Earth Defense Force 4.1: The Shadow of New Despair Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), PS4
Publisher: D3 Publisher
For those unaware, Earth Defense Force is a series extensively about battling incredibly massive armies of giant insects and robots in wide open environments all with a presentation that encourages bombast and, in its own way, a sense of spectacle through the sheer absurdity of the situation and the quantity of enemies that come their way. With Earth Defense Force 4.1: The Shadow of New Despair being extensively yet another entry in this fairly long running series, being set several years after the first alien invasion from a force known as the Ravagers and it falling on the jolly good EDF to once again save the planet from an enemy with seemingly unlimited resources in order to protect their home planet and ensure the future of humanity.
For as much as this series has a reputation of sorts for being hockey and cheesy, mostly due to the presentation seen in Earth Defense Force 2017, (the third game in the series and first game in this series to come to North America) the story is actually played straight and seriously. Detailing numerous battles between the EDF and the Ravagers, and the numerous failures that come with it as humanity is outnumbered and outgunned time and time again. With imminent destruction drawing increasingly near as billions are killed, cities crumble, and the military forces of Earth are diminished at a rapid rate. Though, it is mostly set dressing and fluff for a serialized series of missions against robots and giant insects with dialog that is easy to ignore due to how muffled it is thanks to a radio filter, and a bizarre absence of subtitles considering how modern this title is.
As for the rest of the game, it is a mission and class based third person shooter with levels that all share the common goal of making as many Ravager forces, which include giant ants, giant spiders, giant bees, giant bipedal robots, giant UFO dropships, and other giant robots. With each level taking place in a very large environment of mostly copied and pasted assets that serve as the battleground for combat with dozens if not hundreds of enemies simultaneously in what primarily consists of wave based encounters where the player must outgun and outmaneuver enemies in order to survive.
It is fairly simple, yes, but the developers ultimately do a good job at making the 89 missions in the game all have something unique to them, introducing new threats gradually and shifting up the scenery as time goes on, and varying the enemy use around fairly well, despite how I think the game only has about 30 enemy variants. Furthermore, the underlying gameplay manages to be a bombastic cathartic experience that is both hectic and demanding enough to capture one’s attention, and make for an enjoyable romp.
In fact, I would say that the game is quite refined for what it is, and delivers upon its core concept quite impressively, being a positively excellent game to play for to unwind a bit, and a great companion title if you are the sort of person who enjoys listening to podcasts while playing games. In all of these respects, I think the game is very good, but after going through it to completion with a single character, and grinding a bit for weapon drops on higher difficulties, I could not help but feel there were features and additions that could turn future games in this series into truly amazing ones. Namely three.
Firstly, I think that the game would benefit greatly from more RPG systems, namely a form of leveling system that allows the player character to improve as the game goes on, rather than being static beyond weapon and armor drops. This seems especially obvious to me, as the game never directly rewards the player for killing copious amounts of enemies, when that is the primary form of gameplay. This could be incorporated through a type of skill tree to allow for a greater sense of character customization, and could also include skills that overlap between classes, encouraging the player to try out more of them, without needing to restart from 0 every time.
Secondly, there’s also the matter of the weapon and armor (health upgrade) drops from defeated enemies. These things are the only means of character growth throughout the game, yet the act of picking them up is very time consuming and, well, utterly mindless. Defeat the enemies, and then run, or fly, to pick up the drops. Why these drops even exist, or why they do not gravitate towards the player, is a genuine mystery to me. Especially when considering how in multiplayer one person getting a drop corresponds to everyone getting a drop. I mean, this makes sense for health drops, but not health upgrades and new weapons.
Thirdly, it seriously feels as if every character should have some designated boost or dash ability, along with access to some form of vertical movement. Considering how many enemies come from the sky, how bugs crawl on skyscrapers, and how they often attack from ceilings in caverns, I would say that verticality is a major part of this game’s combat system, so seeing half of this game’s classes be restricted to the ground just seems, well, wrong.
The Wing Diver can soar through levels at a faster rate than any other class, and combined with her aggressive arsenal of weapons, is very much the most enjoyable character to use to the point where I struggled to enjoy my brief time with the other three. Though, I admittedly barely understood how the Air Raider and Fencer were supposed to function. Why would I want to drive a clunky tank or be a clunky tank-man when I can fly around and wreck rapid death upon anything that crosses my path?
As for the game’s presentation, Earth Defense Force 4.1 is certainly more interested in creating a playing field for hectic action set in large maps than it is in, well, anything else. With the environments making heavy use of recycled assets that are clearly designed more as general set dressing, but do contain a few pleasantly surprising details, such as tricycles that can be found in residential areas. I actually respect this approach, as it shows an understanding of what is most important to this experience, while also likely keeping the game’s budget at a manageable level.
It is overall a very modest presentation, which is also how I would describe the port, as it is overall quite basic with regards to options yet it functions well and does what it needs too, even though I am a bit surprised that certain features were not added. Namely enhanced draw distance for certain details, such as tall grass, and the ability to fix how distant characters adopt a low framerate. Though, these could just be engine limitations and are overall minor. What is not minor is the crashes, as in my 25 hours with the game it crashed no fewer than 10 times, which has to be a record in my experience. It is not too frustrating due to the presence of autosave and the short mission lengths, but it is still a very real annoyance
If a few key evolutions were made, evolutions that are, as far as I can tell, not present in Earth Defense Force 5, I could see this game having a winning formula that could make for an all time classic. Yet as it stands, Earth Defense Force 4.1 is a simple yet incredibly enjoyable game that knows what it wants to be, and really does not try to be much more. Its hectic yet cathartic action combined with the ability to facilitate gameplay in short bursts makes for a very special and palpable experience that I feel always has a place in the industry, and, well, I like it a lot.