Publisher: Square Enix / Developer: Entersphere / Price: $39.99 / Played on: PlayStation Vita / ESRB: Mature [Blood and Gore, Violence]
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first started playing Army Corps of Hell on the PlayStation Vita, but I sure was pleasantly surprised to find a very odd, unique, and fun game. Army Corps of Hell offers a great combination of action-packed tactical gameplay with think-on-your-feet strategy, wrapped up in a package infused with over-the-top heavy metal music and a premise that’s just crazy enough to work. While it’s far from perfect, this game makes it hard not to love Satan and his little goblin buddies.
As Satan (or the Grim Reaper… it’s never made too clear), you travel across the vast battlefields of Hell itself, commanding an army made up of goblin soldiers, spearmen, and magi, reducing your demonic foes to little more than bloody clumps on the ground. Battles all take place in real-time, so you need sharp reflexes and a quick mind for tactics in order to win the day. Each type of goblin offers strategic benefits and drawbacks. Soldiers fling themselves onto enemies in small numbers at a time, but can swell and deliver big damage with salvo attacks. Spearmen can take out enemies with one attack, provided there’s nothing blocking their path and that they don’t miss. Magi’s magical attacks take longer to reach full power, and do less damage than those of spearmen or soldiers, but they never need to come into physical contact with dangerous enemies, and can hit multiple enemies at once. When your goblins are hit, they fall to the ground. Only Satan’s presence can revive them, so it’s important to move back over fallen goblins. If you lose too many goblins, you’ll start to take damage, and when Satan runs out of health, it’s game over. Periodically, you can cash in gems you pick up from battles to replenish your goblin horde, and different support items can be used to heal you, call in reinforcements, or increase your army’s attack damage.
Figuring out which goblin hordes to use, and whether or not to attack while in formation (which further alters the attack type’s benefits and drawbacks) is the main strategic element of the game. Because battles take place in real-time, you have to constantly switch from one goblin type to another to compensate with the changing conditions on the battlefield. You may be comfortably dispatching your soldiers to pummel an exploding eye-demon, when you’ll be suddenly besieged by shambling white broccoli-looking monsters whose heads are on fire, necessitating that you break off your one attack and switch to running-and-gunning with your magi.
Each encounter offers new twists and turns for players to try and cope with. Monsters take on new forms and different incarnations as the game progresses—sometimes explodey eye monster won’t be purple, and won’t explode, offering devastating lightning shocks to any attacking soldiers or spearman while sporting a very handsome teal color. And the stages themselves often spice up battles with hazards like fire pits or electric fences, keeping you on your toes as you guide Satan and his army around these obstacles as well as enemies and their attacks.
There are also plenty of boss fights to contend with, and these range from tough to maddening, bringing me to my first negative point about the game: losing. While failure is a pretty familiar part of most games, it’s especially annoying to fight your way through a stage, only to be crushed like a bug during a boss fight—and then forced to start over at the beginning of the stage if you want to continue. It’s an annoying bit of design that only serves to frustrate. On the other hand, sometimes boss fights are lost because you haven’t yet alchemized the right weapons or equipment to win the day, meaning you might want to spend more time grinding through previously beaten levels to gather materials and resources (which your goblin minions recover by chowing down on the corpses of fallen foes).
Aside from the irritation that comes from having to backtrack just to get strong enough to move forward, the game’s main method of play starts to wear thin after a while. Eventually, you will have fought every enemy type, and fought the same boss multiple times, albeit sometimes two at a time, or with a different skin (and therefore with slightly different attack patterns and powers). Ultimately, the gameplay is a lot of fun, but after a certain point, there’s not much you haven’t seen already… just more of it.
There isn’t much real story here aside from the basics: Satan’s been cast into Hell, and instead of idly sitting by and suffering, he aims to take over. He recruits his goblin hordes, taking down boss after boss, and tormenting his minions as he goes. The story is told via barely animated stills, all of which bear a look very reminiscent of the work of Eric Powell.
Of course, like the gameplay, the story doesn’t offer much in the way of surprises the longer you play. You see the same stills recycled as you progress through each cutscene. I must’ve seen that image of Satan drop kicking the goblin chief across the screen six or seven times at least.
But overall, the game doesn’t take itself too seriously, and the cutscenes only last about a minute each, letting you get back to the important task of killing and then eating lots and lots of demons. It ain’t Paradise Lost, and that’s fine with me. It is, however, fun, dumb, and a decent backdrop for combat.
Switching between each different goblin type is as easy as tapping one of the appropriate face buttons. Circle activates soldiers, triangle activates spearmen, and square activates magi. These shapes also correspond to the formations your army will take when you hold the left shoulder button, while hitting the right shoulder (or holding and releasing in the case of the magi) commands your forces to attack. The X button gives you and your army a brief burst of speed to evade hazards and attacks, which can sometimes be just nimble enough a move to help keep you from losing forces and taking damage. Overall, the controls are responsive and easy to figure out after a very short time.
The front touch screen has a very small role, as touching your support item in the lower left corner of the screen activates it. Cycling through items is done with the D-pad, though moving your thumb off the analog stick to the D-pad can be tricky while in the heat of battle.
The rear touch screen gets in on the act too, though it’s kind of a drag. Instead of having a support item like a healing drum work instantaneously, you have to beat on the rear touch screen quickly and rhythmically to get the most benefit. Using a devilish guitar to strengthen your army’s attacks takes some kind of rhythmic flicking motion. All in all, the best methods for getting the most out of items is never really explained, and is way trickier than it should be to make work. I’m reasonably sure that the rear touch screen could never be used in any game again and no one would be upset.
The character models in the game are about PlayStation 2 quality—they get the job done and don’t look bad in the process. There are a few sharp angles on monsters and goblins, and pixelated textures, but overall I liked the way the game looked. The overall hellish aesthetic works well, and the character animations are fun. It’s hard not to laugh when your goblin spearman comes on-screen and does a little dance after you’ve outfitted him with a new, deadlier weapon. And there’s always something funny about seeing your hordes of goblin soldiers fling themselves with abandon to drown your enemies in their own blood.
That said, the environments and levels are usually pretty basic. Considering the game’s set in Hell itself, you’d think there’d be a bit more variety in terms of set dressing, but for the most part it looks like you’re on a desolate plain, peppered here and there with reds, blacks, and blues.
It should also be noted, though, that the game is remarkably good and handling tons of on-screen action with very few problems. For the most part, the game is flooded with activity, from buzzing insects to flaming demons, and all the while, rising and falling numbers of conscious and unconscious goblins. I did encounter some bad slow-down at one point in the game, but it seemed as though this was the only instance.
The game’s soundtrack is filled with fantastic, Dio-worthy heavy metal bands. I felt like I was playing a Jack Black-inspired fever dream, or some kind of spin-off of Metalocalypse. The music was a perfect choice for this game considering that you’re basically playing an Iron Maiden album cover.
Sadly, I didn’t recognize any of the bands on hearing them, and there’s some really great metal I would’ve loved to have heard (including Dethklok from the aforementioned Metalocalypse, or Texas-based band the Sword). Worse, each stage gets one track—and when the track is done, it repeats. Why not just cycle through all the music with each stage? It seems as though there’s only about ten or so songs, so as with other aspects of the game, expect plenty of repetition.
The game’s sound effects are great though. Bugs buzz creepily, blood sprays sound like they’re coming out of a sticky, squishy firehose, and goblins chatter or sing or die cartoonishly.
I’ve never played a game like Army Corps of Hell, and I mean that sincerely as a compliment. More variation in gameplay would’ve been nice, and some more variety in the bands could’ve been a great addition, too. I’m hopeful that this is a franchise that doesn’t stop here, as I’d love to take my goblin hordes on more missions in more exotic locations than the afterlife—space maybe? All in all, this is a great game, especially for a launch title for a new system. If you’re tired of repackaged or remade franchise games for the Vita, do yourself a favor and go to hell. Army Corps of Hell is blasphenomenal.