Review: Army Corps of Hell

ArmyCorpsOfHell

It seems like every launch of a new system has a game that is a little weird.  Amongst the usual suspects and established franchises that tell people that they can play the games they already love on their shiny new hardware–and the Vita is nothing if not shiny–there is that odd title that tells the adventurous, “Come on, buddy.  New system, new frontiers.  My packaging is useless to help you know what I am.  Maybe I use every feature of the new handheld and will take you to places you’ve never dreamed of.  Or maybe I’m just kind of disappointing.  You know you gotta buy something.  You don’t want to just look at the device, right?  And do you really want to play the same old thing again?”  Or at least that is what I hear when I am in the games section of a Best Buy and see a surprisingly tiny blue case with a demon skull on it that says Army Corps of Hell at the top.

Being the kind of guy that will try duck tongue when offered for purchase (quick review: don’t eat duck tongue), I snatched the box down from the shelf, placed it with authority on the counter to be scanned, tossed the bag into the passenger’s seat of my car, got home, ripped open the packaging and very, very carefully put the fun-sized and dangerously thin game card into the Vita.  Booting it up after a quick install began the tale of an undead lord who encounters a troupe of goblins and decides to use his might to master them and begin to take over the underworld.  There is no significant narrative beyond that.

Thematically, I love that Army Corps of Hell at no point that I saw broke character or took its subject matter seriously.  The Disgaea games have the same basic story, but it is full of nods and winks to the audience and is too silly in its presentation to ever take anything seriously.  In this game the Dark Lord is very much an egotistical ruler that is all too happy to abuse his subjects and revel in slaughter, but it is not in service of a joke, he’s just a bad guy.  That’s why he’s in Hell: he is not a nice person.  The character is an Iron Maiden cover come to life.  The only humor comes from watching his interactions, as shown in text with the same six images of ruler and goblins, in between the missions, provided the audience is mature enough to recognize the absurdity of it all.  The goblins make rapid shifts between crazed bloodthirsters and foolish cowards, exactly what one wants from goblins.  As an example of the commitment to the setting, after a number of goblins are selected before going into the field of oblivion, players are not asked to hit Start, nay, there is a big button that says “Go to Hell!”  Fifteen year old boys, with no sense of perspective, will really love this game and never crack a smile.  All of the menu text follows this theme, telling players that their minions are overjoyed with the triumphs of their Lord’s progress.  Some might enjoy the ego inflation, others will appreciate the developer’s commitment.

The best, shortest description I can come up with to describe the game is that someone took Pikmin and slathered a jar full of Satan all over it.  This demonic real-time strategy/action hybrid has more in common with Nintendo’s seed-people product than with the Overlord games, even though that game’s theme is more in line with the Vita game.  Both the Overlord and the Corps leader use goblins and even have horns and I still thought it odd that these little guys don’t have petals on their heads.  Despite the similarities, there are such significant mechanical differences that it would be sloppy to just say “Devil Pikmin featuring Shin Omar” and drop the microphone.

The game progresses from separate level to unconnected level.  Players control the Dark Lord who seems to have no offensive power of his own and only a defensive power of dodging out of the path of incoming attacks.  To attack, the lord calls upon various kinds of goblin forces to aid him in this quest of killing everything that moves.  Unlike in a typical real-time strategy game with a central hero unit, the goblins cannot go off and attack on their own, opting instead to follow the lord around in a mob until commanded to attack.  When sent out to attack, they come back to the fold after doing a little damage.  Soldiers carry swords and can jump a short distance to attack.  Their main advantage is their ability to launch a devastating Salvo attack when there are enough goblins piled on top of an enemy to strike in unison, usually resulting in a gory death.  Spearmen do not do as much damage, but will rush out, sort of like a projectile, to hit enemies that are far beyond the reach of a mere soldier.  There are also mages that can shoot bolts of fire or lightning beyond traps to hit the enemies behind them, but usually these magi do not do as much damage as a hit from a spearman or soldier.

Throughout the game the goblin army will make animalistic grunts and screams in pleasure and fear as they encounter enemies.  The enemies in the game will shoot out attacks which will either hurt the lord or knock down a goblin.  If a goblin is knocked down the lord must go over to him to get him back up.  A typical enemy encounter might be that the foe does a thrust with a pitchfork in a straight line and the lord quickly dashes out of the way.  Unfortunately, a third of the horde might either not have been paying attention or not have been quick enough to move out of the way while following the lord.  Those little, unfortunate souls will all get knocked over and little skulls will appear above their heads.  The lord must then move over them to revive them while ordering the remaining gobs to attack the bad man so that he doesn’t get a chance to kill the rest of those left standing.  If they are not brought back quickly, they’re gone.  Some enemies will not just knock the creatures down, but actually eat them or obliterate them with magic, removing any chance of revival.  When those things show up, masters seeking to rule the abyss will have to be extra careful.

The key is to use all of these various abilities to quickly kill everything in the surrounding area to advance without either the lord losing all his health or losing all of his goblins.  Kill enough enemies in a series of arenas and a big door will open and the level will be over.  There is no exploration to speak of, it is just interconnected, square arenas filled with demons that need to be sent to…wherever devils go when they die.  The scope of the gameplay is what really distinguishes Pikmin and this game.  In Pikmin, players explore a world of weird creatures, gigantic commonplace items and sometimes kill little animals and bugs to make more pikmin over a series of days; in Hell it’s just one battle after another in small zones.  The handheld game is a bit more convenient for gaming on the go, as big world layouts do not have to be remembered when everything comes out of sleep mode, but it is not very fun for long stretches of time as it is just one combat room after the next.  Also, as there are no checkpoints mid-level, death means repeating the whole level, even if failure occurred on the last in a chain of five or more difficult rooms.  There is no excuse for that, particularly when the stages are divided into such discrete segments.

In between levels the dark lord can use alchemy to create gear for his orc-kin, which will make them more effective in combat, as well as one-time use items that can provide a temporary bonus or revive the fallen master.  Getting the materials necessary involves sending troops onto the corpses of deceased foes to extract the parts necessary to craft items.  In practice this means that the progression in each of the levels is slowed down as it takes a while for a mass of gobs to carve up a dead beholder or gargoyle monster.  While it is fun to see the troops change in appearance over the course of the game, it would have been nice if the resource gathering had been streamlined.  Also as it is possible to run out of materials, so earlier levels will have to be replayed to get what is needed to progress.  Grinding is never fun.  Unless it happens on a dance floor.

It is difficult to know how to be fair to the graphics of this game as it is a launch title for a new system; there is not a lot of reference for comparison.  Between the textures and the limited scope of the environments, it looks more like an advanced PSP or first year PS2 title.  About the best thing that can be said is that the polygons of the models are not readily apparent, but they are not intricately detailed either.  I do not recall any slowdown and the load times were relatively peppy.  The creature design is creative in keeping with the idea that everything takes place in Hell.  There are predictable giant eyeball creatures and little devils (little forks and wings, the whole bit), but there are also more unique lumbering hulks of skull clusters with spindly arms and legs and giant worms that burst from the ground ever hungering.  The bosses are pretty gross, too.  The one that sticks out in my mind as a good example of this is a gigantic monster which from the waist up is a nipple-less, naked lady writhing in pleasure, pain, or both, and from the waist down is a horror of five tractor trailer-sized, sightless, pale worms with growths and poison spewing orifices growing in between these foul appendages.  The Dark Lord must damage her largely by chopping one snake head off at a time with salvo attacks until she takes enough damage to become a dismembered trunk that will attempt to crawl for a few seconds and then bleed out on the floor.  Only to be then harvested for parts by a mindless horde of stunted demihumans and their sharp, crude knives.

As a reminder for those with children, this game is rated M for Mature.

Seeping out of the whole experience is one heavy metal song after another.  I like heavy metal more than most people, which is to say I like heavy metal, and did think it was appropriate for the setting and did help to make me want to energetically move forward.  It is a fun mix of mid 90s death metal and a lot of 80s hair metal.  Fun or not, as it is blasting all the time, it was difficult to play the game for long stretches without wanting to either turn down the volume or just turn everything off.  The game requires an intense amount of concentration to make sure only the right creatures die, and with the music ripping at your ears it can be quite draining.

While it might not look better than a high-end PSP game, this title pulls into sharp focus why the Vita’s second analog nub is a meaningful addition to handheld gaming.  In order to guide where the minions will jump or rush out to attack, the right analog stick is required to aim.  If the stick was not there, then it would be impossible to move with the left stick to avoid incoming attacks and direct the horde at the same time.  Meaning this game would have been almost unplayable with the older controls.  Whatever other concerns there might be, it controls perfectly well.  It unnecessarily uses the back touch panel to determine how effective some healing items can be.  This works fine but adds nothing to the experience except the sense that healing items would be more consistently effective without this feature.  It’s a launch title, I think by law it has to poorly implement some unique feature of the platform.

Technically, there is multiplayer.  Instead of online multiplayer or maybe some kind of progressively difficult endurance dungeon, where a series of leaderboards are kept, or perhaps a kind of conquer the Nine Hells turn-based strategy game where battles are determined by playing modified version of the main game, it can be played with multiple people if they are in the same room.  So, if you and every one else in your four-person, video game themed death metal band want to sling some goblins between shooting heroin, taking advantage of gals in booze-induced acute comas, and maybe even playing a few songs, you may do so.  Maybe even get a League of Evil going, organizing your own demonic brackets to determine who is the best at being the worst without a meowth.  Of course, this assumes that people that are way into The Devil have the means to buy a bunch of Vitas and the organization necessary to pull something like that off over, what I will assume, is a wide geographic area.  Given that there is now a duplex where the Black House used to stand in San Francisco, I’m guessing that fantastical scenario is not going to come about.  At least not in this lifetime.  What I am saying is that unless your local Setian Pylon revolves around ad hoc gaming, do not buy this for the multiplayer.

Don’t go running out to the store to buy a Vita just so you can play this game.  I can not say while being honest that any of the launch titles are “system sellers,” and I would not dare to say that this is among the best launch games.  The most original and the most out of left field, probably; most fun, no.  While entertaining for a while, it is not a game that will call most to play again and again after its increasingly challenging levels are conquered, or even halfway through their number are complete.  The only way I could recommend a person buy this game new and at a full retail price is if none of the other launch titles had appeal but for some reason the system was in one’s possession.  Or if you’re way into Hell and all relics tied to the infernal, buying this game is a no-brainer.  If nothing else, playing it can be something to do between reading back issues of Spawn.

TryIt

Pros:
+ Excellent tone and sound
+ Combat is fast and accessible

Cons:
– Combat can be repetitive
– No check points means repeating difficult levels a lot, from the start

Game Info:
Platform: PlayStation Vita
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Entersphere, Inc.
Release Date: 2/22/2012
Genre: Action/Strategy
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1-4 (Ad hoc only)
Source: Game purchased by reviewer

[nggallery id=2225]

About the Author

Steve has been playing video games since the start of the 1980s. While the first video game system he played was his father's, an Atari 2600, he soon began saving allowances and working for extra money every summer to afford the latest in interactive entertainment. He is keenly aware of how much it stinks to spend good money on a bad game. It does things to a man. It makes stink way too much time into games like Karnov to justify the purchase.