Earth Defense Force 4.1: The Shadow of New Despair Review
Earth Defense Force saved my PlayStation Vita. The game, which was almost a stealth release in the months following the handheld's launch, was ugly as sin and didn't make much of a splash, but I loved it. The third-person shooter gameplay, coupled with the outrageous and bizarre "bugs invade Earth" storyline, made the game, the first I'd played in the series, a saving grace for the flagging handheld. It took almost 100 hours for Earth Defense Force to loosen its grip on my gaming attention, and it ties with Akiba's Trip as one of my most beloved and strange experiences with Sony's second handheld console. Now the franchise has finally made the jump to PS4, promising more of the same guns n' bugs gameplay I fell in love with in the first place. Now that I've finished it, I feel like that while decent on the PS4, the series found its true home on the Vita and should have stayed there.
Apparently, The Shadow of New Despair is a souped-up remake or reimagining of Earth Defense Force 2025, an Xbox 360 title. Seeing as I never got around to trying that game, the story and content was all new to me, while still being nearly identical in some places to the game I'd loved on Vita. The story is pretty much the same; invaders from space, in the form of ants, angrier ants, bees, mechs, spiders and spacecraft, have come to Earth to take over, and they aren't shy about destroying everything in their path to do so. The game does go about trying to inject a little more plot into the campaign here and there, but it is all 1950's drive-in movie silliness. Your goal, as a member of the Earth Defense Force, is to kill as many of these monsters as possible across 89 different single player missions (there is a whole second set of co-op missions as well). It's simple and fun, and it really doesn't need to be much more than that.
Keeping with that philosophy, the graphics and sound aren't much to write home about. Granted, The Shadow of New Despair looks much, much better than the Vita title and almost never stutters or slows, even when there are buildings falling and dozens of monsters on-screen. But this is still no visual feast. Except for the cutscenes, this could be a mid-to-high range PS2 title. The sound is a little better, featuring some really decent background tunes that have a rousing, nationalistic feel to them, almost as if the game was a propaganda tool used to recruit new members to join up and fight the invaders. As cool as a prospect as that may be, you'll be distracted by some truly over the top voice acting, which isn't a problem in and of itself (in fact, it fits the tone quite nicely). The issue becomes that you'll hear the same lines over and over and over, until they literally show up in your dreams or you find yourself uttering them in conversation. A cool touch, before you get sick of it, that is, is the ability to have your fellow troops shout - or even sing - on command using the PS4's touchpad to trigger them. Like I said, this isn't fun for long, but it does add that little extra spice from time to time.
The real reason people love the Earth Defense Force games is the gameplay itself, which is such a blast that it easily overshadows the nonsense premise, meh graphics and obnoxious voice acting. There are a ton of shooters out there, but the off the wall nature and simplistic perfection of Earth Defense Force puts it much higher in the heap than simply watching gameplay videos may suggest. Players can choose from one of four classes, each with their own special attributes and perks. They are pretty self explanatory - Ranger, Wing Diver, Fencer or Air Raider - and testing them all out provides enough variety that you won't mind replaying stages with new and different approaches. I'm a pretty boring guy so I stuck with the standard Ranger, but his main weakness is his mobility. Sure, tanks and vehicles are available to traverse the games simply massive stages, but the flying classes have the advantage of being able to move much more efficiently from skirmish to skirmish. And the class' differences don't end with mobility; each one has different weapons only they can equip. Is flying something you are willing to trade off for the use of some of the heavier, more destructive weapons? Choices like these make picking and sticking with a class much more difficult at first, but once you discover you play style, picking a favorite is easy.
But, as I understand, the class strength and weakness balancing isn't anything new to the series, though one major segment does something no Earth Defense Force has done before. [SPOILERS] A series of missions deal with a huge Godzilla-type monster called Erginus. Of course, you'll need to bring it down, but it won't perish in gunfire like your average bug or dragon. No, you'll need to take a cue from Pacific Rim and board a humongous robot to square off with the monster. Sadly, the method for beating Erigus isn't all that creative; you'll need to literally pummel him with punches until he falls. That's it. And this guy can take A LOT of punches, kind of like every bad guy in the NES title The Adventures of Bayou Billy. By the time you do win, you'll probably wonder how Erigus could keep fighting; the sheer amount of punches must have turned his bones and organs into a smashed up goo resembling risotto, but fight on he does. While you could label the Earth Defense Force games as repetitive, this sequence breaks things up and easily becomes the best part of the whole game. [END SPOILERS].
There are two main problems with The Shadow of New Despair - the grinding and the transition from portable to home console. As you play through missions, you'll gradually make your character stronger by boosting stats in an RPG-lite type system. New and better weapons are also something to keep an eye out for. So what's the problem? Borderlands did the shooter/RPG thing and t worked out great. The issue here is that if you want to grind, REALLY grind for new stats and weapons, you are making a serious time commitment. Getting the best stats and guns requires the patience and free time of a saint; expect to play the same level multiples of multiples of times, just for that one thing you need. This gets old really quick, and makes the case for doing just enough grinding to win, rather than sticking around for the 100+ hours it would take to finish it all.
Which leads to my last issue - playing on the PS4 console. The Shadow of New Despair's missions are mostly pretty short, showcasing what made the series so great on Vita. This is definitely a "pick up and play" game and series, and by having the game appear on a home console, you lose a lot of that drive to play for just one more mission or level. No one is playing a PS4 on the train or airplane, and the game design here seems to suggest that is exactly it should be played. This isn't a huge complaint, I just feel like I would have gotten more out of the game as a portable experience, rather than a console one.
If you like action games or shooters and haven't taken an Earth Defense Force title out for a spin, I highly suggest you do so. It ain't very pretty or very deep, but it's just so much fun that you won't care. Personally, I'd still recommend the portable Vita version over this PS4 (kinda) sequel, but those looking for more mission variety will want to choose this one over the portable one. Either way, you're going to have a great time.
Final Rating: 82% - Earth Defense Force 4.1 provides portable pick-up and play pleasure on your PlayStation.