Game Review: 'Army Corps of Hell'

Shigeru Miyamoto, best known for creating the iconic franchises of Super Mario Brothers and The Legend of Zelda, produced a game a few years back called Pikmin.  In it, you controlled a wayward, pint-sized alien who used a battalion of plant-based sprites to defeat the (relatively) massive enemies that stood between him and his ship home.  The mechanic was brilliantly fun, the aesthetic lively, and the experience was a joy.

Now Square Enix, using one of that game's designers, has liberally cribbed from Pikmin for Sony's new PS Vita handheld.  They've taken the action-strategy gameplay of that title, transplanted it to Hell, and poured a thrashing metal soundtrack over the top. The resulting title, Army Corps of Hell, may have the gameplay of Nintendo's moderate classic, but does it have a soul?

The setup of Army Corps of Hell is incredibly simple: you play as the deposed King of Hell, employing an army of goblin foot soldiers in order to reclaim his throne.  These goblins are broken up into three classes: soldiers, spearmen, and mages, each with their own particular characteristics and fighting styles.  Soldiers dogpile onto enemies to perform a devastating group attack, spearmen charge forward in a straight-lined phalanx, and mages lob various spells in monster-seeking clusters.  Certain monsters are more vulnerable to certain enemy types, lending the game a pseudo rock-paper-scissors sense of balance.

Unfortunately, once you get on top of this simple mechanic, the flaws of the game start to rear their ugly heads.  Trying to control your army of soldiers as they trail behind you is an exercise in frustration, as the barely contained clump veers into various environmental traps, costing you infantry even if you're Patton when it comes to felling the enemies.  Even the enemies themselves can become annoying, with certain attacks wiping out massive numbers of your soldiers, forcing you to retreat to resurrect their dying throngs.

It's frustrating, but it's still oddly fun in small doses.  The gory explosion when you complete a particularly effective attack (which leads to an enthusiastic "Overkill" bursting across the screen) is satisfying, and the Alchemy system which sees your skull-headed general upgrading his army with body parts strewn across the battlefield, gives the game a sense of obvious visual progress.  The story is threadbare, conveyed with gorgeous heavy metal album cover style paintings that are rife with winking silliness and slapstick.  Speaking of heavy metal, the game's soundtrack is a collection of various Japanese metal bands, ranging from chugging death metal to wailing power metal, and it fits the game like an armored gauntlet.

These few positives don't outweigh the one huge, glaring negative.  All of the game's arenas are a series of rectangular platforms connected by free-floating skeletal bridges.  Clear a platform, and a new bridge extends to a new platform, where you continue the process until a portal rises from the ground indicating the level's end.  While this sameness isn't horrible for small doses—a level or two at a time—extended sessions of the game will lead to an unsettling feeling of déjà vu. 

I really wanted to love Army Corps of Hell, I really did.  Unfortunately, carbon-copy level design and a broken pathfinding mechanic for your soldiers overshadow the headbanging soundtrack and wicked aesthetic.