Inside Pulse 12

Review: Armored Core: Last Raven Portable (Sony PSP)

Armored Core: Last Raven Portable
Genre: Action/Adventure
Developer: From Software
Publisher: From Software
Release Date: 05/04/10

As someone who’s had an interest in the Armored Core series, I’m always somewhat excited when I have a chance to play one of the games, if only because I like customizing giant robots. From Software has stood behind the series for over a decade now, from its awkward beginnings on the PS1 through its gradual expansion and development on the PS2 until its streamlined current gen releases, and as a fan, it’s been fun watching the series grow and evolve. While the console market has generally received a new Armored Core title every year or so, handheld systems generally haven’t seen too many of the games for various reasons. From gave the franchise a try on the PSP back in 2005 with Armored Core: Formula Front, to limited success, but in the last few months they’ve taken a more simplified approach to bringing the franchise to the portable market by porting older games in the series to the PSP as downloadable titles. This is, in theory, not a terrible idea, as updated versions of the classic games would be a good way for newer fans to experience the roots of the franchise, and fans of those games would more than likely welcome the chance to revisit some of their old favorites. Armored Core: Last Raven Portable, the most recent updated release, would also certainly qualify as a classic in the series, as it was the last game of the Armored Core franchise to be released on the PS2 and a generally good entry in the series overall. As a PSP release, however, Last Raven Portable simply doesn’t work for exactly the reason fans of the franchise could have predicted: converting a game that uses pretty much every button on the controller to a system with less buttons has the effect of making the game mechanically unfriendly at best and a completely unplayable mess at worst.

The story of Last Raven Portable is identical to that of the PS2 game, so if you’ve played through that game, you know the score. The world of Armored Core basically revolves around massive corporations and small radical movements waging war by way of recruiting Armored Core pilots to blow up people, places and things, as well as each other. The story this time around picks up after the events of Armored Core: Nexus, with the world in shambles and everyone scrambling to create some sort of order. The major corporations of the world have united in the wake of a major world catastrophe and the fall of the Raven’s Ark (the mercenary group that managed the Ravens, or AC pilots) to create “The Alliance”, a major corporate body controlling all of the world’s resources. Of course, no major corporate alliance goes unopposed, and in this case the opposition comes from a Raven known as Jack-O, who creates a terrorist organization of sorts known as Vertex to oppose them. As the game begins, Vertex has announced that they will launch a massive offensive in twenty four hours, and both sides are essentially demanding every Raven join up or die. The basic gist of the story is pretty much what fans of the franchise have come to expect: you, as a new mercenary, take on missions, make decisions on who to assist and who to attack, and generally dictate the fate of the world through your actions. This was pretty new in Last Raven, though it’s since become a normal part of the series. Since you are, for the purposes of the game, nameless, faceless, and genderless, the communications you have with hiring bodies, other Raven pilots and your operator are often fairly nondescript and direct, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. From Software has had a lot of practice at this sort of storytelling and it shows, as the story actually manages to come together fairly well and makes a decent amount of sense, no matter what story path you choose or which side you help or harm throughout your play sessions. The story is also fairly well connected to Armored Core: Nexus, if you’ve played that, which makes the experience more involved for long time fans of the franchise, as it makes your previous time spent with the earlier game feel like it MEANS something when you pick up the next game in the series.

Last Raven Portable looks good on the small screen, and the visuals are mostly on par with the game’s PS2 counterpart in terms of overall impressiveness. The AC’s look imposing and are well animated, as are the smaller, less impressive MT’s and robotic enemies, though some enemies, such as groups of soldiers, look poor up-close. The environments are generally well rendered, and while some of the more closed-in environments tend to look similar to one another, the open-air environments generally look varied and exciting when you’re battling within them. The various special effects, from laser blasts to explosions and beyond, are also very well done, as they are in most Armored Core titles, and the HUD visuals and the various menus to navigate are clean and well formatted, so you can get all the information you need immediately, even if you don’t always understand it at first. The music in Last Raven Portable is pretty outstanding, as is usually the case, as it features fitting electronic music, alternating between ambient haunting tunes, fast-paced driving beats, and swelling epic tracks depending on the mission and the situation you find yourself facing. The voice acting is generally solid, and while some of the acting from the extras is cringe-worthy, the voiceovers from the principal players in the story are generally well done all around. The sound effects are also quite well done all around, and fit the futuristic mech combat concept of the game perfectly, mixing the violent crashing and explosions of ballistic combat with the high-tech whines and whooshes of futuristic energy weapons beautifully.

As we noted back when we were discussing Armored Core: For Answer back in 2008, the gameplay of the Armored Core franchise is really where the games begin to shine… as well as where the franchise tends to lose players. Unlike that game, however, Last Raven Portable is set up under the older control scheme that was used in the later PS2 titles, and while the controls are revamped a bit for the PSP release, fans of games like Armored Core Nexus and Armored Core: Nine Breaker will probably have a decent idea of what’s going on here, while fans of the more modern Armored Core 4 or later might have some learning to do. You’re offered a couple of default control schemes to choose from, as well as the ability to customize those control schemes to work as you see fit, allowing you to cobble together a control style that’s right for you, which isn’t too daunting. Aside from the obvious ability to look around, move around, strafe, and so on, movement in your AC isn’t limited to slow ground combat, thanks to your boosters. You can fly around, zip along the ground, use the boosters for a quick boost forward/backward/sideways to avoid fire, and enable Overboost (high speed boosting that drains your energy in a hurry) when needed to close or increase the distance between you and a target as quickly as possible. As this is a PSP release of an older Armored Core release, boosting drains your energy meter (a meter at the top of the screen that indicated your AC’s energy output from its generator) significantly, leaving you only able to do it for a few seconds at a time, depending on the weight of your AC and the parts equipped. You’re also given several different weapons and mounting locations for them, between your arms, back, and shoulders, which you can switch between and use at the press of a button. Each weapon has different effects and uses, so you might use a heavy gatling gun and a laser blade with back mounted missile launchers and shoulder mounted retaliation missiles, or missile arms, a back mounted rocket launcher and grenade launcher, and shoulder flares for confusing enemy missiles, or whatever, and all of these weapons are simple to enable and use. You’re also offered up a few other novelties, depending on your AC layout, such as “Overboost”, which we discussed previously, and Exceed Orbit, which deploys autonomous devices to shoot at enemy forces, among other things.

The game isn’t all boosting and shooting however, as you’ll spend more than a fair amount of time back at your garage, customizing your AC and taking missions and such. This amounts to little more than menu navigation, of course, but what you do in these menus is what ensures success or failure in your commissioned missions. Aside from being able to take on missions and Arena Battles (one on one fights against other, CPU controlled AC’s) from the garage, you can also shop for new parts for your AC and customize it in many, many different ways. As you complete missions, new parts can potentially be unlocked, either in the shop or as bonuses for completing a mission, each for different sections of the AC (weapons, heads, cores, generators, Firing Control Systems, and so on), and each with different effects. The effects these components will have on your AC are all spelled out fairly neatly on-screen, in basic and advanced formats, to give you full numerical representations of exactly what the piece you’re equipping will do to your craft. For example: a heavy set of legs will most likely improve your overall armor points, shell resistance, and weight capacity, but might reduce your Armor Point score, energy resistance, and movement speed, or a light head might improve your camera response, aiming capability, and Armor Point score, but might reduce your heat displacement and defensive abilities, or what have you. Each piece you can equip will, in some form or fashion, have an impact on your AC’s performance, and you will have to take this into account as you design it: do you want a fast, light AC that can run rings around foes, or a heavy AC with tons of weapons and armor to decimate foes with pure might? These choices will determine the best loadouts for you, from mission to mission, which will mean spending time adjusting your craft beyond sticking things onto it and calling it a day, but thankfully you can save several designs as needed.

Beyond that, however, there are also several other things the more customization-minded player can sink their teeth into. You can totally redesign the color scheme of your AC across its body parts and weaponry, and whether you simply want to customize one uniform color scheme or you want to completely recolor each and every piece on the unit you’ll have the options you want at your fingertips. Decals can also be attached all over the AC, for those who like to totally customize the appearance of their units from the ground up. You can also tune your parts by devoting up to ten points to up to five categories, which can reduce weight, increase armor, improve cooling, and other such things. These tuning improvements allow you to tweak parts, allowing you to improve performance in specific areas as your needs dictate. These things aren’t necessary to plow your way through the story of the game, but for anything beyond that, they will certainly be something you will want and need to consider. Last Raven Portable also includes some specific elements that other games in the series do not, such as the ability to damage and destroy specific AC components and the ability to cause your own or enemy AC’s to overheat, which causes persistent damage over time until the AC cools down, and these sorts of elements will need to be considered when designing an AC to ensure optimal performance and survival rates.

Now, Last Raven Portable isn’t just about plowing through the story mode, and while you can certainly do that, as there are over seventy missions to cut through across six different ending paths, that isn’t the only thing to do with the game. You can also play the game against up to three other players in competitive battles, with or without part restrictions, in ad hoc play. There’s no option to play the game online, but with something like XLink this isn’t a problem, so long as you’re willing to get it working, so even if you don’t have any friends to play against you can still play against others with a little effort. Beyond that, you can also go through missions over again once you’ve completed a path, as well as secret parts to uncover in various missions, and between these options and the fact that there are multiple endings and rewards for achieving high rankings on missions (IE the less ammo you burn through and the less armor points you lose, the higher the ranking of the mission), you’ll have plenty to do if you’re into the game.

That said, no matter how much joy you can derive from building AC’s and blowing stuff up, you may not be able to deal with the complexity and difficulty of the experience long enough to get your money’s worth from the product, and even if you can, Last Raven Portable comes with its own problems.

There are, if boiled down to their most basic essence, three notable problems with any Armored Core game, as we’ve discussed before, and this certainly holds true for Last Raven Portable. The first is that the game, while certainly challenging, is oftentimes unbalanced in its difficulty, to the detriment of the experience. Fighting against lower powered foes (IE those not in AC’s) is generally pretty easy from the beginning of the game to the end, and even an unskilled pilot can generally plot through weaker foes with little to no issue, given enough ammunition and armor points. Facing down other AC’s, however, is often either a gigantic pain in the ass or a cakewalk, depending on weapon loadout and AI exploitation. Now, it should be noted that if you are facing down an opposing AC alone, in an open area, especially higher ranked AC’s late in the game, it’s entirely possible to be ripped apart by your opposition unmercifully, which is half of the balancing issue. Having to redesign your AC depending on the mission and opposition will be fun for those who like the genre and the concept, but everyone else is going to get tired of this after the third time they’ve had to do this thing. Now, the OTHER problem with balancing is that, in closed environments or when working with powerful allies, missions facing down other AC’s can be exceptionally easy, largely because of stupid opponent AI and powerful allies. While exploiting stupid AI behavior can occasionally be useful to a player, when

1.) this is occasionally the ONLY way some players will be able to beat the game in the first place, and
2.) this is a tactic I personally exploited against Nine Ball in the original Armored Core, a game that came out thirteen years ago,

it’s time to make some balance improvements in your AI. In fairness, this isn’t a problem in MOST cases, but when it does pop up, it’s noticeable.

The second significant problem is the fact that the Armored Core franchise is the Madden of giant robot combat, in that we pretty much get a new game once a year whether we’re ready for it or not, with some nominal changes and a bunch of the same content we’ve come to expect, and this is especially notable because Last Raven Portable is a re-release of a PS2 release, meaning that if you’ve played that, THIS IS THE SAME THING. While it’s fair to say that Last Raven Portable is a significant improvement over, say, Armored Core and the two expansions based off of that game, it’s functionally identical in many respects to Armored Core Nexus, and in many respects feels more primitive than Armored Core 4 and Armored Core For Answer all around. It’s not that the game is BAD so much as that the game isn’t even moderately original that hurts it here, both because it’s a re-release of an older title and because it wasn’t especially new and exciting when it came out in the first place.

Now, when discussing most Armored Core titles, the biggest problem with the game would inevitably be the fact that the franchise as a collective whole isn’t really accessible to many people after a certain point in the game, simply because you are going to have to spend time tuning your AC and learning what works and what doesn’t in order to make significant progress, which will turn some people off. As a casual experience, a player can have a lot of fun with the game to a point; there’s a large tutorial at the beginning of the game and the first several missions are balanced enough that a less-skilled player can jump into them and figure out what’s going on without much trouble. But eventually, that player will hit a wall, and even if they can manage that, there’s no guarantee they can get through what comes after. From there, they will have to go through the game around five more times (to earn all of the endings), earn S ranks in the various missions, blow through the Arena, and so on in order to get everything from the game they expected to, and frankly, many of those people won’t be able to make it through ONCE simply because, even though the franchise has been simplified significantly, it’s still not simple enough for anyone who doesn’t want to learn stats and battle tactics and weapon effects and so on to manage their way through.

When discussing the PSP releases in general and Last Raven Portable in specific, however, the BIGGEST problem is that the control scheme is horrendous and the franchise simply DOES NOT translate well to the system. Formula Front was adequate in that it was basically a game where you COULD play the game, but could also set the AI to play in your stead, and the mechanics were designed with the PSP in mind. These PS2 translations, however, are games that literally make use of every button on the controller. EVERY. ONE. You’d be using all eight functional buttons, the R3 and L3 buttons AND both sticks to play the games, so that we understand each other. Translating that experience to a hand-held system with six buttons and one stick means, in simple terms, that you’ll be fighting to find a control scheme that doesn’t end up getting you killed while fighting with it. Speaking as someone who had to deal with the unfriendly controls of the FIRST game, Armored Core: Last Raven played perfectly fine on the PS2, and if you want to play the game, you would be better served buying that instead, because the PSP controls are hideous. When you have to set weapon change options to the D-Pad because you had to set the face buttons to look around and the triggers as your left and right weapons, this is not conducive to proper play and it makes the experience, at best, awkward and at worst, unplayable. This coupled with the fact that Last Raven Portable is one of the harder entries in the series, thanks to the ability to have parts shot off and the ability to overheat your AC, among other things, makes the game an unpleasant experience for anyone who isn’t used to how the franchise works, and a disappointing one for anyone who is.

Armored Core: Last Raven is one of the better entries in the Armored Core franchise, despite its flaws, but you wouldn’t know it after playing Last Raven Portable, both because the game now has to compare to more accessible entries like Armored Core For Answer and because the PSP version of the game simply isn’t any fun to play. Those who can get into the game will find an experience brimming with personality and style, featuring exciting, challenging combat, tons of depth and substance, and a significant amount of replay value waiting to reward their patience. For those who lack the patience or the desire to learn the mechanics of the game, however, the unbalanced AI in AC battles and not insignificant learning curve will turn them off, those who are worn on the franchise will have no reason to pick up a remake of a game they’ve already played, and everyone else will be put off by the fact that you’re forced to fight against the controls as often as you’re forced to fight against the enemy. If you’re incredibly patient, willing to learn the mechanics of the game, or a REALLY big fan looking for a fix (and you don’t still have the PS2 game lying around), Last Raven Portable is a mostly adequate game that will keep you interested on the go, but for most people, picking up the PS2 release of the game or one of the next-gen releases will be a far better choice all around.

The Scores:
Story: GOOD
Graphics: GOOD
Sound: GREAT
Control/Gameplay: BAD
Replayability: GOOD
Balance: POOR
Originality: DREADFUL
Addictiveness: MEDIOCRE
Appeal: BAD
Miscellaneous: BAD

Short Attention Span Summary:
Armored Core: Last Raven Portable is an inferior port of a good game that is unlikely to please most players, as it’s not as good as the game it’s ported from, not as accessible as the newer games in the series, and in general not an especially friendly product. The story is still good, the graphics still look nice, and the audio is still solid all around. The game is certainly as in-depth as ever, thanks to the heavy amount of depth in the series overall, and there’s really a lot to like about the game if you’re patient, between the deep gameplay, large amount of content to see, and four player multiplayer that can be jury-rigged to work online. However, the Armored Core series is often not easily accessible to new players, the AI is as unbalanced as it ever was, the game isn’t especially original thanks to the fact that it’s a remake of an older game in the series, and frankly, this PSP port is a bear to play and not very fun as a result. Hardcore fans of the series who don’t have a PS2 handy might find some fun to be had with the game, but otherwise, there’s no point to owning this game when you can buy the newer current gen games or pick up the PS2 game if you look around, leaving Last Raven Portable as a game that is unlikely to be worth your time unless you’re a dedicated fan.