Mech combat is usually the realm of the action game, with franchises like Armoured Core and MechWarrior having you stomp around a battlefield in real time, firing off salvos from oversized missile batteries in the remains of some future tech city. Very rarely, besides the criminally forgotten Front Mission franchise, has mech combat been done via the strategy RPG or been placed outside of the usual futurist setting of neon lit cities and blasted battlefields. Acaratus seeks the more strategic route, taking mechanised warfare and bringing it to a steampunk setting, where steam powered warriors do battle with swords, catapults and great mauls. While the setting and the combat have a lot of promise, Acaratus needs a lot more time in the workshop before it does well in a brawl.
At this point in time, Acaratus just has its skirmish mode and the absolute briefest of campaign previews. I timed myself and I completed the whole of slice of the campaign in under 5 minutes and then you only have randomly generated skirmishes to keep you going. In that time, you get the smallest whiff of a story, a short explanation of the menu system and 3 battles to fight. There is no real tutorial on how combat works, even a hint of what makes a good mech before you are booted onto the blandest of world maps where you zip around a randomly generated maze, finding bits of treasure, mech parts and battle cards on your way to the 3 skirmishes you can finish in the blink of an eye. I understand that this is Early Access but come on, you’d feel underwhelmed if you got that in a free demo, let alone something you paid money for. While the developers Nodbrim had made it clear that if you do buy Acaratus now, you are buying into an ‘early beta in the rawest form’, I still don’t think that is an excuse for selling it on Steam in its current state. When other Early Access games like Darkest Dungeon or Prison Architect which had plenty of things to do even during their initial beta launches, releasing what is a glorified demo at this point and charging £18 is taking the proverbial.
Now, I could give it a pass if the core combat and mech building was solid but it feels so insubstantial that you won’t even want to play the Skirmish mode for that long. When you boot up Acaratus and go into Skirmish, you are prompted to make a mech team from the sample parts provided. The actual process of building is simple enough, you pick a core which determines some base stats like damage taken and overall health before bolting more bits on top of that. Some cores allow for specific parts, like space for a faceplate or even a propeller to have your war machine float over the battlefield. There is plenty of room for customisation and creativity but due to the current cluttered interface of the mech builder, I couldn’t see some of the stats of specific parts. A prompt that tells you to check the Acaratus site for tips actually covers the pop up which tells you the specific bonuses of some parts, making it a guessing game as to what that new horn or gearbox actually does. You can tell certain cores will make for specific mech archetypes like the Boscus Core making for powerful melee units while the Northerner Core is perfect for tanky mechs that can aggro enemy frontliners. I can tell when the mech builder is fleshed out and you gather a suitable stock of parts, you’ll have great fun creating the ultimate metal warband but at this early stage and without real guidance, building mechs feels like slapping random parts together and seeing if it works.