Everyone likes a good giant robot battle now and then. Big weapons, big explosions, and tiny people scattering from the chaos all make for easy entertainment, and with a video game franchise like Armored Core, insanely deep customization options add a lot of intrigue to the mix. But Armored Core: Last Raven Portable, an almost direct port of the PlayStation 2 game, stumbles much in the way its progenitor did. Like Armored Core's other PlayStation Portable entries, it can be even clumsier, more frustrating, and as a result, much more unforgiving than the console original, largely because it's been shoehorned onto a platform without a second analog stick and a full set of shoulder buttons.
While a good chunk of your time will be spent piloting your mech in battle, the main appeal of Last Raven Portable is what goes on in the garage, where you're able to purchase, install, and fine-tune a plethora of mech parts. These include weaponry for your left and right arms, both in front and in the rear; cockpit parts; boosters; radar engines; legs; and more. You'll stumble across more parts while executing missions, and in fact, the PSP version has exclusive parts that weren't accessible in the console original.
The game stays out of your way so that you can tinker to your heart's content, as the plot is dispensed largely through e-mail messages and world-situation reports. A giant corporate conglomerate, which serves as the closest thing to a government this world has seen since it suffered the consequences of a devastating weapons malfunction, is being threatened by a rebel faction's massive, ultimate attack. This is supposed to take place 24 hours from the game's outset, but nothing about this story is particularly exciting, in part because of its bland presentation. A handful of new missions present themselves each time you succeed at a previous one, so depending on which missions you choose, you see different plot threads through in-engine cutscenes. Despite this variety, there isn't much to keep you interested.
Even though the vast amount of time you spend tweaking and tuning overshadows the thin story, you still have to put your customized mech to use. This is where the frustration really sets in because it's a struggle to keep up with enemy mechs using the PSP's unwieldy control configurations. No matter how you map your buttons, something will end up feeling unnatural, whether it's curling your left hand into a claw grip just to access secondary weapons fire or attempting to change the camera angle with the face buttons. Turning left and right is abhorrently slow, which--to be fair--makes sense because you're piloting this mammoth robot, but there's just so little that's enjoyable about controlling your metallic beast.
Taking things to another level, Last Raven Portable claims to boast faster-paced combat than its predecessors, which is a great bullet point for a press release, but means little when the controls are so cumbersome. Even the very first enemy armored core you face is prodigiously gifted at strafing out of your line of sight and zipping away from your locked-on missiles; meanwhile, it--and the other armored cores you'll battle--always seems to be able to stay locked onto you. With enough skill and technique, you will learn to dodge their attacks, but the learning curve is so incredibly steep that you're unlikely to stick around to see that day.
A lot of success in this game comes from trial and error, and not just from armored core battles. There are some recon, escort, and defense missions as well, and quite a few of them are likely to stump you at first until you realize that you have to go back to the garage and tune some parts. For instance, one early mission calls for you to eliminate threats around a pair of bridges so that your forces can advance. The bridge you start on is blown out, and so you must boost your way across the gap. The grunt on the other side will always pelt you with weak fire, but it's just enough to knock you away from your path before you can fully cross. It's highly improbable that your mech will ever make it across the gap until you realize that the only solution is to buy a more powerful booster (or a switch your robot legs out for a limbless hover mechanism).
Despite its maddening gameplay, Last Raven Portable retains that esoteric appeal common among all Armored Core games whereby you can spend dozens of hours just playing around with your mech configuration. It's unfortunate that no concessions were made to this port to make it more accessible because Armored Core: Formula Front did so by including an auto-battle option (which, when activated, put the emphasis squarely on the customization aspect). If you're an Armored Core fan who has been following its portable entries with gusto, you may feel right at home and will likely be encouraged to take down every enemy armored core in the game's virtual arena and complete every mission to see every ending. On the other hand, if you just really, really like giant robots and want to see things explode on a portable platform, you won't want to start with this Armored Core game.