Army Corps of Hell
Genre: Action / Strategy
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: 02/22/12
Out of all the kinds of games one would expect to be available upon the launch of Sony’s new handheld, the Playstation Vita, the quirky Army Corps of Hell (ACH) is really not one I think anyone could have guessed would pop up. The actual genre the game could be classified under remained a mystery pretty much until after its actual release, with little press coverage or hype put behind it. What many thought (myself included) would be some bizarre take on the strategy /RTS format actually turned out to be something entirely different, and the actual game is pretty enjoyable but, unfortunately, a bit limited.
There isn’t much of a story per se in ACH, as the bulk of the premise is based solely around the gameplay and everything it entails. Not that different from Triumph Studio’s Overlord series in the way things are set up, ACH sees you as the nameless “King of Hell” who has been stripped of his ungodly powers and is forced to work his way up the proverbial ladder that exists as the game’s underworld. To carry out the task of proving that you’re better than every other horned monstrosity that lives south of Heaven, you call upon an ever increasing in number army of goblins that carry out their master’s bidding with the mere press of a button. The commands for such a hostile takeover are as one would expect, and all involve techniques that basically eliminate anything that might exist in The King’s way. As levels are completed, cutscenes depicting The King’s rise to power are shown through wonderfully painted illustrations, but they exist more as filler than anything else. There still is no story to be told beyond the core premise, and little is said outside of the realm of “Master, you have beaten them all!” and “YES!!! MY POWER GROWS!” Though it’s obviously something you’d struggle putting a book report together for, the campy and blunt premise works really well for the game it’s attached to. What else would be on a fallen King’s agenda other than taking back his kingdom? According to ACH, gutting and eating anything that might stand in the way of that goal.
ACH‘s visuals don’t have any particular aesthetic style they are done in, save for the, again, expertly done illustrations that are used as cutscenes. Even given the fact that you’ll literally be commanding up to one hundred individual goblins by game’s end, the character models lack the more polished detail that is present in most of the other launch titles on Sony’s new handheld. The environments suffer from this as well, as they never go beyond being a string of closed off arena type locales that the player progresses through to the goal point, and are created with the same bland brown mountain-esque textures and obstacles through the game.
The boss models, which tend to be much larger than anything else, do look considerably better than any other element the game may offer, with the exception of the cutscene artwork, as their textures and detail are much sharper and more impressive than the smaller enemy models or goblins. The animation in ACH is amusing to behold, regardless of the model quality, as watching a throng of sword wielding goblins run up and over take a giant monster of some sorts looks just as it should, and is bound to invoke a twisted smile in most players.
ACH truly shines in the sound department, if only for the fact that the entire game’s soundtrack is one hundred percent real heavy metal music by real bands. One could not imagine better musical accompaniment for a game that is all about tearing your way through hell to take your place as the biggest and baddest bad guy that exists. Even if you aren’t a fan of heavy metal music, you’d be hard pressed to deny just how well the wailing riffs and guttural vocals aid the game in setting its tone. It’s the perfect soundscape for a king of hell to kick ass to. The actual sound effects that accompany the various magic blasts and monster grunts sound good as well, especially the amusing high pitched yelps and battle cries of the goblin troops.
ACH controls well, which is definitely a good thing, since a good portion of the game will see you steering the king and his minions out of harm’s way. By using the trigger buttons you can easily issue commands to the class of goblin you have currently selected, and also gather them into formation, which alters the abilities of each class. The game also makes use of the rear touch pad with mini games that pop up when you use an item, and for the most part it works fine for the application. ACH‘s gameplay can be summarized easily as the twisted and deformed love child of Pikmin and Overlord. As The King of Hell, it is unacceptable to get your hands dirty while in the process of taking back what’s yours, especially when you have an army of ravenous goblin spawns to do it for you. Much like the conductor of an orchestra (of death metal music), your loyal soldiers will follow your every whim and attempt to seize the throat of anything in your sights. The goblin horde, however large in number it may be, follows the king exactly as you the player move him, and will even perform dodge roll maneuvers in unison should they be executed. The core of the action boils down to effectively keeping away from enemies and attacking with the class of goblin the situation calls for. By pressing one of three face buttons, the king can call on the particular abilities of any one of the three available troop classes he might have under his control.
A warrior type goblin brandishes a sword and shield, and will rush to tackle and topple enemies at the king’s command. The soldiers prove to be the most useful collectively, and will continue to pile onto the target monster so long as the attack command is engaged, there is reserve to pull from, and the target monster fails to shake them off. After a certain amount of the horde overwhelms an enemy, you are given the option to perform a lethal “salvo attack” which renders most monsters to a mass of viscera. Spearman goblins attack from range, hurling themselves from a considerable distance away towards targeted enemies, and finally, magi goblins can cast magic projectiles that home in on targets, and when commanded by the king, turn the horde into a proverbial battle tank of the sorts. All of the units are unique, and some are more effective then others in certain situations, but I found myself able to complete most of the stages by mainly using the brute force of the goblin soldiers and the occasional target tracking ranged abilities of the magi. A player more keen on utilizing the specific talents of each class to the letter might have an easier time in the long run, especially on the harder difficulty settings, but I actually appreciated the fact that I was able to reach the goal with the troops of my choice, rather than having to constantly switch.
The progression of ACH is pretty much a rinse wash and repeat setup, with little real variety stage-wise. The same assortment of monsters will appear throughout, and by the six or seventh stage, chances are you’ve seen all the base enemy types the game has to show you. Sometimes monsters will appear with one of two different affinities (fire or lightning) which will require you to take a different approach, but those are the only variations one can expect to see. The stages themselves are laid out in a series of closed off arena like rooms that require you to destroy all the enemies within before you are able to move onward. In some instances you have to find keys to cross a bridge, but the action itself has a certain “survival mode” form about it that works well for the type of game ACH is, though it ultimately inspires little excitement. Things fortunately turn around during the several intense and cleverly executed boss battles the game throws at you. Using your goblin minions to take down a giant fire breathing bull demon by weakening his legs and then swarming his face is second only to the times you use a similar strategy to take out the wings and head of an electrically charged dragon. The boss fights in ACH are great fun, with just the right amount of challenge.
A large part of playing through ACH involves the alchemy system, which is a way the king can make new and better armor and weapons for his goblin underlings. As enemies of all size and power fall to the horde, you’ll be sending your minions to ravage and ransack the bloody remains for various components you can combine together to forge things. Playing on higher difficulty levels and achieving better scores on any of the stages will net you more rare components, and there is a decent sized list of swords, staves, shields, and armors to create for all three of the goblin classes.
Given their puny nature, these weapon and armor upgrades will make all the minions whose class they accommodate more formidable in battle, and enhance their defense and offense towards the fire and lightning affinities. It will also change the physical appearance of the minions, which I always appreciate. With the alchemy system, it is also possible to create a number of different single use items that can be used, most of which are accompanied by a cute, if not redundant, mini game upon using them. Using a drum item to boost the king’s health bar will require you to rhythmically hit the rear touch pad along with a goblin drum circle, for instance. The quality of your performance dictates how much health you’ll actually receive, which adds an interesting element to the action at first, but becomes tiresome later on, especially during intense boss battles.
I, for one, appreciated the inherent simplicity of ACH from a gameplay standpoint, but as I played through the game, I couldn’t help but feel slightly disappointed by the limited number of features and elements. The only reason to play stages again is with the hopes of being able to acquire new item components, and with only three kinds of troops to command, grinding out the stages can get old quickly. After a few stages, when all the goblin classes become available to you, you’ve pretty much seen all the game has to offer in terms of what can actually be done with it, as the only things to look forward to at that point are completing the stages that grant you an increase in the number of goblins you can command, and the occasional alchemy recipe, which will require you to have the right components to create. The pace and structure of the game is great for a pick up and play session, and the gameplay and concepts are certainly good enough to keep you at it for awhile, but even as such, you can’t help but want more from the product.
Unless you have a fervent need to collect all the necessary components and build all the goblin equipment through alchemy, there is little reason to go back to ACH. The game is best played in short spurts, and playing through the campaign completely at least once is a good time, but the tedious nature of the core gameplay doesn’t lend itself well for any repeat “just for the hell of it” playthroughs.
The difficulty in ACH ramps up with each stage progression, but there really isn’t ever a time where things feel hopeless or uneven, even when my goblin troops weren’t outfitted with the best equipment. The game is good about placing spawn cages throughout the levels where you can resupply your horde, and if things get too tough, you can stock up on items from alchemy creation to give yourself a hand. As I mentioned before, being able to overcome most of the game’s stages with the abilities of any one of the three goblin classes is a good thing in my opinion, and adds to the versatility of the actual gameplay.
Conceptually, the “be the bad guy’ premise has been done quite a few times in games, but it’s still such an interesting concept to get into, that even when the same bad guy story is told in multiple games, it somehow retains a portion of the originality that comes tacked on. The setup in ACH is certainly not that different from the likes of Overlord, but both games see the main character command an army of minions like the equally quirky Dungeon Keeper games on the PC. ACH does feature a bad guy taking out other bad guys, which is a new angle on the concept for what it’s worth, and while the gameplay certainly shadows the likes of Pikmin, the more frantic action oriented nature of the game definitely separates it enough to mostly allow it to be its own thing.
I found ACH difficult to really get completely engrossed in, and it wasn’t because of the rudimentary story, but rather the overall limitations of the game itself. What IS there is quite a good time, but pacing yourself out with the game will most likely guarantee that its repetitive nature won’t wind you down on it to soon. Collecting components to make new items rarely comes through gradual progression, and sadly, that’s one of the few rewards you’ll see for grinding the game out.
HEAVY METAL FANS MUST BUY THIS.
Unfortunately, like most under the radar games by little known developers, ACH has received little to no marketing exposure, and many message boards for the game contain comments from users that didn’t even know it existed. PS Vita owners who aren’t really sold on any of the unit’s big name titles, or those who want something other than a console port, would do well to give ACH a spin, but without any of their friends recommending it to them, and no ads alerting them of its existence, it might be one that’s missed by many.
As mentioned, the soundtrack for ACH is balls to the wall metal. As a special promotion of sorts, the bands that appear on the game’s soundtrack have released a series of passcodes that, when entered into the game’s built in code feature, will unlock an assortment of band related goodies to play around with. I’d mention what they are, but that would be no fun.
FINAL SCORE: ABOVE AVERAGE GAME.
Short Attention Span Summary:
Army Corps of Hell is a interesting and morbidly charming little game that has a lot of heart (which is as black as the dead of night) but, unfortunately, runs dry at just about the halfway point due to the limited number of things you can actually do with the game collectively. The action is a fun and demented take on Pikmin for all intents and purposes, and it plays well on Sony’s new handheld. The hard as nails heavy metal soundtrack pretty much takes the show as far as presentation goes, and does wonders to bring the game’s sadistically lighthearted concept into its own. If you think ACH sounds like a good time, you’ll probably have fun with it, but the fun won’t last as long as you’d like.