Here’s the thing: Bionic Dues is a Roguelike, but it’s not really like Rogue (or Dungeons of Dredmor if you want a more modern reference). It’s some new type of game that can’t be easily classified. It’s utterly brilliant. Now I need to try and put into words just why that is.
In Bionic Dues, you control a squad of four mechs (“Exos”) in the aftermath of a war that has seen most of your city fall to a robot enemy. You have 50 days to prepare for a final standoff against an ever-growing army, after which your superiors will activate their nuclear contingency plan. As each day ticks by, you get to attempt a single mission on the city map. Succeed and you’ll acquire parts to improve your Exos, or in some way interrupt the enemy’s production chain. Fail and your headquarters get attacked; and you can only sustain five such attacks before you lose the game. Either way, the robot army gets bigger and more powerful each day, and your anticipation and dread at the inevitable final encounter grows.
I found Arcen’s A.I. War Fleet Command to be something special. It’s a very complicated game, and if you squint at it from a distance you could mistake it for Pong. There’s no question in my mind that it was a brilliant strategy game, but there was also no question it was what can only be described as “hardcore”. Despite being packed full of interesting stuff, the interface is clunky and it takes a long time to figure out even what the game is, let alone how to play it. In short, it’s not inviting.
Bionic Dues is, superficially, a very different game, but it shares the same heart as A.I. War. The purpose of both games is to try and acquire the necessary resources to prevent an impending confrontation with a robot enemy. In both games this means completing various objectives that both increase your abilities, and those that impede your enemy’s progress. In Bionic Dues this overarching objective is apparent the whole time you play. On the campaign screen, your current squad is on the left, and (a fraction of) your opponent’s doomsday army is on the right. Missions you select on the map are either based around getting resources to directly improve your army (such as in the form of parts that your Exos can equip, or even improved Exo designs), or in sabotaging your opponent’s progress in some way (eliminating a boss or reducing the AI’s manufacturing capabilities). What makes the two games different from each other are two major design choices: Bionic Dues is turn-based, and that your small army gets more powerful as you progress, rather than more numerous.
This means you get to consider your choices, and that they are more apparently meaningful. In A.I. War, you wouldn’t agonise over the loss of a battle, even if in retrospect it proved to have cost you the entire game. In Bionic Dues, you will agonise over the loss of any mission, because it brings you closer to immediate defeat, and it swings the power balance in the AI’s favour. But even more than that, you’ll question whether picking one mission over another is the right thing to do.
As such, the map screen, from which you can choose which mission to do next, as well as outfit Exos and purchase gear, was where I found myself making some of the toughest decisions. There’s the immediate consequence over which specific mission to undertake, there are a lot of these from the more generic destroy everything missions to “murderbot” runs which pit you against an enemy that cannot be destroyed (but that will do its utmost to destroy you), and my personal favourite, “overdrive” missions where everything deals ten times its usual damage. But more than that, the map is in the form of a tree, and you’ll need to at least attempt (regardless of whether you succeed or fail) certain missions to be able to access others. This might mean, for example, that you opt for a nearly pointless “blockade” mission in order to gain access to one that rewards you with an “Epic”-class Exo upgrade.
The game seems to start out too easy (at least, with the default starting squad, on normal difficulty). In a way that’s good because you need that low barrier to entry in order to figure out what you’re trying to accomplish, but in the minute-to-minute gameplay the combat doesn’t feel challenging at all, with you able to kill every enemy with a single shot without them getting into range. It gets, in a word, boring. Then all of a sudden you’ll find yourself in a mission where the reverse is true, and your Exos get wiped out in just a few moves (as an aside, you can easily lose your whole squad in four turns through not realising they each one just got destroyed and switched to the next one). The amount of ammunition you have in each level to begin with seems balanced, you’ll just about have enough to simply shoot everything without resorting to more advanced tactics like deploying sentry turrets and mines, or reprogramming enemies, but the shield/damage balance seems to be wrong; I found that my Exos either took a trivial amount of damage or enough to destroy them outright (as was usually the case when they were caught in an explosion). To its credit, the game doesn’t hide any information from you, you can mouse over any detected unit and see its stats.
If I could offer one pertinent criticism, it’s that the game perhaps doesn’t borrow enough from other roguelikes. Combat aside, within each mission there’s little to do other than loot containers and hack terminals (though this is actually a great system analogous to drinking potions in traditional roguelikes) and doors. After 5 missions you have a handle on what you’re trying to accomplish, and the best order in which to do it. After 10 missions you start to feel that you’ve seen everything the game has to offer (aside from the ever-increasing enemy variety), and even the massive piles of loot lose their sheen, with each tier offering incremental improvements over stuff you’ve previously acquired, but with higher power requirements, rather than some fancy new ability. The remaining missions feel a little like you’re going through the motions, at least until you reach the climactic final battle and realise you were completely unprepared all along.
There’s also the problem of some aspects of the game not being properly explained from the outset. Exos have a power limit that affect which parts can be equipped, but you might not realise this until you try to equip too many parts. Laser-based weapons have limited ammunition, which struck me as counter-intuitive. The game does tell you this, but it’s information that’s embedded amongst other, arguably less important information. In truth though, the game is not particularly overwhelming, and the aspects that seem confusing or poorly explained at first (such as the purposes of each Exo, and how you can only have one in play at a time, but can switch between them at the cost of a single action), make sense after you’ve played a few missions, and you’re not really going to find yourself floundering around to begin with. I also ran into a couple of interface quirks (I must point out that this review is based on a pre-release version), such as getting trapped behind a sentry turret (which can’t be directly targeted in order to just destroy it), virused bots that didn’t do anything, and not being able to sell parts that are archived (though this may be deliberate).
But these are minor criticisms levelled at a superb, genre-defining game. I believe that Bionic Dues is the game Arcen were destined to make. I don’t know if anyone else could have taken so many different ideas and created such a compelling game as a result, and if I’m being totally honest here, I wasn’t even sure if they themselves would be able to create something that was easily comprehensible to the average, short-on-time gamer, based on their track record. But they have, and I hope they now back it up with the necessary marketing in order to get the word out.
This is a fantastic strategy game; one of those rare ones that’s conceptually simple, and high on risk-reward decisions. It’s ultimately a nerdy, stat-based game, with most of the enjoyment coming from comparing loot, min-maxing Exo builds, prioritising missions, and planning routes, but it scratches that particular itch very well. This being Arcen, who are positively righteous in their drive to improve their released games, we can expect that this is just the beginning. If they can just add a little more spice to the missions and available loot, this could wind up being one of the best turn-based games available today.
Performance & Quality
The only serious issue I encountered across my playthrough of the (pre-release) version was that the game would sometimes hang on startup (quitting and restarting it usually resolved the issue). Graphically, the game is adequate, there’s limited animation and a lack of variety in the way individual maps look (compared to say, the different floors of Dungeons of Dredmor), but it’s a massive improvement visually over A.I. War, and probably not going to be a barrier to entry. Still, performance didn’t seem to be an issue, and there’s an assortment of graphical options in case you do experience poor frame rate and want to switch something off.
The sound design is rather bland, I preferred to play with the sound off as it became too repetitive, and there’s a track over the menu screen which I’ll just label as “odd”.