Back in the late aught’s, when you could still visit a brick and mortar retail shop and borrow your video games before buying them, I rented a game that has stuck with me ever since, despite how completely incomprehensible it was. Some key memories: a stat screen larger than any RPG I had played before, half of which meant nothing, deep playstyle customization, but the best result always ended up abusing dodge moves to be near invulnerable, a completely obscured narrative, told it bits and parts, and smacking away at the heels of giant bosses because it was the most effective tactic. This all proceeded From Software’s now revered Demon’s Souls, as it was in fact the newest entry in their then-flagship franchise Armored Core. More importantly, this was the first game directed by Hidetaka Miyazaki, often regarded as the auteur of the Souls games.
The similarity between the games are no coincidence. Armored Core 4 and it’s sequel were if not a test bed, at least the soil which grew into the Souls franchise. Both gameplay and narrative systems feel like different applications of the same theories
This is true across both game design and narrative, and how the two interact.
Whereas Dark Souls tells its story and builds a world around the history of it’s objects, Armored Core 4 opts for the more traditional cutscenes and mission briefings. They still adopt the language of a story which you have walked into halfway, not at the beginning. Large factions, and even the player character are never properly defined. The world and it’s actors have all have a history before the events of the game. A key fact of the world itself, the fact that megacorporations are essentially holding the earth’s population hostage via a form of the Kessler Syndrome, is not even mentioned until the one of the second game’s final missions. When this style of storytelling was used again in Demon’s Souls, it had been refined. The inclusion of worldbuild and narrative in item descriptions solves the many of this Armored Core 4’s narrative idiosyncrasies, allowing for players to learn about the world in parallel to their adventure, while still refraining from bogging down the core storyline with exposition.
For Answer’s narrative develops the style, includes hidden decisions and branching paths never explicitly defined in the game. Player’s choices are made by the direct actions of their character whether they realize it or not. This reflects the sidequest systems of Souls, which are never visibly tracked in game. If someone asks for your help, you do so by seeking them out and helping them yourself.
The thematics of the stories endings follow a similar path. In Dark Souls’ ominous “good” ending, the player rejects their quest to restore fire to the world of the gods, instead letting it fall into darkness and begin the age of humanity. Armored Core For Answer is bit less metaphorical. The decision to protect the world’s status quo takes the form of protecting the six megacorporations who control the planet and live in massive flying fortresses above the earth they polluted. The good ending entails declawing the corporations and bringing their fortresses down to live on the irradiated surface along without the other half of the population, in the hopes that we may then be able to clear earth’s orbit of debris.
Armored Core’s legacy of bafflingly complex part stats clearly carried over into the souls games, however the often praised simplification seen in Dark Souls to Bloodborne is seen in moving from Armored Core to Demon’s Souls. Armored Core’s items feature such a minute level of gameplay adjustments it’s astounding. This is clearest in when selecting which Firing Control System to equip. An entire part featuring about 12 stats which only affect the minutiae of you lock on mechanic, allow for adjustments of tracking down to the hundredth of a second. Your movement options are defined by a function of four separate boosters. It’s all overwhelming, and maybe the clearest example of why these games never even clicked with the crowd who would later fall head-over-heels for the depth of Souls combat.
Just like the Dark Souls combat however, Armored Core 4’s combat system is defined by it’s dodging mechanic over everything else. The mechanic was new to the franchise in 4, and was then reduced in 5, which was not directed by Miyazaki and featured much more sluggish gameplay. The specifics of the system were adjusted for Souls, as Armored Core’s “quick boosts” do not give any invincibility frames. Something I discovered when trying to do the iconic Souls move of dodging into a massive laser beam, and instead lost half my hit points.
One issue which I don’t believe Miyazaki and FromSoftware are yet to solve however, is the implementation of their larger-than-life bosses. Despite Armored Core having the affordance of 3D movement, engaging massive enemies is still incredibly anti-climatic. The premiere strategy still is to smacking them in the ankles until the whole thing falls apart. When a more elaborate system comes in, it just feels incredibly hacked together and poorly communicates objectives and weak points. A similar line can be drawn to the “puzzle bosses” of Dark Souls, like the much maligned Bed of Chaos. Likewise, the more duel-style fights are often the highlights of both franchises. Cautiously circle strafing and waiting for the moment to parry in Souls games is reflected in two Mechs ripping across the surface of a flooded city, trying to burn out each other’s fuel supply, and time that perfect railgun shot to nail each other on when they change directions. They’re both a gameplay dance of timing and balancing resources.
If anything, that dance has become Miyazaki’s signature style of game. It pops up in all of his projects so far, with a setting overtop to provide some the inspiration for a twist. Of course one person isn’t solely responsible for any game of this size, but it isn’t often you can feel specific design idea and goals push through the project and become a recognizable attribute across different series. We may see these desigb attribute finally be broken in From Software’s upcoming Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. Previews indicate a reduced level of player customization in favour of more focused combat encounters. Whether Miyazaki’s iconic marks will still be present, or forced to evolve into something new is yet to be seen.