When the gates of the netherworld open and the King of Hell comes for our souls, his evil army of minions will rain death on all mankind with might, magic and so, so much metal. At least, that’s what the prophecies laid forth in Square Enix’s Army Corps of Hell would lead us to believe.
When a game is labelled as being heavy-handed, it can simultaneously be both a blessing and a curse. Take No More Heroes for example; Suda 51’s otaku-turned-assassin adventure delivered an over-the-top punk rock aesthetic fuelled by a hyper-stylised embrace of old-school action. But behind the crazy combat laid unvaried worlds, repetitive graphics and rehashed mission structures. The same could be said for Army Corps of Hell, whose reused battle arenas and limited enemy types offer little in the way of variation, but whose gluttonous take on action strategy is still a blast to play.
Plummeting into the depths of the underworld, our protagonist crash lands to the sounds of death metal guitar riffs and double bass drum pedals. Immediately, this skull-headed demon lord enlists the surrounding goblin-like creatures into his new army. You break these minions into three soldier types and wield them in real time as you move about each stage.
Levels are made up of painfully repetitive isolated arenas, each having a set number of enemies that must be defeated before the bridge to the next floating monster island opens up. These islands range in size, but for the most part look the same throughout the entirety of the game. Plodding though each one feels very much the same level to level, as there are basically only three factors to consider at any given time: hazard placements, enemy types and environment size.
The different hazards littered about come in the form of bars of electricity and fire spitting up from the ground. The positioning of these hazards gets more devious as the game continues, and eventually they demand as much strategy and planning to avoid as each arena's mix of creatures.
Enemies don’t come in a wide array of flavours either, with the same winged demons, giant gelatinous eye creatures and killer worms found level to level. Different strategies are best suited for each, and the range of hellish attackers you endure seem varied, up until the first few boss battles at least. Soon after though, you begin to realise that you’ve seen every enemy the game has to offer. What’s worse, the game commits the woeful sin of reusing the same bosses repeatedly as well — you'll fight the identical giant fire-breathing demon — who was totally awesome to kill the first time around — several times over throughout the campaign. Then you’ll fight two of them. The sheen soon wears off.
At first, you only have one type of soldier at your disposal, sword-wielding minions which you lob onto enemies Pikmin-style. They’ll slowly eat away at enemy health, and once enough pile up, you can issue a larger “salvo attack” for additional damage. Holding the L button brings everyone into formation around you, which speeds up the throwing process but keeps you from moving about. There is a level of strategy here, as you need to manoeuvre behind certain enemies, dodge attacks and regather any minions that get knocked out. Leave them too long and they die, so it is important to balance formation and movement.
Not much later, you add spearmen and magicians to your arsenal. Spearmen can lunge forward in a direct line across the stage, while magicians shoot chargeable bursts of fire and electricity. Each works best for certain enemies, like using spearmen to take out distance enemies or using magic attacks on foes that can’t be hit by melee attacks due to being shrouded in fire or electricity. Each operates differently in formation as well, with spearmen attacking in a singular group all at once and magicians being the only minions that allow you to move while in formation — a key tactic, as minions trailing behind become more susceptible to getting trapped in hazards and devoured by demons.
Not helping out the repetitiveness is the alchemy system the game employs to craft weapons and armour. Essentially you harvest the dead bodies of fallen foes to earn items used to build better equipment, but many times you need the meat of a fallen boss to build the goods. Since actually playing the game’s campaign already feels like you're revisiting the same level over and over again, requiring you to actually go back and revisit the same level over and over again is rather joyless.
As a Vita title, the game certainly doesn't impress visually and isn't a very good example of this new system's power. Still, there are some interesting uses of the rear touch pad, like mimicking beating a drum to rally attack power of your troops or resuscitate yourself should you perish in battle. Still, there's no reason this game couldn't feel at home on the PSP, which would make it both cheaper and available to a wider audience on both platforms.
Even with the rehashed environments, enemies and boss battles, Army Corps of Hell still manages to deliver satisfying bursts of strategy action. The controls are easy to use, the challenge is steady and the over-the-top death metal aesthetic is a cheeky delight. It may not be as varied or wide in scope as its obvious inspirations, but the core gameplay is still solid. Also, once the campaign is through, you earn ten additional Purgatory levels and after that ten Tartus stages, so there's still much more to explore after the credits roll.