Monday, August 21, 2023

Obscusion B-Side: Frames, ARKs, Presidents, & HOUNDs: A Look at FromSoftware's Un-Armored Cores

Founded on November 1, 1986 by Naotoshi Zin, Tokyo-based FromSoftware initially made its name as a developer of various business applications for mainframe computers, as well as agricultural applications like managing pig feeding. By the end of the early 90s "FromSoft" decided to transition over to game development, and eventually would "debut" with the release of King's Field for the PS1 on December 16, 1994. After two sequels to King's Field over the next two years (which were the two that saw release outside of Japan, albeit with altered numbering), FromSoftware would debut its fourth video game, Armored Core for the PS1, on July 10, 1997, with a sequel (Project Phantasma) coming out later that December. This would mark the start of FromSoftware's most successful & iconic series for the longest time, so much so that from 1997 to 2006 there was literally at least one Armored Core game released per year, with 2004 even seeing three released! It wouldn't be until Hidetaka Miyazaki truly made his mark with Demon's Souls on PS3 in 2009 that FromSoft had something that would actually surpass Armored Core, resulting in a stretch of time from 2014 to 2022 where the studio would make almost nothing but "Soulsbourne" games, i.e. titles made in the same (or at least very similar) vein as that of Demon's Souls; games of this type not made by FromSoftware are called "Soulslikes". The only exceptions would be a 3DS port of a 2010 Monster Hunter spin-off PSP game in 2015 & a PS VR adventure/horror game in 2018, though Soulsbourne games would still see release those same years.

However, and this is something that has often been lost on people over the past decade, there was so much more to FromSoftware than just Soulsbourne, Armored Core, & even King's Field.

Which one of these got an actual model kit?
Hint: Not the one you're likely thinking of!

Prior to Soulsbourne games making FromSoftware synonymous with dark fantasy (though the studio had always been known for that, since its very first game), the studio was actually more known as a studio that specialized in giant robots. In fact, FromSoft was so synonymous with mecha that it would also be hired to develop games based on other companies' IPs, namely Sunrise's Gundam Unicorn, Capcom's Steel Battalion (though the less said about that Kinect-only game, the better), & most notably Banpresto's crossover series Another Century's Episode/A.C.E. (though the less said about the PS3 game, the better). All that being said, though, it wasn't just Armored Core games & licensed IP titles that FromSoftware developed when it came to mecha, as there are four standalone games involving giant robots that came out in Japan between mid-1999 & mid-2006, i.e. Demon's Souls was only just barely starting development by the last one. Two of them (later three) would see international release, but most notably all of them came from different staff within FromSoftware, with very little carryover beyond some producers & music/sound staff member Kota Hoshino (who's still with FromSoft to this very day, but hasn't composed music for games since 2013), showing a remarkable amount of variety in style, tone, & execution within a shared overall concept of "giant robots". So, to mark FromSoftware's return to mecha with the release of Armored Core VI: Fires of Rubicon, let's take a look at what can be best described as the studio's "Un-Armored Cores".

We start off with the only game FromSoftware ever made for Sega's final console, the Dreamcast: Frame Gride; you might think that "glide" was intended, but the definition of the word "gride" actually fits. Only released in Japan on July 15, 1999, though Sega did consider it for English release at some point early on, Frame Gride seemingly doesn't credit anyone as its "Director" (which is actually something FromSoft occasionally did in the past, similar to Valve), though producer Kenichiro Tsukuda would eventually move over to feelplus (now Marvelous Inc.), even becoming the main scenario writer for 2019's Daemon X Machina (a.k.a. "If FromSoftware won't make a new Armored Core, then we'll just do it ourselves!"). Still, a decent chunk of the staff that worked on Frame Gride either previously worked on or would go on to work on various Armored Core games, and in a lot of ways this Dreamcast title tends to be looked at as a sort of spiritual sibling. The main difference between the two is that instead of the (usually) post-apocalyptic world that AC is known for we now have a medieval-esque fantasy world, similar to that of Panzer World Galient or Vision of Escaflowne. Despite not releasing outside of Japan, Frame Gride was still decently covered by English gaming press at the time, reviewing rather well, & today there's even a full fan translation to go enjoy the game with. But how does FromSoftware's first "Un-Armored Core" hold up, nearly 24 years later?

In ancient times, the ruler of the Kurt Empire selected seven candidates to potentially replace him as ruler, each one coming from the seven kingdoms that comprise the Empire. This tradition remained until the year 700 when Zolt, one of the seven candidates chosen by the dying Emperor Regilio, stages a rebellion against the entire Empire, teaming with nine fallen knights & killing five of his fellow candidates. Archbishop Milange, the only surviving candidate of Zolt's rebellion, is too old & sickly to do anything himself, so he summons a knight to pilot a Frame Gride, the giant mechs that the Kurt Empire goes into combat with, & put a stop to Zolt's ambitions.

Frame Gride is an extremely straightforward game that can be best described as "Armored Core Meets Virtual-On, but Fantasy". In terms of the single-player campaign, it's literally nothing more than taking on the 10 main foes comprising Zolt & his knights in 1-on-1 combat within various enclosed battlefields, very similar to that of a traditional fighting game's arcade ladder. The main difference here is that in between each fight you can make alterations to your Frame Gride, the initial layout being determined by a variety of questions asked when you start a new game. I wouldn't necessarily say that you're "upgrading" your Frame, though, but rather are simply swapping out your weapons (both a long-range gun & a close-range sword), shield (some of which give you access to a secondary close-range attack), armor, helmet, leggings, etc. for ones that provide different stat priorities & bonuses. You also have three sizes of Frames to utilize (Light, Medium, & Heavy), each with their own set of gear & their own gameplay nuances, like Heavy Frames allowing for more bonus equipment to be used, but at the expense of mobility; I stuck to a Medium Frame for my playthrough. As you defeat Zolt's knights you earn various gems that can be fused together between fights to create the numerous equipment & gear, as well as "Squires", automated assist drones you can summon during battle to attack and/or distract your opponent, though if a Squire is defeated then it's out for the remainder of the battle & even gone for any future fights; if a Squire is still damaged enough after defeat, though, it'll explode & release a gem. After defeating each of Zolt's knights you can also revisit their respective stages & engage in battle against a randomly generated Frame, mainly for the purpose of earning more gems, if you're looking to create a more specific piece of equipment or gear. As for the controls they're rather straightforward, even mapping movement to the d-pad instead of the analog stick (which offers some slight camera angling), but with boosting/jumping, long-range attack, close-range attack, & guarding all given their own respective face button, while L & R allow for strafing, this is a very fast game to pick up & play. Finally, unlike battles in Armored Core & Virtual-On, which can come to an end rather quickly, battles in Frame Gride are somewhat longer affairs, usually taking a few minutes each, though sometimes a battle can still end rather quickly.

And, really, that's all there is to Frame Gride, in a nutshell. There's a bit of Armored Core with the whole customization aspect, though you have nowhere near as many options as in the AC games, and while some AC games do focus on combat within enclosed arenas, this game in particular does feel a little more like Virtual-On in execution, though the overall battle speed is a little slower than VO; it is, however, a very smooth playing game, even with multiple Frames, Squires, & attacks all about. As mentioned, changing out equipment & gear isn't so much for the sake of "improving" your mech, and that's mainly because Frame Gride is a competitive 1-on-1 game by its very nature. I'm sure some stuff is inherently "better" than others, but I imagine skill can make up for using "weaker" stuff, to some extent. In short, FromSoftware would have to keep things balanced for the real main attraction of the game: Online Play. Seeing as the Dreamcast was the first home console to come with a modem out of the box, it's only natural that FromSoft would see this as the studio's way to give online gameplay a try, so in essence Frame Gride's single-player campaign is really nothing more than a way for players to experiment & find their ideal Frame for use online, where they could battle other players & their custom Frames. FromSoft wouldn't give online another go until Armored Core 2: Another Age in 2001, but only in Japan, so Frame Gride was definitely an early experiment. Unfortunately, seeing as this game predates the Dreamcast's 9/9/99 release date in North America, its online play was modeled after Japan's initial 33.6k modem for the console (which is also what PAL regions used for the console's entire lifespan), and it's possible that FromSoftware wasn't interested in adjusting things for the 56k modem that America (& later Japan) would utilize for a potential international release. This would apply even more so if the game underperformed in Japan to start with, which would also likely explain why the servers for the game were shut down in January 2001, barely 1.5 years after the game launched. Considering that FromSoft would never make another Dreamcast game, instead supporting the PS2 extensively from Day 1 in Japan (March 3, 2000), I imagine that's why Frame Gride wound up never seeing international release.

Today, with the online functionality completely dead, Frame Gride is arguably a bit of a shell of what it was originally intended to be and, unlike various other online-compatible Dreamcast games, this one likely won't get its online support restored, due to it seemingly using its own proprietary service. However, the single-player campaign is still out there to experience, and the gameplay itself remains rather solid & enjoyable, as while the first few fights are rather easy, it quickly gives more of a challenge from the fifth knight on; the final boss is definitely a bit of a cheap one, though. While not exactly on the level of an Armored Core in terms of customization depth or longevity, Frame Gride still provides a leaner, almost arcade-like experience of its own, and those who own a Dreamcast (or use emulation) should at least give it a whirl for themselves. This honestly would have made for an awesome remake or remaster on the Xbox 360 or PS3 during the 00s as a downloadable title; Frame Gride honestly screams "Xbox Live Arcade".

Three years later, almost to the literal day even, FromSoftware would release its second non-AC mech game, 叢 -Murakumo-. Coming out on July 25, 2002, it'd be FromSoft's first release for the original Xbox, a console that the studio would actually support rather well, with five games (six if you include Tenchu 3's Xbox port, which FromSoft only published in Japan), and on March 5, 2003 Ubi Soft (about half a year before its name became one word) would localize & release the game, now titled Murakumo: Renegade Mech Pursuit, in North America; oddly enough, considering the publisher, Europe never received the game. In charge here as director was Masanori Takeuchi, someone who's traditionally a producer (& not to be confused with the Sega music composer), but also wrote the stories for Shadow Tower, Spriggan: Lunar VerseEverGrace, Enchanted Arms, & Ninja Blade; also, "Main Programmer" Kiwamu Takahashi would later be "Lead Programmer" for Armored Core 4. Unlike Frame Gride, though, Murakumo was received much less positively, though I remember playing some of the game back in the day & enjoying it well enough. It certainly wasn't one of my all-time favorite Xbox games, but I certainly didn't hate it, either; it sold well enough in Japan to get re-released as part of the Platinum Collection in late 2003, too. Guess it's time to give it another whirl & see how things fare for me with the second "Un-Armored Core" over 20 years later.

In the year 2090 a new energy source is discovered, and soon a new world capital named Oliver Port is constructed that's powered solely by this new energy, making it the perfect place to do research. One company, LugnalCorp, finds a way to use this energy source with its own "Reflexive Technology" to create ARKs/Artificial Reflexive Kineticoids, giant robots that are almost completely autonomous, minus some minimal human control for certain functions. LugnalCorp's ARKs quickly become the new standard, but due to the company wanting to make money as fast as possible an eventual problem comes about. Namely, the AI within various ARKs start to become completely self-sufficient & revolt, creating havoc throughout Oliver Port. To combat things, an elite force of pilots called Murakumo are assembled to pilot five special "Mech Hunter" units, code named Cloud Breakers, so that they can take out renegade ARKs... but are these cases of AI going renegade purely accidental, or is this actually just part of a secret plan from Lugnal involving a prototype ARK known as the "GeoSweeper"?

Admittedly, Murakumo is a game that
doesn't really work well at all in still images.

Murakumo is a bit of a unique fusion of genres, with the end result being what I'd call a "semi-on-rails chase shooter". The main goal of the 17 Scenario missions & the unlockable Expert missions you can play afterwards mostly feature the same goal: Chase down the target ARK & shoot it down within a time limit, with only a handful of exceptions, like protecting something from enemies. I say that it's "semi-on-rails" because there's literally no downtime to be found here, as everything (your mech, the target mech, & the little mook mechs) are constantly on the move, and though you technically have free rein to go wherever you want the target mech always follows the same pre-determined path, so the end result is more of an on-rails shooter-esque experience, in the long run. Aside from the first mission, you can select from one of five different Cloud Breakers, with each having its own pilot, stats, & two-weapon (Main & "EX") load out; you also have access to a vernier boost that needs to recharge after every use, & a "back boost" to slow down & make sharp turns. CB01 "Vanguard" has a rapid fire Gatling gun & can fire a lock-on missile barrage, with more or less average stats. CB02 "Lancer" has a long-range plasma sniper rifle & beam scatter attack, but has paper-thin defense to balance its fast speed. CB03 "Equalizer" has a bazooka & powerful beam cannon that requires extreme manual accuracy to properly utilize well, though the handling is a bit rough. CB04 "Paladin" relies solely on a close-range shotgun & energy shield combo while also having the highest max speed, but with slow acceleration & stiff handling. Finally, CB05 "Rapier" is all about slicing at foes with a very powerful vibration blade that can fire energy waves, but can't lock-on in any real way. A nice touch is that the messages you receive before each mission can differ slightly depending on which Cloud Breaker you select, which doesn't amount to much but is a nice little detail.

So despite having an honestly cool little concept that's kind of like a fusion of Ray Tracers & a mech anime, why did Murakumo receive such harsh overall reviews outside of Japan? That really comes down to a mixture of reasons, some of which are admittedly fair & understandable to this day. For one, this is a very short game, as missions themselves don't take more than a couple of minutes, on average, and even with all of the cutscenes that can happen for the plot a full playthrough can easily be done in less than two hours casually, especially if you know what to do. Since this wasn't a budget title at launch it became harder to justify the cost for most people, as this is very much an arcade-style experience, which by 2003 wasn't as popular anymore. Then there's the simple fact that Murakumo offers absolutely no mech customization at all, which I'm sure disappointed those who enjoyed Armored Core or even Frame Gride. Third, the story that is told here is admittedly nothing all that special (initial missions setting things up, the crew's investigation getting them sold out by their CO & blamed for everything, & then fighting back against Lugnal & the GeoSweeper), and the fact that the pilots themselves are only ever seen via small, in-cockpit video screens kind of makes them feel less important, even when some of them actually have personal history, stakes, or goals in what's actually going on; that being said, I did like the post-credits scene that indicated what happened to everyone after the fact. The English voice acting also doesn't help matters in any way, as while Jeremy Blaustein's (Metal Gear Solid, Silent Hill 2 & 3) translation is good, the voice actors come off rather stilted more often than not, and a lot of the delivery lacks proper emotion; you can tell this was dubbed over in Japan using gaijin talent that were directed by a non-native speaker. 

Interestingly enough, the HUD for Murakumo was
arguably much better in a pre-release build.

Finally, I will admit that the gameplay is rather simple in concept, which itself can be a turn off for some people, but can also have some wild difficulty spikes as early as Mission 5. Because of that, the overall fast pace of everything can sometimes result in victory coming down more to you simply memorizing what a target's path is & how to take advantage of that, than by simply reacting better to a situation. Also, units like Equalizer or Paladin can often feel more situational in their effectiveness, if not sometimes just "bad", while Vanguard & Lancer feel good for almost any mission, resulting in the balance between the ARKs feeling off in execution; Rapier is just kind of in the middle. At the very least, the game plays at a fast clip at all times, with pretty much no slowdown at all (barring moments where multiple giant explosions happen around you all at once, which is admittedly really rare), & the music's focus on intense rock fits the high-speed chase combat rather well. After beating Story Mode with at least an A rank on every mission (which isn't difficult) you unlock "Expert Mode", which gives you another 20 unique missions... and, look, while I honestly did enjoy playing Murakumo all the way through this time around, I don't like it enough to play through more than the amount of missions Story Mode had, even if I can use the GeoSweeper now (which is insanely fast & kind of tough to control, anyway).

Overall, Murakumo: Renegade Mech Pursuit definitely has its nagging issues (some missions can feel like a chore, while others can be an intense thrill, while some others can literally be beaten in less than a minute with the right ARK), but I do think it was reviewed just a little bit too harshly back in the day. It offers an experience that is admittedly still unique to this very day, especially for games involving giant robots, and it's a concept that I think still has legs to it & should be given a new attempt, taking lessons from what worked & didn't work here; in all honesty, "chase games" have always been few & far between. It's certainly by no means some massively misunderstood gem of its time, but calling it "one of the worst games to come out for the Xbox [in 2003]", as Giancarlo Varanini did for GameSpot, would be way too harsh; conceptually it's very "love it or hate it". However, what's most interesting is that, out of the four "Un-Armored Cores" that FromSoftware developed & released, Murakumo is surprisingly the one that's actually had a small life outside of the game. Namely, in 2012 model kit maker P.M. Office A (a.k.a. PLUM) released a 1/48 scale plastic model (a.k.a. "plamo", which is where the second half of "Gunpla" comes from) of the Cloud Breaker 01! To be fair, the Vanguard does have an awesome design to it, so fair play there. I wouldn't call Murakumo a great game, but it's by no means one of the worst on the Xbox; I will concede that it's definitely an acquired taste, however.

Following Murakumo, FromSoftware would release three more Xbox games (Otogi 1 & 2, and the Japan-exclusive RTS/sim Thousand Land), and four different Armored Core games on PS2 & PSP, before releasing another mech title on Microsoft's first console... and this is the one people generally go to when they think of an "Un-Armored Core". Released in Japan on December 22, 2004, Metal Wolf Chaos would be FromSoftware's final game for the original Xbox, and in an effort to differentiate itself from Armored Core FromSoft actually put the team behind the Otogi games in the developer's seat here (only with art staff/art director Keiichiro Ogawa now directing), though the AC team provided some advisory input. Since Microsoft was an American company, the focus would be to make Metal Wolf Chaos as "AMERICAN!!" (through a Japanese lens, of course) as possible, with an unnamed Microsoft employee even being credited as the one who suggested the game's title. Unfortunately, despite going so far as getting a demo for the game included as a secret bonus on the demo disc for Issue 39 of Official Xbox Magazine for Holiday 2004 (the controller vibrates more & more viciously as you input the code!), Metal Wolf Chaos wound up never leaving Japan. While the usage of the Seal of the President of the United States (though modified) was an often rumored reason, a mix of the game coming out so late (it would have released abroad just months prior to the Xbox 360's launch) & a post-9/11 political climate were eventually revealed as the primary factors behind the decision. Then, on January 27, 2016, publisher Devolver Digital put out a (partially) sarcastic tweet telling people to let FromSoftware know that Metal Wolf Chaos should finally see international release, the end result of which was Devolver actually working with FromSoft, with help from Kakehashi Games & General Arcade, to give the game an HD remaster for PS4, Xbox One, & Windows PC. Metal Wolf Chaos XD would come out worldwide on August 6, 2019, where it'd get an extremely mixed reception, with some loving it & others feeling that it aged far too much over the past 15 years. Let's see where I stand with the third "Un-Armored Core"...

It's the twilight of the first quarter of the 21st Century and Michael Wilson, 47th President of the United States of America (so close!), is dealing with civil & economic unrest. In the midst of this crisis, Vice-President Richard Hawk stages a coup d'état & manages to take command of the country, slowly turning it into a giant dystopia. After having only barely managing to evade capture by escaping on Air Force One, it's up to Michael (with the help of his loyal secretary, Jody Crawford) to put an end to Richard's mad scheme & restore the country to its former glory. Luckily, Michael managed to also get away with his own personal mech in tow, though by way of doctored & manipulated footage reported on by easily fooled journalists Richard has turned "Metal Wolf" into Public Enemy #1. Regardless, Michael will fight on & succeed in his mission... and that is because HE IS THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA!!!!!!!

Japanese gaming magazine YuGe (formerly Used Games, and currently Game Side), once called Metal Wolf Chaos (no relation to the 2002 visual novel Metal Wolf, by Princess Soft) a "Natural Born Bakage/Stupid Game"... and that's honestly not too far off, at least in terms of the plot, characters, presentation, & intended overall aesthetic. As mentioned previously, MWC was intended to present a view of America as shown from the perspective of how Japanese people would stereotypically see the country, similar to how Americans instantly think of stuff like ninja, ramen, or anime (plus bizarreness, in general) when they think of Japan. Because of that, everything is purposefully over-the-top & ridiculous in the most absurd ways, whether it's the idea of a giant particle cannon mounted on top of Alcatraz Island, Richard unleashing a giant mechanical spider in New York City (what, was Jon Peters a producer on this game?!), the usage of fictional news network DNN to act as free propaganda against Metal Wolf until it's literally impossible to hide the truth (upon which the reporter acts as though he was always pro-Metal Wolf, even if you decide to shoot his helicopter down as often as possible in stages), or Michael's constant assurance that things will always work out simply because he's "The President of the United States of America!"; also, Michael loves screaming out "RICHAAAAAAARRRRRRD!!!". The entire thing is a massive pastiche of American patriotism, both in its "best" (or at least well intentioned, in Michael's case) & worst (Richard is pretty much a totalitarian fascist) forms, and the fact that it still kind of applies somewhat accurately nearly 20 years later, when you dig past the absurdity, is actually pretty sad, all things considered. Luckily, the game's legendarily cheesy voice work, which was always only in English from the start, helps in reminding you to not take this game seriously at all from the very beginning; unlike Murakumo, Metal Wolf Chaos' gaijin talent voice cast does an outstanding job by hamming it all up.

In terms of gameplay, Metal Wolf Chaos will actually feel most familiar to those who played Otogi, which is by no means surprising, but those games were strong cult-classics, so very few actually played Otogi back in the day. What that means is that we have ourselves a game based completely around individual missions, with each one usually taking place in an environment that the player is encouraged to destroy while accomplishing said mission, which usually boils down to "destroy something(s) specific". Before starting each mission you can pick your load out, in this case a selection of eight weapons, four on each side (& ranging from handguns to sniper rifles to missile launchers to flamethrowers & beyond), and as you finish each mission you earn funds (both money & metals) with which you can research & buy new, more powerful weapons. On your first time around, though, you will hit a point where things seem insurmountable, but luckily you can replay any finished mission at any point in order to earn more funds & locate hidden items that eventually allow you to increase your max health, which in turn make it so that you can tackle the later stages. Some stages & enemies work best with specific weapons, while others can be a bit more free form (& if you figure things out just right you can absolutely cheese through the game), but the main goal is simply to create havoc for your foes as you decimate them with extreme prejudice. Also similar to Otogi is a control scheme that can sometimes feel a little stiff, but overall you can get used to how MWC controls within a stage or two. However, there's no denying that (once you acclimate to the controls) the game is a lot of chaotic, insane, & destructive fun, and once you've gone through the campaign you then can access Fever! Mode (infinite ammo, allowing you to rack up cash & destroy all in your path without worry) & Hell Mode (i.e. hard mode). While the voice acting is memorably cheesy in all its glory, though, the music isn't half bad either, though it can sometimes be hard to hear in the midst of all the weapon firing, explosions, & radio chatter.

Metal Wolf Chaos is, simply put, an utterly bombastic & fun ride while it lasts, as long as you can accept that it's a bit stuck in its ways (at least, by playing the XD remaster in modern times), when it comes to gameplay. It certainly won't go down as an all-time absolute classic, but it's more than earned its place as a true cult classic, and all the props to Devolver Digital, Kakehashi Games, & General Arcade for being given the chance to make it available worldwide. Director Keiichiro Ogawa would go on to make Ninja Blade for the Xbox 360 & Windows PC, a "character action game" in the style of Devil May Cry or (especially) Ninja Gaiden, but with his own over-the-top flair. Ninja Blade even acts as (maybe?) a prequel to Metal Wolf Chaos, as the main character's CO is named "Michael Wilson", with the timeline of events making fans believe that it's the father of MWC's Michael Wilson, as Ninja Blade technically takes place first (2011 vs. sometimes in the 2020s), though FromSoftware has never outright confirmed nor denied that. What's most interesting is that Ninja Blade actually came out just a month prior to Demon's Souls in Japan (& a about half a year abroad), so there might actually be an alternate universe out there where Keiichiro Ogawa wound up becoming the golden child for FromSoft, instead of Hidetaka Miyazaki, and the studio would become known in the mainstream for its over-the-top & bombastic action games, rather than its notoriously difficult & atmospherically dark action RPGs.

In 2006, FromSoftware released its first games for the Xbox 360, the company's first truly "HD" titles. First up was fantasy RPG [eM] -eNCHANT arM- (better known abroad as Enchanted Arms) on January 12, 2006, while the year ended off with Armored Core 4, the very first game Hidetaka Miyazaki ever directed (& the first of two AC games he'd direct), on December 21, 2006. In between those two games, though, was the fourth & final "Un-Armored Core" FromSoftware would ever release, Chromehounds, released in Japan on June 29, 2006. Chromehounds is notable in that it's the very first original IP by FromSoft that the studio did NOT self-publish in Japan, with Sega instead handling publishing duties worldwide; because of this, the international release came out just weeks later, throughout July. In terms of staff, the director of this game was Takuji Yoshida, who had previously worked for Artdink up to that point, while producer Toshifumi Nabeshima would eventually go on to direct 2019's infamous Front Mission spin-off Left Alive for Square-Enix (look, they can't all be winners here); at least designer Naoyuki Takahashi would later direct both Armored Core V & Verdict Day. Also worth nothing is that Chromehounds was made specifically with online play as the main attraction, the first time FromSoft offered online play outside of Japan (& the first, in general, since 2001), with players being able to join "squads" (i.e. clans or guilds) & be involved in a massive war. Unfortunately, Chromehounds' online servers were shut down on January 6, 2010, after only ~3.5 years of support due to poor sales (though in early 2007 it did get re-released in Japan as part of the Platinum Collection). Luckily, there is a single-player campaign to still experience, though it was admitted to be a later inclusion just meant to familiarize players with the various mech types they could use online. Still, that at least makes Chromehounds more playable today than something like MAGBattleborn, or Defiance, which today are all literally unplayable due to them being online-only. Still, let's see how the final "Un-Armored Core" holds up today, even if it is technically nothing more than a glorified & long-form tutorial now.

In 1980 a series of solar flares suddenly appeared, producing radio interference so overwhelming that not only were various countries thrown into disarray & anarchy due to their respective chains of command becoming paralyzed, but both ballistic missiles (including nuclear weapons) & air units worldwide have become useless. It's been 20 years since this event, and six years since the U.S.S.R. divided in 1994, and three nations in the Neroimus region near the Black Sea are on the verge of war: The Democratic Republic of Tarakia in the West (supported by the USA), the Republic of Morskoj in the North (which is friendly with the democratic Republic of Russia), & the smaller Kingdom of Sal Kar in the South (which has pledged to not fight a war, but may not have a choice). Should war break out, though, the three nations have their own squadrons of giant robots called HOUNDs, all of which come in one of six specific "Role Types/RT": Soldier, Sniper, Defender, Scout, Heavy Gunner, & Tactics Commander... and, of course, there are mercenary groups out there, like Rafzekael, that care for nothing more than doing the job that they're paid to do, even if they know something's up with this potential war on the horizon.

Even though Chromehounds' "Story Mode" is, in essence, a giant tutorial & practice mode, I will at least give the game credit for at least doing something unique with it. After the initial tutorial, you're given six different campaigns to choose from, one for each RT, with each campaign comprised of seven missions (plus a "Final Mission" after completing everything), giving you a total of 43 missions to play, which is admittedly more than decent. The main theme of Story Mode is that it acts as a prologue to the Neroimus War that makes up the (now defunct) Online Mode, and each campaign tells its own self-contained story, though they do happen in sequential order & are ranked from Easy to Normal to Hard (two for each). They also differ between ending on a semi-hopeful note, a bittersweet note, or even an outright downer, though at least most of the COs you work under are all likable characters (Alexei for the Scout is a notable exception), and the general theme of being a nameless soldier/mercenary in a war that's only bubbling to the surface is well executed throughout; there's even an overarching theme of Rafzekael purposefully trying to harden the player character by instigating some events. Story Mode also allows players to focus solely on learning how to play & experience the missions, as you are given a "loaned" HOUND that's tailor made for each RT campaign, and from the very beginning you won't even have enough parts to properly customize a HOUND anyway. Instead, you'll earn various parts after every mission, and the better you perform the more parts you can earn. The Final Mission, in particular, essentially requires you to make your own HOUND in order to succeed, as the loaned HOUND is only barely sufficient enough to succeed with. Naturally, some campaigns are better than others (the Scout & Heavy Gunner campaigns rely too heavily on you being the sole attack force when they're meant to be support units), but overall Story Mode does a great job showing how each RT has its importance to the overall experience that Online Mode likely was, and today does hold up decent enough as a single-player experience, though the fact that online play for the Neroimus War itself is gone can make the entire Story Mode feel unresolved now.

However, despite this being developed by FromSoftware, the fact that this was directed by someone who previously worked at Artdink is paramount, because Chromehounds' DNA is arguably more Artdink than FromSoft. Compared to what you normally expect from FromSoft's mechs, the HOUNDs here are nearly all lumbering, realistic behemoths that truly are as utilitarian in design as possible, and each part of them (cockpit, legs, weapons, etc.) have their own health meters & can get damaged without you realizing it at first. For example, your legs can literally lose half their health just by sliding down a sharper decline for a little bit, even when the hill didn't look all that harsh. Not just that, but customization here is arguably even more in-depth than most Armored Core games, right down to needing to use spacers between your mounted weapons, so that they aren't too closely bunched together & potentially interfere with each other! Also, while your radar does showcase where all HOUNDs are, though only if they're moving in some way, it doesn't differentiate between friendly & enemy (unless you're playing as a Tactics Commander), so you literally need to recognize which camo pattern & color each HOUND has, with each nation having its own style. I definitely killed some allies by accident during Story Mode, sometimes resulting in me failing, because I didn't take a second to visually make sure if they were on my side or not; at night time, it can be tough to discern dark green from dark grey. Also of note is when you play as a Heavy Gunner HOUND, as the game provides absolutely no visual marker as to where your long-range weapons will actually land, requiring you to gauge that using nothing more than your eye & a numerical distance tracker; you have to truly work to nail long-range bombardments. This kind of granular attention to detail during gameplay is a hallmark of Artdink (see: A-Train & Carnage Heart), and it absolutely makes Chromehounds feel like almost nothing else from FromSoftware. That being said, though, FromSoft's style is still in effect here, as the actual controls are shockingly simple & straightforward, relying almost exclusively on the analog sticks, the shoulder buttons, and only a couple of face buttons; the Tactics Commander also utilizes the d-pad for giving orders. Clicking in the right stick switches from third person to first person, which is great for shooting, but both views are actually always available simultaneously, due to a picture-in-picture image in the top right that shows the alternate view at all times, which is so brilliant that I'm amazed it never became standardized.

Still, there's no denying that the Chromehounds that exists today is a shadow of what it was originally launched as. While Story Mode is cool & remarkably brisk (each campaign shouldn't take more than an hour, tops), the main attraction really was meant to be Online Mode, where you took your customized HOUND (with its RT determined by the parts & gear you equipped to it), chose one of the three nations to fight for, & enacted the Neroimus War itself, which Story Mode only acted as a prologue to. In some ways, Chromehounds was years ahead of its time & today would likely be much more well received in its ambition... which is why in 2014 American indie developer Bombdog Studios launched a successful Kickstarter campaign for M.A.V.: Modular Assault Vehicle. The people behind this studio were all big fans of Chromehounds & decided to make their own spiritual successor to it for PC, right down to referring to the different gameplay styles as "Role Types". Last I could find out, though, the game entered into open beta in 2016 & to this day doesn't look to be fully completed, though they do continue to sell it for just $20.

Make no mistake after all is said & done: Armored Core was the best possible IP for FromSoftware to revive after becoming mainstream gaming darlings following the Souls Series, Bloodborne, & Elden Ring all becoming massive successes. Prior to the release of Demon's Souls in 2009, FromSoft was 100% "The Studio that Armored Core Built", but if you've been reading this blog for any length of time you can tell that I always love digging just that bit deeper & see what else came about from one thing's success. In that regard, the four "Un-Armored Cores" that FromSoftware developed & released between 1999 & 2006 definitely show a nice variety of alternate routes that AC could have potentially gone in (& I think all of them being made for non-PlayStation hardware was on purpose), and I'd argue that there really isn't an outright terrible game from this quartet. Frame Gride is arguably the closest to AC in style & feel, but at the same time still had its own unique elements, delivering more of an arcade-style experience when compared to AC's more grounded (at the time, at least) feel. Murakumo: Renegade Mech Pursuit is easily the most divisive of these four, but I would argue that most of its contemporary criticism was really more due to it not being what people were expecting or even really wanting from a gaming landscape that was in the midst of continual change from what was expected previously; it is a flawed game, yes (& the least customizable of these four), but it's not terrible.

Meanwhile, Metal Wolf Chaos (& Ninja Blade after it) is absolutely an instance of "What if", because it's entirely possible that, had things worked out differently, Keiichiro Ogawa could have become what Hidetaka Miyazaki is today, i.e. FromSoft's rockstar director/producer. MWC is just an absolute blast to play, and I honestly would have loved to see Ogawa's over-the-top panache be given the chance to evolve & flourish over time, similar to what Miyazaki was able to do with his games. Finally, Chromehounds is truly a game that was, in some ways, wildly ahead of its time with its focus on a grand scale online component meant to make players feel like they were simply playing a part in a much larger overall conflict, while delivering customization similar to AC in a lot of ways, but arguably even more granular in execution; at least it's still playable in some way today, unlike some of its online-focused contemporaries. If anything, these "Un-Armored Cores" are a reminder of the variety that FromSoftware was once known for, even when the games shared similar styles & aesthetics, something that many have argued was lost once the company shifted focus towards "Soulsbourne" games. In fact, FromSoft's mainstream popularity over the past decade+ has resulted in an interesting reaction to Armored Core VI's various reveals & previews, with some long-time AC fans feeling worried about "Soulsbourne" elements finding their way into the AC gameplay that they feel was already honed, while newer "Soulsbourne" fans try their hardest to notice elements of what they love being seen in ACVI's gameplay, even if many of those elements were always there to start with, even before "Soulsbourne".

Ah, the results of a long-lived developer having two distinct (& mostly separate) eras to it...

Frame Gride © 1999 FromSoftware, Inc.
Murakumo: Renegade Mech Pursuit © 2000 FromSoftware
Metal Wolf Chaos © 2004 FromSoftware, Inc.
Chromehounds © Sega Corporation/FromNetworks, Inc./FromSoftware, Inc. 2006

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