There’s a better-than-even chance that I’ll never be good at Bionic Dues. That’s fine. I’m not particularly good at any of Arcen’s games, with their fathoms-deep gameplay complexities and their heavy reliance on tooltips to haul players past learning curves that more resemble cliffs than slopes. I have a lot of affection for Arcen’s games—for their ambition, their scope, and their eccentricity—even if I’ve honestly never had the intellectual fortitude to really-and-truly penetrate one.
That same intimidating intricacy accounts for roughly one half of why roguelikes can seen uninviting (the other half being sheer unabashed brutality). Which is of course why so many exemplars of the roguelike-alike renaissance have applied Rogue’s signature quirks to shorter-form, more arcade-inflected formats.
Oddly enough, it’s that tradition from which Bionic Dues proceeds. Indivudal missions are short and punchy. Failure is as clear in its causes as it is spectacular in its results. Save scumming is an option.
If you’re reckless, you can even jump right in without genuinely understanding how the whole thing works, and do moderately well, for a while. That’s quite a concession, by Arcen’s estimable standards. (Though when one’s main point of comparison is A.I. War, it’s not hard for just about any other game to be forgiving by contrast).
It works like this. You have four mechs (or maybe four modes for one big old Voltron of a mech, since they move as one on the battlefield). You manage them, and you take them on missions of rescue or reconnaissance or outright firefights. These missions are turn-based, movements within them tile-based, in classic roguelike style—and as I say, they’re initially as friendly as to uninformed bumbling and irresponsible experimentation as they are to thoughtful tactics.
It’s characteristically counter-intuitive that Arcen would craft their most accessible game since Tidals by combining roguelike principles with another of the the most notoriously unwelcoming templates in vieogaming: mech combat. These are games in which you build a hulking robot from an ever-expanding cache of component parts, and take that ‘bot into battle. It’s a format that’s equal parts obsessive micro-tinkering and blowing shit up good, with a verse-chorus-verse approach to engaging different parts of the player’s brain.
In Bionic Dues, those individual songs are part of a larger cycle. The missions and the mech construction are merely preparation for a single, cataclysmic event, and a layer of management and large-scale decision-making therefore sits atop of the game’s already onion-like structure. The are a hundred places to screw it all up, but remarkably, and to the game’s credit, I always know exactly where and when and how I’ve screwed up, when I screw up, which is often.
I haven’t learned to thrive in Bionic Dues, and maybe I never will, but I’m engaged with it—and it seems to care a bit more about my engagement than games this complicated usually manage to. I’ll take that.