I’M WORKING ON IT
A couple of things before we start:
- Bionic Dues is an immensely stupid name. I can’t even figure out what it’s supposed to mean and it’s absolutely non-descriptive of what the game is about.
- For the love of god, Arcen Games, please start outsourcing your art to somebody who can draw. Your art style was strikingly ugly when you released AI War four years ago, and time has not improved your rendering skills. I didn’t buy Valley Without Wind, and do you know why? It’s because it looked utterly bloody horrible. I’m hardly a graphics snob but I still value clarity of visual design as a gameplay feature, and Arcen’s games looking like a confused mess of photoshopped sprites actively puts me off buying them. I only bought Bionic Dues because a) it had giant robots and b) it said “roguelike” on the tin, a genre that is more tolerant of bad graphical talent than most.
Now, the nice thing about Arcen is that if you can drill through the horrible graphics wrapper there’s usually at least a kernel of interesting game design to be found inside, and Bionic Dues is no exception. Homicidal robots have taken over an unnamed city and are manufacturing more of themselves in order to make an assault on your HQ and break out of their urban confines; the longer the campaign game goes on, the stronger and more numerous the robot forces become. They make their attack a maximum of fifty days after the game starts, and all you have to stop them with is a team of four friendly robots – or Exos, as the game calls them to distinguish them from the bad robots.
The adaptive enemy forces are a hallmark of Arcen games going all the way back to AI War, but the difference here is that the robots will never get stronger in response to things the player does. Instead, they will get stronger unless the player actively attacks their factories and HQ facilities; if you don’t do this it’s entirely possible that the robot army will become unmanageably tough when day fifty rolls around and the clanking metallic hordes descend upon your HQ. However, this requirement has to be balanced with acquiring more and better upgrades for your Exos, without which you’ll quickly fall behind in the arms race no matter how many factories you blow up.
Mission selection in Bionic Dues is done via a city map divided into nodes connected by paths, with a different mission sitting on each node. You can see one or two missions past nodes you’ve already reached, but in order to actually access one you have to fight your way to it. Ideally you’d want to do only missions that gave you a direct and immediate benefit of some kind; however, the nature of the city map means that this isn’t always possible, and in order to get to a mission that’ll provide you with a useful reward you might have to first do a couple of less-than-useful ones. While all missions give you credits for destroying robots and loot for opening chests, you’re always painfully aware that a day passes with every mission your complete and that while you were faffing around clearing a blockade or an office block the robots built six more soldiers for their army and levelled up a few of their existing robot classes.
I think this mission setup is probably the most interesting thing Bionic Dues does. In terms of what you do inside the missions themselves the variety is a little bit lacking since it essentially boils down to “Shoot all the robots and/or find the escape pad” with the only real difference being the type of reward you get at the end of it, but it ties in very well with the growing power of the robot enemy. I found myself carving a path towards the missions that I knew would help me in the long run – the ones which offered permanent upgrades to my Exos, or which let me eliminate a portion of the robot army before it attacked – and it’s the city map which gives Bionic Dues its sense of purpose and direction. Without it it’d just be series of micro-roguelike encounters where you blast robots, and while these are fairly well-thought out they would be in extreme danger of becoming very repetitive very quickly without that day timer slowly ticking down and forcing you to take risks on the city map.
The actual roguelike portion of Bionic Dues works like this: when you select a mission from the map your party of four Exos is immediately transported to a top-down roguelike environment. Your Exos all occupy the same square and only one can be active at any one time; the active Exo is the only one which can take actions (and take incoming fire), and switching between Exos takes a turn – essentially allowing your opponents a free hit in a firefight, making intelligent selection of the appropriate Exo for the appropriate job essential. I ran with a heavily shielded Assault Exo for most of the grunt work, switching to a Siege Exo whenever I had to take out large groups with a rocket launcher and a Science Exo whenever I had to unlock a door or deploy mines or a sentry turret. Then there was the Ninja Exo, who was rarely used but who ended up saving missions on half a dozen occasions since it essentially functioned as a panic button.
The robot baddies in Bionic Dues all have their specific themes and eccentricities, you see; Command robots boost other robots around them, while Stealth robots can turn invisible and reduce your range of vision and EMP bots temporarily disable your weapons, and so on and so forth. Most of the robots could be one-shotted with lasers or rockets once I’d installed damage-boosting equipment to all my weapons1, but there was one type that gave me particular trouble: the Doombot. Doombots could not be one-shotted, and each time they scored a hit on my Exos their damage output increased by 50%. (Which meant my strategy of dropping sentry turrets everywhere and luring baddies into them was particularly bad against them because they could power up off of those as well.) By the time I noticed this particular quirk of the Doombot my beefy Assault Exo — who had previously laughed off everything short of a suicide bomb bot — was a smoking pile of junk and I had to very quickly come up with a plan to avoid these suddenly out-of-control Doombots one-shotting each of my lightly-shielded support crew.
This is where the Ninja came in. All Exos have limited stealth capabilities (essentially six or seven turns’ worth of invisibility) but the Ninja gets much more of it with the appropriate upgrades and is the only Exo which can attack out of stealth. To balance this the Ninja’s only good weapon is a very short-range welding laser, but it packs a punch nonetheless and was enough to finish off the Doombots and pull my feet out of fire on that particular occasion; it’s nowhere near an overpowered ability because of how limited it is, but if employed correctly the Ninja’s stealth is just adequate enough to save yourself from one encounter that goes badly. It came to the rescue again a few missions later: I was trying to assassinate some of the boss commander robots of the army that would deploy against me in the final battle, only to discover that two of them had paired up and were healing each other of any damage I managed to inflict. At first my Assault Exo was able to tank their gunfire, but as more and more robots waddled up to the fight my Exos were gradually forced into a corner with no escape routes, and this time the welding laser would be nowhere near enough to kill even one of the boss robots before they repaired the damage. In desperation I tried an ability that I’d previously neglected due to how fiddly it was: the Virus. The Virus can turn any enemy robot in an adjacent square against its comrades, and installing appropriate upgrades had given the Ninja a plethora of Virus points to spend. By stealthing the Ninja up to one of these leviathans and spending nearly all of my stockpiled Virus points to turn it, I turned an almost certain defeat into a victory by the skin of my teeth.
Bionic Dues is pretty good at making you switch up your strategy like this. There’s thirty-odd different robot types in the game, and every so often you’ll come up against one that renders your previous tactics redundant. When that moment comes you have to think fast and execute a new plan using whatever options are open to you, which is why it’s a good idea when outfitting your Exos to try to generalise rather than putting all your faith into one combat Exo with the best upgrades. I was very impressed with the way each of the four Exos in my party ended up getting roughly equivalent amounts of use; it’s a good sign that each of them had abilities that, while situational, were almost always useful, and choosing which Exo you’re going to use and how is the key element of the combat part of the game. Everything else is clicking on things and watching them explode which, while entertaining, does not present much of a challenge beyond ammunition management.
If Bionic Dues has one single problem – that is, beyond its atrociously awful art style – it is that having completed it once I have practically no desire to replay it. I’m finding it hard to put my finger on why exactly this is, especially when so much of the game is procedurally generated and/or adaptive to player input, but ultimately I think it suffers from the same flaw as the XCOM reboot: the fun of the game lies in figuring out how to adapt your strategy and win as it throws new baddies and new challenges at you, but once you have seen all that the game has to offer it becomes a simple matter of going through the motions. There were several moments during the six hours I spent with it where Bionic Dues wrong-footed me, and I do think these moments were more than worth the £5 price tag. In the end, though, I won quite handily because it ran out of new things to throw at me. If I were to start a new game with full knowledge of how it all worked I suspect it’d be nothing but a one-sided slaughter, even if I tried a harder difficulty level, and that’s a prospect that most definitely does not appeal.
Arcen have proven yet again they have what it takes when it comes to designing an engaging strategy title; if they could just fix their art I’m convinced they’d be one of the most successful indie developers out there. As it is Bionic Dues is probably the friendliest game they’ve put out — it’s nowhere near as punishing as AI War and has a tighter, more coherent design – but this comes at the cost of long-term replayability. It’s priced appropriately, though, and if you fancy some surprisingly cerebral robot destruction mayhem you could definitely do worse than Bionic Dues; while my comparison to XCOM may have ended up being an unfavourable one it does share much of the same genetic material in a lighter package, and I don’t think that’ll ever be a bad thing.
- Bionic Dues deviates from most roguelikes in that it doesn’t ever let you change the actual weaponry your Exos are toting around. You can boost the damage and the ammo capacity and the area of effect of individual weapons, but each Exo type is stuck with a fixed set for the duration of the game with only a single mission-based upgrade available that adds a couple more. ↩