithetical to the spirit of the franchise. These machines are meant to be used as tools doing dirty jobs; they’re filthy, they’re grimy, and most of them feel like they’re ready to break down at any point. As such, the music complements the nature of them.
Armored Core soundtracks are grungy and underground. They keep a nice moment-to-moment tempo that makes them suitable for brief levels, not for exploring a semi-open-world. These tracks are not meant to be grandiose or epic. Instead, they sound appropriate even when massive tons of steel are skidding through the ground or slamming against other steel objects. Repeated muffled gunfire and missiles deploying would ostensibly damage the Soulsborne approach to background music, but not the smeared muddiness of an Armored Core track.
These are just a few elements that pop into my mind when thinking about the numerous discussions behind the rumored next Armored Core taking on a more Souls-like identity. I wonder how it could do it while remaining the Armored Core that I love. Maybe FromSoftware will just ditch me and strive to appeal to the massive Souls community. Perhaps, that might be the correct answer at the end of the day when it comes to sales.
I’m interested to know what you think. Should the next Armored Core be a Soulsborne? Is there a way for Armored Core to maintain its identity if it does?