Carnage Heart EXA

Carnage Heart EXA is a brain drain. Billing itself as a real time strategy RPG involving giant mechs, at first blush the game sounds like it would appeal to those who crave hot robot-on-robot combat action. The truth, however, is that the player does not directly control their mighty machines. Rather they are responsible for programming the actions they want to take. Carnage Heart EXA was released on the PlayStation Portable, but it is a series that has roots going back to the original PlayStation. This means that the game’s unique and complex system of robot control has been around for some time.

The game’s mechanics are so frightfully dense that any story in Carnage Heart EXA is easily forgettable. From what I recall, you’ll switch from the point of view of two characters: one is a Chinese graduate student who visits MIT to work as a tutor for a reclusive young man who wants nothing more than to know how to operate OKEs - Overkill Engines - for his own reasons. None of that really mattered for me because in order to complete missions and advance that plot, the player is expected to program their OKE before accepting a mission. Every aspect of robot control, including directional movement, attacking and even degree of the turn radius, is all done by placing program chips on a programming grid.

Programming a robot seems easy enough but it’s a task I simply couldn’t fully wrap my head around. Essentially, you’ll place programmable actions (represented in game as small square tiles) that carry a specific function that requires some degree of player input. For example, in order to program the robot to turn Right, you’ll need to connect a Turn chip to another chip that defines an input command (in this case, the Right directional button) and then input the desired angle of the turn for the robot to take when the Right button is pressed (which can be anywhere from 0 to 360 degrees of movement). Ideally, you’ll want to program for all eight directions, which means setting up a complex tree of chips and turn ratios. Setting an OKE to attack using a specific button prompt works the exact same way and by the time your machine is ready to fight, you’ll have created a large tree of programmable actions. If programmed correctly, the OKE will do everything you wanted it to do. Otherwise,  you might find it stuck spinning in a circle or repeatedly attacking the air.

To be perfectly honest, creating a program for the OKE to follow was a considerable headache for me. Javascript seems easier to understand than this.  The in-game tutorials are nothing more than blocks of text and the heavy use of programming jargon and the concepts were more than I could grasp. The concept of setting up program passthroughs, halts, and timed pauses during various actions were lost on me. The game does lend a hand from time to time by allowing you to place “example” programs, leaving you free from doing any actual programming, but that crutch only supported me for so long. Those who will want to get the most out of the game will need to be aggressive in understanding the game’s rules. I’d like to think that I’m, at the very least, a moderately intelligent kind of guy. Carnage Heart EXA made me feel like a toddler forced into taking an advanced computer programming college course that’s already half way through the semester. The only aspect of the game that made the most sense was the process of customizing my OKE’s color scheme (because colors are pretty). Outside of color variations, players do have the opportunity to completely change the physical design of their mech, turning it either into a bipedal walking hulk or a squat, tank-like machine.

While researching the original Carnage Heart game, I discovered that it was a cult classic back in its day. From what I’ve seen here, that fact rings incredibly true. It’s difficult for me to see this game being a mainstream success as it would likely strike a chord with those who want total, complete control over their characters down to a programmable level. I have no doubt that there are folks out there who would have a far easier time understanding the concept and really get into the experience. And that’s great! Unfortunately for me, Carnage Heart EXA was something I couldn’t grasp. I will not directly fault the game, as it was clearly designed for a niche audience that craves deep and complex simulation. In my case, trying to do this only made my head hurt. Those who can break through the complexity and achieve that “AHA!” moment will be the ones that get the most out of this robot simulation.

Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.