Murakumo: Renegade Mech Pursuit | Developer: FromSoftware | Publisher: Ubisoft | Year: 2002
A red and black mecha takes flight on the PAL cover of Murakumo: Renegade Mech Pursuit for Xbox.

Murakumo: Renegade Mech Pursuit

Fresh off their huge success with Elden Ring, FromSoftware announced a new entry in their long-running Armored Core series for 2023 titled Armored Core VI: Fires of Rubicon. This upcoming mecha-based combat game is a sweet prospect considering how much FromSoftware has matured creatively in the decade since they last explored the genre.

FromSoftware has developed many games featuring giant robots. Murakumo: Renegade Mech Pursuit was the team’s first game for Xbox, of which I knew very little because the game never had a PAL release. The Armored Core reveal got me interested in playing an old school mech shooter like this, and after doing some research over at The Famicast, I was surprised to learn Murakumo was one of the best selling Xbox games in Japan!

Caveats are abound considering the console’s dismal fortunes in that market, but seeing the title mentioned alongside Halo and Ninja Gaiden is still undeniably impressive. Publisher Ubisoft must have thought the same once upon a time because they brought Murakumo to the United States in early 2003. It didn’t review well though, and I must admit, my unfamiliarity with the game didn’t inspire confidence.

The game takes place in the future city of Port Oliver where pilots belonging to the special forces group called “Murakumo” (a Japanese word for “gathering clouds”), find themselves embroiled in a conspiracy involving corrupt corporations and corrupted software forcing unmanned combat mechs to go haywire.

The story here feels similar to Patlabor, whilst coming across in a very dry manner. I think this was FromSoftware’s first attempt at arranging an English dub, and it shows because the voice acting sounds poor enough to be unintentionally funny. Nevertheless, the world of Murakumo is shockingly well-defined. There’s an extras menu containing character profiles, world-building material, and different endings for each playable pilot. The mechs themselves also have specifications on their weapon loadouts and boost capabilities, but disappointingly, players can’t actually do anything with that data because there’s no mech customisation of any kind.

Murakumo is an arcade experience at heart. Each mission features a runaway enemy mech that must be shot down before time expires. Players cruise behind their escaping quarry whilst peppering it with missiles and bullets, which is harder than it sounds because the window for achieving a target lock is very brief. Obstacles like buildings and automated drones must be avoided as well, with each mission grading players on their performance. Movement is very erratic. A steady hand is needed to navigate environments full of skyscrapers and industrial buildings, and because the hostile mechs always follow a set path, the missions are designed with repeated attempts in mind. Players must learn each mech’s strengths and weaknesses before choosing the best one for the mission at hand.

The failing here is that only one or two mechs feel effective to begin with. The Cloud Breaker 01 (the red mech from the game’s box art) is versatile enough to clear most missions on its own. There are five other pilots to choose from (the other four Murakumo members and one unlockable pilot), but their weapons are typically harder to aim. Some of them also turn slowly meaning they’re more likely to crash into obstacles, and others simply move too fast and frequently overshoot their prey by accident. I did have the occasional spot of luck with the melee mech’s powerful sword, but if there is a deeper trick to using these exotic machines, I couldn’t work it out. It can be very satisfying when you do manage to take down an annoying enemy, but the process isn’t smooth due to the haphazard controls.

Another constant annoyance is the lack of feedback for when enemies take damage. Their health meter should always be visible to communicate this but it isn’t, and the cockpit view is likewise unhelpful because it makes it harder to perceive elevation when flying under bridges or through tunnels. Speaking of which, the underground levels are the biggest source of frustration here. Alongside the low visibility and reduced space to manoeuvre, throttles respond poorly and the mechs can’t hover, leaving them to unable to stop ramming into a wall when they crash. It’s pretty terrible design.

Various Murakumo gameplay screenshots for Xbox showing giant robots shooting down enemy drones above a city.

The technical name for a Murakumo mech is A.R.K. (Artificial Reflexive Kineticoid). Unsurprisingly, I decided to keep calling them “giant robots” instead.

Murakumo’s fate is sealed by the fact that it’s frustratingly awkward to play, and the process of selecting a pilot and restarting a mission are both clunky enough to damage any quick-fire appeal the game may have had. I’m reminded of Wreckless—another early Xbox game with arcade sensibilities and disagreeable controls, likewise presented in a handsomely shallow package. Murakumo does have some unlockable bonuses for beating the various missions and their expert variants (enjoy getting those “SS” ranks!), but it remains an incredibly short experience nonetheless. 17 story missions sounds like a lot, but some of them can be beaten in less than a minute when players know what’s up.

Although the 3D mechs are modelled nicely, the environments look bland, mostly because players are zooming through them at two hundred miles an hour. The frame rate isn’t smooth in this respect either. The expanse of the levels is impressive for 2002, so once again like Wreckless, Murakumo could have benefited from a free roam mode to show off that quality. From what I gather, Ubisoft did try to promote free roaming when advertising Murakumo (perhaps due to Grand Theft Auto III becoming a big influence around this time), but looking past all the marketing bluster, Murakumo is really just a basic rail shooter where moving outside the confines quickly results in mission failure.

The music is good, I suppose. The title theme is pretty rad, and the stage music is exciting enough. The story is predictably dry and boring, though one detail worth spoiling is how Port Oliver gets destroyed during the final mission, forcing players to confront the final boss amid the charred ruins of the city they spent so long defending. That’s the FromSoftware we all know and love!

Murakumo was supported by an official Japanese guide book, presumably the size of a pamphlet considering the game’s limited scope. You can also buy kit models of the various mechs, which again suggests this property did mean something in Japan. I will admit, the game is not as bad as I was expecting, but it doesn’t play well enough for me to consider it anything except average.

Aside from having a sword named after it in Dark Souls, it doesn’t feel as if Murakumo has left much of a legacy. This wasn’t the game to change the perception of Xbox being DOA in Japan, no matter what those impressive sales figures suggest. If anything, Murakumo’s sales success probably just reinforces how much Japanese gamers like giant robots, and I don’t think the world needed another mediocre video game to tell us that.