Into the midst of the PlayStation Vita's launch lineup drops a fiery comet, crashing through the Earth's crust and plunging into the mythical underworld below to amass a massive force of evil with infernal domination in mind. The Army Corps of Hell is recruiting. Should you join up?
The King of Hell is back in town, and he's pissed. Having been stripped of his powers and banished from his throne, this once and future king claws his way back and begins to assemble a goblin fighting force of extraordinary magnitude. His goal? Cutting a bloody path through the denizens of hell until nothing stands between him and his seat of power.
This is achieved by running around a series of floating islands (hell is floating islands) surrounded by a horde of goblin warriors, spearmen, and mages, each ready to lay down their lives for your pursuit of power. Well, they might not be quite so willing, but they don't really have a choice, now do they? Does a Pikmin question Olimar? Does a totally different sort of goblin challenge his unrelated Overlord?
Do we question the worth of Square Enix's PlayStation Vita launch day offering? Of course we do. It's our job.
Fast-paced Action Strategy: There are plenty of action games and tons of strategy games, but not a lot of titles can successfully merge the two quite as well as Army Corps of Hell. Being the commander of hell's army is not a desk job, requiring precision movements and dodging while simultaneously issuing attack orders to three different sets of troops. It's up to you to keep them out of harm's way while they tear apart your enemies, and you've got some very important decisions to make.
Do you fight in formation, opening your army up to massive damage in exchange for the quick kill, or do you play it safe, dodging and weaving about the battlefield while nickel-and-diming your foes to death? Which element should your magic users carry into each stage? What sort of balance should be struck between the three classes? There's a lot more going on in this game than meets the eye.
Intuitive Controls: Army Corps of Hell's action / strategy blend wouldn't work nearly as well if not for the game's intuitive control scheme. Left stick moves and right stick controls the cameral. Square, Triangle, and Circle buttons switch between your three squads. Left shoulder attacks, right shoulder sees your minions falling into formation, effectively an alt-fire mode for your goblin crews. It might look complicated typed out, but once the game is in your hands the control scheme is surprisingly intuitive.
The only time this Vita launch game's controls falter is when deploying special battle items and power-ups. These require timed taps and finger slides on the Vita's rear touch surface, and those don't seem to register as well as they should.
So Big, So Boss:While hopping from hell island to hell island, popping minor demons gets old rather quickly, the game's massive boss fights are a fine reward for slogging through the unblessed masses. It's here where the real strategy of Army Corps of Hell kicks in. You can wing it as you work your way up to these marvelous main events, but when you're facing off against a slinky succubus riding a gargantuan multi-headed worm, a fire-breathing dragon easily ten times your size, or an insect lord swarming with deadly lackeys, you'd better bring your 'A' game.
Crafting Up a Storm: Army Corps of Hell did not need a crafting system in which you use the bits your goblins chew off dead monsters to craft new weapons, armor, and items to aid in your fight, but it's nice that it's there. It gives the player motivation to hit up those earlier levels, harvesting bits of monster gobbly-goo in order to have the best equipment the damned can get.
God Help Me the Music: It's like an entire soundtrack made up of Final Fantasy XIII-2's horrific wild chocobo song. Packed with death metal, heavy-ish metal, and the screaming of distressed guitars, there is not one song on Army Corps of Hell's soundtrack I would download to my MP3 player. Within the context of the game and its themes, it all works so brilliantly. I hate it so much, but I couldn't imagine playing without it.
Pretty Ugly: If you want to impress your friends and family with the graphical prowess of Sony's latest handheld, this is not the game to do it with. Army Corps of Hell looks like a PSP game. I'm not talking some of those fine latter-year PSP classics either. It has the look of a game that could have been a launch title when the PSP hit Japan back in 2004. Graphics aren't everything, of course, but they do count for something, and this game's look just doesn't make the grade.
Slaughter, Eat, Repeat: If it weren't for Army Corps of Hell's boss fights (and the nifty crafting system) it's gameplay would consist solely of hopping from nondescript infernal island to nondescript infernal island, wiping out the minions that spawn until the bridge to the next area appears. Even with the additional elements breaking the monotony, the formulaic levels do get tiresome after the first five levels pass. Increasingly difficult enemies might keep you from falling asleep, but when those enemies are basically resized and palette-swapped versions of only a handful of demonic creatures that same-old feeling sticks with you.
A Piecemeal Production: Just as the game recycles enemies, it also recycles cut scenes. Between each level you'll see some variation of a small series of still images with different dialogue. A slow pan-in on the would-be lord of hell, an image of his minions whimpering, and a shot of those minions being shocked with new powers are repeated ad nauseum, with fresh images only appearing before major boss battles, furthering the feeling that everything but these climactic showdowns is simply padding to plod through.
My initial instinct was to give Army Corps of Hell a 'No' vote in the sidebar, simply because I didn't feel a game with PSP-level graphics and repetitive gameplay warranted its $40 asking price. This is a title that would be just as at home on the iPhone as it would on the Vita; why should it cost the same as the bigger, brighter, and more beautiful Vita titles?
But I'm not here to haggle with Square Enix. I'm here to evaluate Army Corps of Hell as a game and determine if it's a title worthy of players' attentions.
Once I looked beyond the shelf sticker I found exactly what I was seeking: a quirky little action-strategy game with solid controls, hideously good music, and epic battles between evil and more evil. While Army Corps of Hell isn't the technical superstar of the Vita launch lineup, it's earned its rightful place as a herald of this new era of handheld gaming.