Review: Bionic Dues

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The big issue with Arcen Games is how all of them are missing that last level of essential polish, the pass that adds transition effects between menus or visual feedback when you click a button. The result is that all of their games feel fundamentally unfinished, like you’re playing the final alpha candidate. That being the case, it’s entirely up to the gameplay to redeem the title. With Starward Rogue, it’s worth the hassle to experience. With Shattered Haven, it isn’t. And with Bionic Dues, it really, very, aggressively is not worth struggling through.

Bionic Dues places you as the commander of a futuristic city’s defenses. The robots have risen just like the Wachowskis said they would, and you’re the last hope of keeping the city from being overrun. When you start a new game you choose four classes of bots to command and your commander persona, and then get dumped to the city overview. The terribly verbose popups explain the setup and your basic approach: Complete missions on the map to grow your forces and weaken theirs in preparation for the final assault on the city.

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The map is a network of nodes spreading out from your HQ. Completing the mission at a node allows you access to the nodes connected to it. You have 50 days before the robots try to make jaunty hats out of your human asses and each mission takes one day to complete. As you might expect, missions come in many different flavors, providing different challenges, objectives, and rewards. This makes it important to not only choose useful missions in terms of what resources you need, but also for what subsequent missions they unlock.

Once you click on a mission, you get launched straight into the wall that Bionic Dues shatters against. The actual gameplay is roguelike, with you moving your bot around dark, narrow hallways one grid space at a time. Enemies don’t activate until they get line of sight on you, and you’ll have a variety of bots and weapons on each to switch between and fight back with. It looks pretty complicated at first, but you’ll soon get the hang of scooting around and picking off enemies from afar.

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At that point, one of three things is going to happen. The first and most likely is that an enemy bot will end up in your face, either from being strangely well-armored or just hiding behind a door, and systematically one-shots your entire team. Mistakes in Bionic Dues are punished harshly, to the point that stepping one square too far can mean the difference between a flawless victory and total defeat. Your foes are wildly different in the threats they present, but even after memorizing which ones will end you in an instant you’re still going to have moments where they pop up from behind cover or a door to ruin your run.

If the unforgiving enemies don’t get you right away, you might find yourself clicking on them with empty guns. Your bots have two or three weapons each, and they’re all on extremely limited ammo counts. This makes it even harder to recover from mistakes, because losing even one bot usually means losing out on ammo essential for reaching the end of the mission. You have stealth and hacking options but of course these too are under strict point limitations. The takeaway after a mere thirty minutes with Bionic Dues is that you need to be on point with your strategy and your resource management right from the gate. And yet even that won’t always save you, because of the third issue with the game, heavily randomized factors like traps and consoles. Deadly traps are to be expected in any roguelike but the consoles are just awful, offering random effects in exchange for hacking points but can very easily steal all your ammo or break your weapons. Even the layout of the level works against you, because there’s never any logic to guide you to the goal and the foes in your way can number in the single-digits or the high dozens.

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Presumably you can mitigate some of this pain by upgrading your bots, but there’s yet another wall of stats and slots and abilities to sort through for each of your mechs. As with the rest of the cobbled-together interface the upgrade screen is a mashup of overly-detailed item slots and tiny eye-straining text that tries as hard as it can to be funny in far too many words. This is a persistent problem across the entire game, the absolutely atrocious writing that turns simple status messages into a dialog between you and the world’s least witty unseen adjutant. You’ll find a ton of randomized gear to slot into your mechs on each mission, but sussing out what is actually going to be useful on which mech takes a lot of study and experience that Bionic Dues simply doesn’t earn.

For as much as I love Starward Rogue, I hate Bionic Dues. Arcen’s cluttered, garish graphics are at their worst here with indistinct mechanical shapes dropped onto grids of dark, ugly squares evocative of nothing. The sound design is inconsistent in its impact or even presence, with virtually no audio cues for important happenings like being spotted or stealth running out. These issues could be overlooked if the core gameplay is compelling, but there’s far too much frustration and wasted effort to dig through to get to the actual strategy. I’m having trouble thinking of a roguelike I’ve had less fun with than Bionic Dues, and its only saving grace is that it was eventually succeeded by Starward Rogue.

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