Before the inevitable functional paradigm shift that would occur to take into account an increase in hardware potency, From Software released the last of the traditional Armored Core games on the PlayStation 2. It was a swan song for the series as players knew it, as the newer versions would be functionally very different from this point onwards. Entitled Last Raven, it featured a complex branching narrative occurring over a 24 hour period where the entire world was going to hell in a hand basket. The point of the game was for the player to survive the 24 hours to literally become the last Raven left alive.
Now, I’ve played these games since 1997. Some have been good, others bad and a few completely brilliant. However, it’s safe to say that I know how to play these games as you’d think I’d have had enough practice by now? Wrong. Like every Armored Core game before it the skill set required to just survive changes both subtly and profoundly between each game. Last Raven is no exception as even after thrashing the entirety of Ninebreaker, with all of its 150 Gold medals acquired for each of its training programs, the final entry to the PlayStation 2 Armored Core pantheon promptly blew me into oblivion on the first mission. That’s right, the first mission in the game. Even with all my parts and, what I’d thought to be, a suitably uber AC configuration I still got obliterated. This is why Last Raven is no ordinary Armored Core game.
You need to understand that in terms of gaming difficulty, Last Raven is a total bastard. A beautifully wrought bastard admittedly but the entire singleplayer campaign is there to push you to the very limits of your skill. That’s the thing though, unlike the Armored Core games that pre-date it Last Raven is a heavily scripted and deeply crafted game. In that every facet of the campaign, to the parts you customise your AC with and even the core handling has been reworked so that each component reacts sympathetically with one another. This means there are no instant wins in Last Raven on account of uber parts or an exploit in the handling. Not until you have mastered every nuance the game has through at you can you truly become invincible.
The handling alone is tricky enough to get right though, as dealing with another AC is like try to fight a jet powered brick wall with guns that fire sponges. Initially at least, you don’t understand why they aren’t dropping like flies. The reason behind this is that recoil on your arms effects the accuracy of each shot and, more importantly, damage stats are spread across parts and not the body as a whole. This brings me onto one of the newer features in Last Raven, as each of the parts of your AC’s body can take damage and be destroyed independently (from the head, arms, legs and even weapons). Once the core has been damaged enough, that’s when real pain is inflicted. However, trying to hit an enemy AC core at speed whilst dealing with your own arm recoil isn’t particularly easy and often results in you either running out of ammo or being very dead.
The game itself is set over the course of 24 hours and has multiple branching narratives, where you often get to see fellow Ravens fighting for their life. Thrown into this mix are a selection of ancient mecha known as the Pulverizers. These initially match certain AC configs but later on turn into massive and utterly deadly opponents. What’s often terrifying about facing these enemies, is that you often do it at the end of a mission. So once you’ve barely survived a long and treacherous mission and expended most of your ammo, you then have to face a nails boss. If it’s not clear already, this game is still a bastard.
With practice though you can make it to the end of the mission and take out whatever stands in your way but this is something that isn’t for everyone. Last Raven expects you to persevere, not only in terms of re-examining your AC config but also in your personal acquisition of skill. With most games offering massive rewards for almost zero effort, Last Raven stands apart in this regard.
This is where Last Raven frays at the edges somewhat, not because it is hard but because the components that make it difficult have almost been overworked. The limitations on weapon firing and timing your hits to match the recoil, the heat management whilst you boost and then having to get a bead on your enemy. All of these had to be handled on the fly and coupled with the controls being so “comprehensive” meant that much of the time you were just trying to grapple basics of how the game operated.
Silent Line was superb and flawless because it was perfectly focused and knew just enough to make the game a challenge but not arduous. Last Raven is hard but in the sense that it overly restricts the player when it patently need not to. Much of the difficulty stems from the fact that much of what was taken for granted in the earlier games now has to be micro-managed on the fly. It’s a very different style of game and one that is rewarding but the slog to get there needed to be slightly less discouraging.
This is not to say that an immense amount of thought and care went into this game, as it very obviously had to. To damn Last Raven on the fact that it expects so much from the player should really be lauded and not villified. However, there is an argument to made here towards succinct gaming functionality and on that count Last Raven doesn’t quite make it. That said, the game does do something no-other Armored Core has done to date; once mastered you do have the palpable sense you have piloted a very complex machine.
In any case, Last Raven was a fitting end to the PlayStation 2 era of Armored Core games. It was brutal, sometimes even outright sadistic but always fair. For that it is still, by me at least, regarded as one of the best games in the series and in the mecha gaming pantheon as a whole.
[spoiler show=”Final Level Videos”]