Developer: Arcen Games
You and your mech squadron are all that stand between twelve million people and nuclear annihilation.
Bionic Dues pulls no punches in terms of its premise. After a futuristic mega-city plays host to a machine revolution, its corporate overlords opt to nuke the metropolis unless its few remaining defenders can put the rebellion to rout. As the only EXO pilot still alive, you'll lead a small force of walking tanks in tense engagements against the enemy, choosing your missions and doing your best to cripple the bionic foe's infrastructure while strengthening your own forces. Every decision has a consequence and a cost, both in terms of rewards and time. There's never enough time.
Whatever happens, you'll have fifty days to prepare before a climactic final battle against the robot hordes... the strength of which depends entirely on your choices, victories and defeats. With the fiercely innovative Arcen Games at the helm, this ambitious 'Rogue-Lite' boasts sensational hidden depths.
Once you've chosen a commander with a unique perk and a team of four preset EXOs boasting different weapon configurations and tactical options (read: 'Mechs', more on that later), you're thrown into a randomised city map with fifty days on the clock. A sprawling web of missions unfold before you, from resource raids to assassinations and factory bombing runs, putting the battle to save the citizens entirely in your hands.
Each mission takes a single day to complete, during which the robot rebellion manufactures more units, stronger forces and bigger bosses to field against you in the inevitable final battle. You've therefore got to spend your precious time carefully and pick your battles for maximum effect. Sallying forth against armouries or propulsion labs will net you powerful upgrades for your EXO squad, but grants the foe another day to expand their army. Conversely, a strike against an enemy fabrication unit damages the enemy infrastructure, while tough assassination objectives might wipe out a boss ahead of time, but may result in your own units becoming underpowered.
If you win, you get paid and/or deal a blow to the enemy. But if you fail, you're still returned to the world map, only in a weaker position and needing to fight back that much harder. Your HQ takes damage if you fall in battle, which in turn can be repaired if you expend yet another day in an optional mission, requiring yet another hair-pulling sacrifice. We love making big decisions in our videogames rather than being railroaded into a single non-choice, and Bionic Dues has them in spades.
However, you'll also make some seriously big decisions when you're on the ground, thanks to a superb turn-based battle system.
Bionic Dues' Roguelike pretensions are immediately obvious when you enter the procedurally-generated battlegrounds, resembling the grid-based games of yore (and the slew of nostalgic recent offerings). Your squad acts as a single unit that moves in cardinal directions, exploring the dungeons and facing off against the robotic defenders in traditional one action, one turn gameplay. Each mech brings different weapons to the fray -- the Assault class dukes it out with mid-range lasers and grenades while the Ninja gets up close and personal for stealthy strikes, for example -- requiring you to keep a close eye on your engagement range, potential splash damage and the enemy numbers. Welcome shortcuts, sarcastic tooltips and effective streamling abounds, though I'd suggest rebinding Mech switching to F1-F4, since it's more intuitive than using the 6-9 keys.
It's a supremely tactical experience, battles balancing on a razor's edge and pitting you against overwhelming odds. Enemies can be lured or kited through their own minefields, into range of environmental hazards or through choke points, while your EXOs can be outfitted to lay sentry turrets or proximity mines. Limited stealth lets you sneak through enemy positions or close for devasting point-blank assaults, perhaps even spending virus points to convert key units to your side. Vulnerable 'Siege' DPS EXOs blast out ruinous area of effect damage at the cost of survivability, whereas weak science mechs reveal more of the map and can access loot hidden behind locked doors. As you play, you'll gradually unlock a host of randomised upgrades that let you hone in on different playstyles, creating a versatile team of EXOs to field. Power generation, CPUs, weapon modifications, hacking modules and more are all up for grabs... depending on your choice of missions and lady luck, of course.
Unpredictability keeps a Roguelike fresh, and Arcen Games have gone to town on this front. Enemy troops appear in random locations, but also boast bizarre glitches and quirks thanks to their mass-produced, jury-rigged AI. Some bots teeter around the maps on malfunctioning motors, or accidentally kill all their friends due to weak targeting systems. Hackable terminals can yield major mid-mission advantages such as health recharges or enemy debuffs, but could equally punish you by draining resources or resupplying hostile forces. You won't know until you try. Missions also massively vary depending on their objective, with some encouraging stealth, hacking or even running away from invulnerable 'Murderbots' as quickly as possible rather than engaging them on your own terms.
The final mission is always a battle royale of insane proportions as hundreds of hostiles assault your HQ, their numbers and effective military strength totally dependent on everything you've done, or failed to do. Regardless of the outcome, it's always an absolute blast.
The taught, tense and delightfully unpredictable gameplay proves to be wonderfully solid, which is a good thing too, because Bionic Dues is an undeniably ugly game when it comes to the visual side of things. Brutishly utilitarian and grim to a fault, its art design and interface are totally focused on functionality and at-a-glance clutter avoidance as opposed to visual flair. Customisation could also be more convenient, seeing as it's impossible to view both an EXO and its potential upgrades on a single screen. Windows as opposed to fullscreen menus would have been nice. An excellent soundtrack helps to pick up the slack, save for one inappropriately upbeat electronica tune that feels jarringly out of place. This is very much a gamer's game, and requires you to use a little imagination to fully enjoy the juicy tactical loveliness within.
As a self-professed 'Rogue-Lite,' Bionic Dues enables saving by default, meaning that you can continually reload unsuccessful missions and brute force your way through the campaign should you want to. Don't. Bionic Dues is one of the few games that actually lets you live out the consequences of your actions, victories and defeats, so be sure to seize the opportunity with both hands. Summon up your courage. Steel yourself. Activate Ironman Mode.
Bionic Dues is at its best when you're not playing to win, rather you're determined to fight to the bitter end come what may. Usually you'll fail to win the final battle, sometimes you won't even make it that far, but you'll always know how your actions influenced the result. You'll create your own emergent narratives through gameplay with each and every attempt, and find yourself spurred on to greater heights the next time round using different combinations of Mechs, pilots and upgrades. And, naturally, your eventual victories will taste oh so very sweet indeed. If you're the kind of gamer who sees defeat as an opportunity to improve and excel, this could well be one of your surprise favourite games of 2013.
- Rock-solid, versatile and unpredictable tactical mech gameplay
- Uniquely tense time limit demands tough decisions and sacrifices throughout multiple playthroughs
- Staggeringly replayable and rewarding, especially on Ironman Mode
- Ugly workmanlike visuals and art direction
- Best played on Iron Man mode, but could be frustrating for some players
- A few customisation UI gripes - more choice of weapons (vs upgrades) would have been nice
The Short Version: Bionic Dues delivers tough decisions, sweeping tactics and enormous mech battles; packing massive replayability and unpredictability into its budget price point. A 'Rogue-lite' to remember and to savour through numerous scorched-earth defeats and hard-won victories.