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Carnage Heart EXA (Vita) artwork

Carnage Heart EXA (Vita) review

"Once I heard that it was about programming robots and letting them run missions by themselves, I was sold. "

I remember an old video game magazine back in the day calling the original Carnage Heart “The game you need a PHD to play.” That little blurb was very memorable, so when I heard a few years ago that a new Carnage Heart was coming out for PSP, I was very curious to take a good look at what the series is all about. Once I saw a video of the new title and heard that it was about programming robots and letting them run missions by themselves, I was sold.

The game is called Carnage Heart Exa. It came out for PSP long after the launch of the Vita, so it's really one of the PSP's swan songs (although it's August 2015 when I'm writing this review and incredibly the odd PSP game does still come out from time to time). As advertised, Carnage Heart Exa is a complex robot programming game. It's pretty unique. Come on, let's take a look at what it's all about! ;)

There are two gameplay modes, Story and Battle. Story mode is meant to be played first and acts as a tutorial. Battle mode has no instructions (unless you count a few short descriptions in the game's instruction manual) and starts you off with virtually all options available from the beginning. I'm pretty sure it would be almost impossible to play this mode if you don't already know a lot about Carnage Heart. We'll come back to this mode later.

Story mode is basically one huge tutorial that teaches you how to play the game one little piece at a time. It is strung together by visual novel-style story telling cutscenes which feature really sharp anime-style art. I was shocked to find out that the story is actually pretty good. It's about a genius computer science student tutoring a rich guy about programming. Oddly, he insists on being taught programming through examples of OKE programs. OKE's are giant, usually automated military mecha and vehicles that are commonplace in this near future setting. It quickly becomes apparent that his interest in OKE's is more than an innocent hobby. Because the story is literally about teaching someone to program OKE's, it thematically works quite well. I've come to expect bad localization in Japanese games, but this is yet another example of a clearly translated story. And when it finally does move out of the realm of one character teaching another how to use OKE's, the story goes in some interesting directions and is enjoyable. You might just get chills when you hear someone say the game's title in-game (or you might picture Peter Griffin peeking in from the corner saying, “Eh!! Eh!!”).

The gameplay of Story Mode consists of many lessons. Most lessons start with a lecture. This is a short explanation of a concept and then a walkthrough of how to implement the lesson. You are being taught how to build and program an OKE to do different actions. Lessons range from how to equip the OKE with weapons and equipment, when to use certain types of weapons and equipment and how to optimize your program to use them efficiently, making your OKE move and respond to things that happen on the battlefield, and even fine-tuning itty bitty details like energy consumption, weight capacity, armor thickness and heat resistance.

After the lecture, you'll head to the OKE configuration screen. You'll mainly spend your time tweaking the hardware and software sections, although there are also tons of options here for changing color schemes, naming your creation, and making custom emblems. In the hardware section you can equip multiple weapon systems from among tons of choices. You start with only a few, but as the lessons progress you will be given access to more and more. You have everything from shotguns and rifles to beam guns, mines, missiles, rockets, bombs and lots more. You also slowly receive more and more equipment and options to tinker with. By the time you're done you'll be working with armor thickness settings that have you trying to balance superior protection against how much weight you can carry. Playing into this equation is the adjustable engine output, which lets you jack up the amount of weight you can carry while increasing your energy consumption. Energy is like fuel; if you run out during a battle, your OKE won't be able to function. You can adjust the amount of fuel you carry, but taking too much can make you prone to overheating. If you overheat too much in battle, you'll basically self-destruct. Lots of settings here to fiddle with if you are into that kind of thing, Armored Core and Front Mission fans take note.

On the software side of things, you have to program virtually everything your OKE is going to do in battle. You may have heard that in this version you can manually pilot an OKE. That is true, but in order to pilot an OKE you will have to manually program exactly what happens when you press buttons on the PSP. For example, you have to put in exactly how far to move when a direction arrow is pressed, and the order you tell the OKE to look at the buttons plays a huge role in how it will perform. You'll also be making plenty of programs that make OKE's operate entirely independently. Fascinatingly, you can also make hybrids that do a few things on their own but are mainly remote controlled by you, or vice versa. Programming is done by placing commands called “chips” into a grid that functions as a big flow chart. During battle, an OKE will read the chips in the order you have programmed it to and perform the actions the chips tell it to. Typically, there will be multiple branching points where the OKE will perform different actions based on whether or not certain criteria the chips tell it to evaluate are met. For example, a chip might tell the OKE to scan 400 meters ahead in a 90 degree arc and look for enemies (and just to be clear, the settings for each chip are nearly 100% customizable, you can put in any range or numbers). That chip then has two arrows leading out of it; one for yes and one for no. If there are enemies within that range, the OKE will follow the yes arrow, and if not, the no arrow. So you might put a chip after the yes arrow that says walk forward and a chip after the no arrow that says turn 45 degrees to the right. Typically once your string of commands is completed you will insert a “return” chip that makes the whole program start over. So in the above example, you have a program that makes the OKE turn in place until it finds an enemy and then start walking toward it.

You can build up the program from there, but you have to do so in very specific ways. I don't want to get too too deep into it, but an example of a logic string I often used would sound something like this: if the enemy is ahead, move forward. If it's to the side, turn sideways and then move forward. When an enemy is within range, first check to see if it is very close. If it is, melee attack. If not, lock on and check the ammo level of weapon 1. If there's any ammo left, fire that until empty. If weapon 1 is empty, check weapon 2 for ammo and fire. If all the weapons are empty, charge and melee. That's a very simple example. Usually I would have the OKE monitor it's heat and damage levels and repair and cool itself when needed or perform more advanced maneuvers like retreating from enemies while dropping mines and then switching directions once the mines are out to lure the enemies into them. Or, once you start to construct teams of 3 OKE's, doing things like checking line of sight and jumping before firing if a team member is in the way so that you fire in the air over their head and avoid friendly fire. It might be hard to get a sense of how these programs can go wrong from a written description, but if you get chips in the wrong order or some of the nitty gritty settings wrong, the program might seize-up leaving your OKE stuttering in place as it tries to execute contradictory commands or gets stuck in a loop of chips that do nothing with no way out. Fortunately there is a real-time display of the chips running on the battle screen, so you can usually see where the problem is. A highlight cycles through the flow chart as the chips are read. Usually the whole program is ran several times per second, but you can usually see where things are messing up, such as an unwanted loop in the chips that halts progress. You'll spend a lot of time troubleshooting bugs and fine-tuning settings on the chips to get the OKE to perform the way you need it to to beat the missions.

The story-mode missions usually involve destroying test drones that move in set patterns or an OKE that you know is going to use certain tactics or weapons on you. For a long time, these will be one on one fights, but after awhile you will switch to 3 on 3 fights and never look back. Battles are fully 3D affairs with a physics engine and everything. OKE's follow their very logical chips, but the chaos of the battlefield makes this look like an action game even when you aren't controlling anything on screen. Typically battles have a short time-limit, like 1-2 minutes. You have to kill all the enemies before that time is up. If you aren't directly controlling an OKE (and frankly, once I beat the handful of missions that require you to manually pilot an OKE, I switched over to all AI driven machines for the rest of the game as that's what drew me to the game in the first place. Although I do have some ideas for hybrids...) you'll still have something to do; you can manually control the camera. And you'll need to in order to get the best view of the action to determine if your OKE is performing correctly and to see what goes right and wrong. At first I was a little annoyed that even when you put the camera on auto-tracking mode it can't really keep up with the action, but eventually I was grateful that I had something to do during the battles. Actually, controlling the camera and monitoring the multitude of heads-up-displays that feed you information usually lends the battles a surprisingly intense feeling despite the fact that all you are doing is watching. Displays all over the screen show you damage dealt and received, heat levels, energy consumption, radar that tracks not just enemies but every bullet, your chip flow chart, battle time remaining, and more. The graphics in these segments are actually pretty slick. The mechanical design on most of the OKE's is great and they are animated well. There are many types of OKE's, including walkers, tanks, vehicles, and flyers all with very different designs and capabilities. The battlefield is lined with invisible forcefields, which feels a little weird. You quickly get used to it though, and even start using it to your advantage, letting your OKE's grind up against it and slide along it as they try to walk through it. You'll also need to get used to the fact that despite how binary the game's programming gameplay feels, because the battlefield runs on a physics engine, things can be unpredictable and chaotic. For example, you might lose a battle and then re-play it with no changes to your OKE's and win it. In general, you won't win by flukes, but if it seems like you are close to winning, it's a good idea to run the mission a time or two again without changes to see if a win will happen for you. Rather than feeling like a flaw, I really liked this interaction between the stiff logic of the programming and the chaos of the battlefield.

The story mode took me about 8 hours, and it seriously was like a tutorial the whole way through. And yes, you really do need to complete the whole thing to learn how to play right. But it doesn't feel like any other game's tutorial. The story is quite good, and each lesson feels like a level with plenty of room for you to do your own thing as long as you learn to implement the concepts you are being taught. After the story, you can move into Battle Mode.

Battle Mode gives you access to all the OKE body types (save a few special ones you can earn) and all weapons and equipment. There is no story, you just pick one of 50 pre-set battles to go up against and pit your team of 3 against the enemy team of 3. The OKE's in these battles are very well designed and quite varied. You will see every tactic and weapon combination imaginable through the battles and will have to do quite a lot of adapting, redesigning, and even branching out into new body types and tactics to get through them all. It's a lot of fun. Sometimes victory requires just a tiny tweak in the direction your OKE's walk or the weapons they are carrying, but sometimes you may need to change tactics entirely. Other times you might need to pick an OKE model you've never used before and design a brand new program, like when I ended up creating a melee-centric model to take on certain OKE's that were wiping out my usual models that relied on firearms and mines. You also have to watch out for special barrier types that change how the forcefields around the battlefield behave. There is one that damages you when you touch it, and the forcefield can also be turned off, which means you lose if you leave the play area. There is a little shop in battle mode that lets you buy stuff with the points you earn for fighting battles. I recommend buying the custom music player asap so that you can put some harder rock song from the game's soundtrack into the OKE configuration menu. This will help get you pumped as you design programs. You can also buy 2 big boss-style OKE's and play around with them, which can be amusing.

Lastly, I want to tell you about multi-player. You can swap your designs with other people and pit your creations against others. And because OKE's run themselves, you don't have to be online. You just swap data with someone and let your designs beat on each other. You can even put in a bunch of people's data and host a tournament. Even now, years after the game's release, there are Japanese tournaments for this game. With the help of Google translate, I was able to enter one and view the results on some shady video-sharing site. I was just about positive that I would be facing expert players and get crushed. I was mostly right; it's crazy what people are able to come up with in this game. But I was beyond thrilled that I actually had a few wins in my matches. I believe I ended up tied for 9th place out of 11 participants, which makes me really happy!!

I hope I've described the game accurately. It's pretty unique, and executes its concept really well. It might seem like it would be hard to design flow charts using console-style controls instead of a mouse, but there is a lot of functionality built into the editor, including copy and paste, selection, macros, and undo. If you find yourself thinking “This editor would be easier to use if I could do X,” look around carefully, you probably can do X, as I discovered a few times.

Carnage Heart Exa is a really interesting game. It requires focus and concentration and genuinely needs its 8 hour tutorial. But wrapping that tutorial in an interesting story and level-like missions makes it fun instead of a drag. And it's all worth it when you are finally set totally free in battle mode. Despite this being one of my longer reviews, I've still really only just summarized the game, not really described the intricacies of its systems. I haven't even touched on the advanced programming you can do where you can use animation interruption to your advantage or make your OKE systems do calculations based on virtually any kind of number the game is outputting (and that's because I barely understand the basics of what these concepts even are; they are really, really advanced stuff). I heartily encourage gear heads who love designing mechs in the Armored Core and Front Mission games to check out the robustness available here. There is a lot under the hood of the OKE's you'll be designing; I hope I've given you a sense of what it's like to build and program them. And I hope I've given you a sense of how fun and satisfying it can be to build and program an OKE and finally get it to behave just like you want it to and take out an enemy with ease and grace all on its own. It's a great feeling, and this is a great, unique game. It's a 5 out of 5.


Robotic_Attack's avatar
Community review by Robotic_Attack (November 19, 2015)

Robotic Attack reviews every game he plays... almost.

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