A very long time ago, FromSoftware used to be extremely cool. It was a name you’d see on something you bought from a smelly, privately-owned game store down a side alley. Maybe you’d catch a glimpse of some cool robots or weird monsters in a quarter page paragraph of the preview section of a PS2 magazine and that’d be all you hear about it until the game would be unceremoniously localised over a year later – usually to a 5 or a 6 from publications who mostly weren’t interested in this sort of thing. The indie boom was still a long way off, and the most exotic thing that was given mainstream attention between the FIFAs and the platformers was the occasional Final Fantasy.
For the sweaty enthusiast though, FromSoftware was a guarantee of exactly the sort of absolute filth they crave. Esoteric systems. Player hostility. Muddy, ugly graphics designed to scare the weak away. From the Playstation 1 straight through to the Playstation 3, FromSoftware was known for its various franchises of extremely niche, rock hard video games for cool and sexy weirdos.
Tenchu was the stealth series for the people who found Metal Gear Solid’s clear communication and braindead guards an insult to the concept, for people who craved an experience where taking out a single guard and getting away with it feels like a miracle. King’s Field was there for the refined RPG fan who found the garish colours and absurd stories of more traditional JRPGs offensively adolescent. Enjoy vibing out in detailed cabins and reading letters from ghosts? The shockingly ahead-of-their-time Echo Night games were there for you.
The absolute king of them all was Armored Core – a mech simulator that made the dream of piloting a giant robot feel about as exciting as getting an MOT on an ‘89 Vauxhall Nova. Armored Core was a franchise that utterly and completely rejected the “Wow, Cool Robot” aspect of the genre in favour of forcing players to reckon with weight distribution and the inevitable entanglement of technological development with the military-industrial complex. It was in Armored Core that everything that makes FromSoftware was fully realised – taking a subject that 12-year-old boys think would be totally awesome and showing that it would actually be a miserable, soul-destroying slog. And it controls like complete shit.
Then Dark Souls came out and ruined FromSoftware and videogames in general forever. Enough of the cool kids made too many people aware of the basically okay Demon’s Souls that, by the time its spiritual successor came out, it was primed to be the studio’s breakout hit. It was huge. Everyone was playing it. Normal, well-adjusted adults were playing it. Famous people were playing it. They were all talking about it, everywhere, all of the time. It was horrid, not least because it was by far one of the least interesting things they’d ever made. But history declared it such a perfect, peerless masterpiece that it became the only thing the developer would make for more than a decade. It became the only thing that lots of developers would make for more than a decade. An endless stream of identical, brown games about locking onto a big man and rolling around him.
Elden Ring was the real final nail in the coffin for the concept of FromSoftware as an entity known for ugly games with niche appeal. A huge, beautiful world built on lore developed by one of the world’s biggest writers, something given whole pages of previews and years of lavish PR. An open world game about rolling around the big man, the single most tired design concept in existence. It was an amalgam of every single idea that’s currently mainstream and boring. It was basically an Assassin’s Creed game, a real solid 6. Of course, it was one of the biggest videogames of all time, making more money and being heaped with more plaudits than can be truly comprehended.
So it was a real surprise to hear that FromSoft’s next game was going to be the long-overdue return of Armored Core, something that about 14 games journalists have been incessantly asking for over the span of two console generations. Not only that, the director was making it clear that it would be retaining the mission-based, linear structure of the rest of the series. The game is still filled with menus. The fear was always that if AC ever did return, it would be as a grotesque Armored Souls – a joyless flattening of everything that makes the series what it is to appease the demands of the masses who really like locking onto the big man and rolling around him.
It’s the first real risk the studio has taken in years. Following up a crowd-pleasing, expansive RPG filled with pretty trees and waterfalls with an obtuse, linear shooter filled with metal and monotony is the sort of move that cool developers of weird games for perverts make. It’s the first chance that FromSoftware has had in a very long time to be cool again. The absolute best case scenario is that Armored Core 6 releases to fives and sixes from the mainstream press, that it absolutely repels the fanbase they’ve built over the last ten years. If gamers at large express disgust at being unable to lock onto the big man and roll around him, there may finally be a chance for FromSoftware to grow – by reverting to what they were like during their golden age (2004).
FromSoftware simply should never have been making 10 out of 10s. Its name shouldn’t have been anywhere near glitzy Game of the Year shows with huge corporate sponsors and audiences filled with celebrities. It really does feel like such a conscious decision, that even FromSoftware is tired of Soulsbornes at this point. It’s ready to slink back into the shadows and start cranking out dense ninja simulators for anoraks. If Armored Core 6 is as boring and unappealing as the heights of the rest of the franchise, it will be the single most exciting release of the year.