header is screenshot from Armored Core VI: Fires of Rubicon
Burn It All, Dance in the Flames
Joshua Calixto

This article discusses plot details from Armored Core VI's endings.

You don’t walk or run in Armored Core VI; you drift. Setting sights on the poor MT mechs in your vicinity, you jet in headlong, falling into a neverending air-strafe and launching heavy rounds that seem to bend in the sky as your craft settles into its natural orbit of jet fuel and shrapnel. The enemy mech doesn’t leave your sight until it begins to disintegrate, and by then you’ve already changed trajectory; there’s always a new ellipse to start tracing. 

The first thing the game hits you with is a fantasy: piloting a gargantuan machine with grace and expressivity, leveraging customization options for aesthetic satisfaction as much as increased performance. It works flawlessly. The feeling of piloting an Armored Core is sublime. Once you’ve internalized the quirks and learned to read the admittedly cryptic UI, the game becomes a big dance. Instinct takes over; the rest takes a back seat.

The purity of play here carries a distinct air of extra-lean 2000s game design which, impressively, never stoops to nostalgia and never loses its sense of immediacy. Gone are the 2020s-standard progression and crafting systems, replaced instead by a parts shop and occasional persistent upgrades in the form of OS Chips. Where most of the competition has opted to go big in some way or another, ACVI is a game one could accurately describe as “closed-world,” with some missions taking place in a single room or hallway and ending in under a minute or two. This thing has a bona fide level structure, complete with a mission select menu. 

It’s an inspired, even rebellious return to form, and every structural design decision in Armored Core VI feels like a soft reset; 15 years of game development systematically seared away in a dazzling controlled fire.

Between the fireworks of sorties, you’re assailed with corporate briefings and exposition doled out by your handler, a guy named Walter who’s only thinly veiling a sinister ulterior motive. Apparently, you’re an augmented human mercenary numbered 621 and labeled Raven. Apparently, you’re fighting for a fuel source called coral on the ruins of a planet called Rubicon that’s already been destroyed in a war for said fuel. Corporations are involved, a rebel environmentalist group is trying to “liberate” the coral, and an interplanetary police organization shows up every now and then in an attempt to quarantine the whole thing. Apparently.

The specifics seem purposely obtuse here, and the eyes glaze over as corporate slide decks debrief whatever carnage you’ve just created. As if to sense your interest waning, Handler Walter chimes in like it’s a nervous tic—offering timely, if misguided, words of moral support. 

“It’s just a job, 621,” he says, and it’s moments like these where the game’s core themes try their best to rupture the gauzy surface of feel-good mech combat. Capitalist alienation is the name of the game, and in alignment with the Gundam and Evangelion mech franchises that precede it, Armored Core VI thrives in the slippage area between the horrors of war and the sine-wave hypnotics of corporate artifice.

As a last-mile deathmonger for hire, you’ll find the corporate messaging is a powerful anesthetic, keeping you at a comfortable distance from the environmental and human costs you’re constantly racking up. The missions themselves are transparently scummy, often having you fight for one corporation only to be hired to sabotage their plans by a rival in the next sortie. The more you internalize the mechanics of piloting, the more your mechs themselves seem to inherit human qualities, despite all the Industrial Machinery For Scale there to remind you that they’re taller than buildings. 

It’s all very clearly political stuff, executed in a way that stands out from other From games. In the Souls series and even Sekiro, the pervasive sense of detachment is a vehicle for conjuring a powerful sense of mystique and mythos. If the characters and plot lines seem distant or larger than life, it’s because you, the player, have been intentionally drawn as insignificant. 

The luxury of the UI and corporate branding of ACVI is, by contrast, grounded in the visual language of design and branding agencies, rendered even more lifelike via aesthetic ties to the international arms trade. Schneider mechs are agile, responsive, and finely-tuned. Dafeng’s output is functional and sturdy. Furlong Dynamics does missiles and ballistics well, while Takigawa Harmonics specializes in pulse weaponry. The logos resonate with striking realism, and as you casually browse the parts shop for your next artisanal weapon of choice, the game assumes the vibe of a driving sim like Gran Turismo.

What’s strange is that despite its dealings in political allegory, Armored Core VI is unwilling to subvert its luxe presentation and capitalize on the setup. Late in the game, as your atrocities extend to the mercenary comrades you once viewed as friends, there’s little catharsis. Just another white-knuckle battle punctuated by another explosion and a couple last words that are pretty sad, if you think about it.

At the end of the campaign, it’s revealed that Handler Walter actually works for a secret organization whose goal is the destruction of all the coral and in turn, the annihilation of the planet Rubicon itself. If you side with him, you destroy the planet in an event that comes to be known as the "Fires of Raven." If you don’t, you kill him and the “mission” part of your suicide mission fails. 

Replaying the game a couple times unlocks other endings, but they’re just as open-ended. In the final ending, unlocked after beating a third playthrough, and dubbed “Alea Iacta Est,” the coral is consumed and spread throughout the galaxy, porting its spirit data into mechs across the universe. 

While it’s probably better than destroying the planet and could be construed as displaying more agency on the behalf of your character, Nier: Automata it is not. There’s nothing cathartic or enlightening about it. What’s the point? Why build up these real-world parallels and have the player participate in a grab bag of atrocities, just to disperse the game's thesis among a matrix of vague endings while constantly upstaging it all with smooth mech combat action?

One could argue that Armored Core VI’s endings do say something pointed and specific—after all, they’re generally anti-war and suggest at a macro level that something’s gotta change.

But it’s more likely that Fires of Rubicon simply doesn’t care about Rubicon as much as it cares about the fires. In yet another apparent From-ism, flames are the true thematic heart of ACVI, with coral standing in as symbolic fuel for political clout, transhumanist consciousness, and cycles of death and rebirth all at once. 

In revisiting the Armored Core series’ tried-and-true level-based gameplay, FromSoftware has already tossed the last 10 or so years of videogame core loop design onto the pyre. Why not burn it all to the ground? The studio’s 2022 masterpiece Elden Ring was an exercise in excess, an incredible game whose depth seemed to work in spite of itself. This year’s heavy hitters, Baldur’s Gate 3 and The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, are fantastic distractions that nevertheless feel like the latest salvos in a gargantuan content arms race. It’s an unsustainable model, sure to burn itself out in some way or another. 

Armored Core VI is a thought experiment to discover what the coals left at the end of such a blaze might look like. Breakneck gunplay, custom build options, self-contained levels, and a plot that frames political strife as an analog for industry excess. Is it too simple-minded to believe that’s enough?


Joshua Calixto writes about technology and culture. Find him on Twitter @hitherejosh.