Title: Daemon X Machina
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Publisher: Marvelous (JP), Nintendo (WW)
Release date: 13 September 2019
This review was written based on the Japanese release of the game, and may not reflect changes made to versions released in other regions.
With From Software’s Armored Core series having been in hibernation since the release of Armored Core: Verdict Day in 2013, fans of the relatively niche mecha action genre have been left starved for years- Though franchises like Gundam may still be go strong, many of those games focus more on making use of existing IPs, and lack the in-depth customisation and focus on creating your own robot that Armored Core had.
Furthermore, Verdict Day and its predecessor Armored Core V were titles that left fans divided due to their focus on online multiplayer, with some content straight up being unavailable to players who did not wish to participate in large amounts of faction-based online shenanigans, and made many changes to the traditional AC formula which resulted in more than a handful of fans discontent, and such fans would say that the last true Armored Core was 2008’s Armored Core: For Answer.
With the runaway success of the Souls series since 2009’s Demon’s Souls and From Software’s pivot to focus on games in that vein, the future seemed bleak for AC fans. As such, news that former Armored Core producers Nabeshima Toshifumi and Tsukuda Kenichirou had both left From Software and were now with other companies and working on their own mecha games was met with enthusiastic anticipation. Unfortunately, Nabeshima’s collaboration with Square Enix turned out to be less than ideal, a tragedy which can be attributed to the team trying to do something different.
Tsukuda’s Daemon X Machina, however, went in the opposite direction: All fans of Armored Core immediately saw the similarities, which were only heightened with the involvement of Kawamori Shouji, the same mecha designer who worked on the AC series. Though Tsukuda is a controversial figure amongst hardcore AC fans, pre-release footage, information and demos left many convinced that Daemon X Machina had gotten it right. The game thus had a lot to live up to, and thankfully, for the most part, it does.
Daemon X Machina is without a doubt a spiritual successor to Armored Core, embracing the core aspects of the series while also using its position as a new series to make changes that would be otherwise unthinkable: For example, while Armored Core games traditionally never actually showed the pilots of its titular robots, Daemon X Machina is gratituous in its depictions of the humans involved, with Outers (as pilots are called in the setting) standing around in the hanger discussing briefings, and shown in their cockpits during cutscenes in missions. In fact there is a far heavier emphasis on depictions of characters than Armored Core games do, with each of the factions having its own form of drama and some sort of plot line resolved along the course of the story. The story itself, on the other hand, is mostly treated as a convoluted (if fascinating) backdrop for the setting, with almost nothing resembling a plot until the last parts of the game, and even then little is explained.
Fans of Armored Core games would of course be looking not for characters and story, but for gameplay, and Daemon X Machina delivers on that aspect magnificently. Controlling the Arsenal mechs feels close to flawless, and multiple presets alongside the option to customise controls means that players should be able to find or come up with their own ideal button layout. The interface too is customisable, with the player being allowed to move and resize aspects of the UI freely. Customising Arsenals- Mixing and matching parts and weapons, and painting parts and adding decals- Works precisely as one would expect.
Missions are for the most part short and sweet, with simple objectives, though there are a several outliers (including a few that require the player to go through sections on foot instead of using their Arsenal). The boss battles against the giant Immortals are without a doubt the best part of the game. While similar in concept to the Arms Forts of Armored Core: For Answer, that game’s giant bosses were mostly simplistic pushovers primarily there for eye candy, while Daemon X Machina’s bosses manage to maintain a moderate level of visual impressiveness while also functioning more like traditional video game bosses, and are actually fun to fight. The game also has its own unique additions, such as the ability to pick up and use objects as weapons (including as throwing projectiles), the ability to activate special modes to power up specific functions of the Arsenal, and the ability to make an autonomous copy of the player’s Arsenal to double-team enemies. The player character can also undergo cybernetic surgery to improve their ability to pilot their Arsenal, which also results in changes to their appearance.
There are issues to be had with Daemon X Machina’s gameplay, however. While most of the missions are great, there are a few obvious stinkers such as one which requires the player to sneak through a base on foot, and a couple may feel too long. While customisation is great, it lacks the variety of many Armored Core games, with a lack of reverse-jointed quad, hover or tank legs, not that many types of weapons and equipment, a limitation of only one decal per part, and no extensive emblem editing options. The base system also remains highly esoteric, with little explanation as to what most stats do, which is likely to scare away many newcomers (an issue which was also present in From Software’s Armored Core and Souls series).
The biggest problem with the game, however, is the random loot drop aspect. In most cases the player cannot simply buy or develop parts and weapons, and has to either obtain one off an enemy, or develop one using a different part which was obtained off an enemy. While one should easily be able to complete the game itself using the drops obtained along the way, customisation is a core aspect of the game, and players are bound to want one part or another, and obtaining specific parts, especially rarer ones, can become extremely frustrating.
This is at its worst when it comes to needing multiplayer-only boss drops to craft unique parts: If one goes into a random room the host might change the stage without warning, and if one starts their own room they might get players who do things like run unoptimal builds for fighting the boss or spend excruciatingly long amounts of times in between stages doing nothing and delaying the start of the mission. Worse, the cutscenes at the start and end of each boss fight in multiplayer cannot be skipped, further adding to frustration, and as the multiplayer versions of bosses are balanced for multiplayer, it is not feasible to take them on alone or with AI companions (the same bosses are available in single player missions, but do not drop the items necessary for crafting their parts there). While drop rates can seemingly be increased by destroying specific parts on bosses before defeating them, bad luck can potentially see a player fighting the same boss for hours on end with nothing gained.
While Daemon X Machina is certainly a worthy successor to Armored Core, featuring fantastic gameplay, it also makes some of its own mistakes, a par for the course when venturing into new territory. Nevertheless, it is definitely a must-play for mecha fans, and it cannot be understated just how great it feels to control the Arsenals. Additionally, Daemon X Machina’s core is strong, oozing with potential, and one can feel that if a sequel that expands upon it like For Answer and Verdict Day did their respective base games is released, we might end up with a mecha game series to surpass Armored Core.
The Good: Fantastic combat and great bosses. Controls are fantastic, and few things feel better than blasting across a map with Hermes boosters.
The Bad: Customisation somewhat lacks variety, and grinding (especially for boss drops in multiplayer) can be absolutely miserable.
Conclusion: While Daemon X Machina may be a much-awaited game for fans of the genre, and definitely a must-play for such fans, it is also very much still a diamond in the rough, lacking a small but unfortunately crucial bit of polish.