Saturday, July 25, 2020

It Came From Japan: The Earth Defense Force & Earth Defense Force 2 (PS2)

It's crazy to think Earth Defense Force is almost two decades old.  Though the franchise is regarded as a cult classic for its manic sci-fi action, when the first game released for the PlayStation 2 in 2003, it was a simple shooter for a simple series.  The Simple Series 2000 was a line of budget titles put out by publisher D3.  Take a studio, develop a game on the cheap, release it for 2,000 yen (20 bucks in America) and make a profit, capitalism at its finest.  The Simple Series played host to a variety of games conventional and unconventional.  2003's The Earth Defense Force was developer Sandlot building off the concept of large-scale battles set in huge environments, which they previously toyed with in the mech sim Robot Alchemic Drive.

In the not-too distant future, next Sunday A.D., unusual signals are picked up by satellites.  Theorizing this might be an alien civilization trying to contact Earth, nations band together to create the Earth Defense Force.  Fast forward to 2017, and giant spaceships appear over the skies, bringing with them gifts of giant insects, robots, and more.  Valiantly and defiantly, the Earth Defense Force thwarts the invasion, and all that's left to do is clean up the mess.  Peace is only temporary, as in Earth Defense Force 2, the invaders return, and this time, they brought friends.

Considering both games were produced for a line of budget titles, plot is the least of worries.  What matters is what's being killed and what weapons you use to do so.  Thin plots are the norm for Earth Defense Force, so for the first two entries to not have much in the way of narrative is not surprising.  Where the stories shine, though, is through pacing.  Campaigns in Earth Defense Force thrive on gradual escalation, slowly but surely ramping up the insanity until the player is taking on giant frogs wielding plasma guns, all the while a giant monster stomps through the city.  The first game has few surprises, but the sequel throws curveballs like nobody's business.  

H.G. Wells called.  He wants his alien war machines back.

What starts out as a soft remake of the original becomes its own thing towards the half-way point when a bigger, deadlier mothership joins the fray, along with a host of new invaders big and gargantuan.  If it sounds familiar, it's because Earth Defense Force 2017 and Earth Defense Force 4.1 are remakes of the PlayStation 2 originals.  What the plots lack in originality, they make up for creatively.

Earth Defense Force is known for its basic but in-depth run-and-gun gameplay.  With lengthy campaigns, multiple characters, and a plethora of firearms to unlock, the games are never light on content.  Even in these early entries, you will recognize a lot of what defines the series.  Before starting the game proper, I recommend going into the options menu and switching control schemes.  The default lay-out is outdated, but the secondary choice makes for a smoother experience.  Also, while the two Earth Defense Force titles are in Japanese, getting past the language barrier is easy as the menus contain visuals to identify which tabs lead to what, just remember the circle button accepts while X is to go back.

The Earth Defense Force and Earth Defense Force 2 were released in Europe as Monster Attack and Global Defense Force respectively.  While voice acting is absent, all the menus and text are translated to English.  For U.S. players, the second game did get ported to the Vita in 2015, complete with English translations for text and voices, and a new character called the Air Raider was added.  Just remember if you want to play the original PlayStation 2 titles, you will need a Japanese/European PS2 to do so, plus you have to account for the different voltage of a European PS2 if you live in America.  With the technicalities out of the way, on to the games themselves.

The Earth Defense Forcce is the one that started it all, and it shows.  With only one character and a short campaign, there is not a lot of meat to the adventure.  Even the enemy variety is small.  There are ants, H.G. Wells-inspired mechs, gunships, dropships, a kaiju, a mothership, and that's it.  Spiders, the arch-nemesis of many an EDF veteran, are introduced in the sequel.  Earth Defense Force 2 not only adds new enemy types, but a new playable character.  Both games feature the soldier.  He moves, shoots, jumps, and rolls.  What he lacks in abilities he makes up for with his expansive arsenal.

Unlike later games, dropships can be downed simply by shooting them instead of waiting for the hatch to open. 

While he is the only character to play as in the first one, the sequel adds Pale Wing.  A short skirt wearing, jetpack flying goddess of destruction, the Pale Wing's gimmick is her guns and jetpack are tied to the same energy source.  Her weapons include rapid-firing plasma rifles, homing lasers, and laser snipers, among others.  The jetpack is great for maneuverability and making hit-and-run attacks, but her fragile nature means you have to play it quick and smart with her or else.  Whether you play The Earth Defense Force or Earth Defense Force 2, both feature missions with one goal: kill all enemies.  Over the course of the 25+ missions in the first game or 70+ missions in the second one, you will blast through waves of vicious creatures.

Combat is satisfying thanks to the weapons and fun gameplay.  You are never accompanied by AI allies in either game, so unless a buddy is tagging along via split-screen co-op, you are a one-man army going up against a seemingly unstoppable threat.  As mentioned briefly, The Earth Defense Force features a small enemy roster, but Earth Defense Force 2 brings in a bevy of new foes.  In addition to the previously mentioned spiders, there are flying ants, a new gunship model where shooting anywhere but the glowing red spot causes bullets to bounce off, plus centipedes.  If you weren't afraid of centipedes now, you will be after playing this game.

Slain bad guys drop health, armor, or a weapon pick-up.  Health is self-explanatory, but collecting armor increases overall health.  Weapon pick-ups unlock new guns, and the higher the difficulty, the better the gun.  It's a grind long-time fans will be familiar with, but it's also a satisfying gameplay loop.  Hearing the "ping" an item emits when picked up never gets old, as does checking the results screen after a mission ends to see what loot you found.  Earth Defense Force thrives on replay value as much as it does its chaotic action, and the first game surprisingly lacks the former.  With only a small number of missions which can be completed in a few hours, there's not much reason to revisit the game once you finish it.

Giant centipedes?  Nothing freaky about that.

It also doesn't help the AI is not particularly bright, even on higher difficulties.  The limited roster of foes means the firefights aren't as hectic as one would expect.  Nearly every problem discussed is rectified in Earth Defense Force 2.  It's a stronger experience due to the added polish, increased mission count and enemy selection.  While a first-time playthrough of the first game takes three to four hours, the sequel will take roughly seven hours to beat.  Plus, things get ridiculous, with one level going as far to pit you against two giant ant queens, two king spiders, and two kaiju for good measure.  The scale of both games is also the straw that breaks the camel's back regarding performance.

Neither Earth Defense Force game is a technical marvel.  Textures are basic and everything lacks detail, especially the fleeing civilians, who look like they belong in a PS1 title.  Then, there is the atrocious framerate.  It fluctuates between tolerable to horrendous depending on how much is happening, and the latter happens so often I worried my Japanese PS2 was going to explode.  Even on an older generation of hardware, Sandlot was keen on pushing a system's capabilities.  While the graphics look bad from a technical perspective, they impress with the scope.

Locales are enormous and stretch as far as the eye can see.  Both games feature stages set in non-descript Japanese cities, vast hills and valleys, with the sequel adding underground caves and areas of London to blow up.  I was also impressed with the destruction system.  Buildings crumbled and collapse differently depending on where you hit them, which is impressive to witness.  Seeing a towering skyscraper fall down like a tree before shattering into pieces is quite a spectacle.  The Japanese voice acting is competent and the melodramatic music is great.

Experiencing Earth Defense Force's roots is like playing the original Guitar Hero and its sequel.  The first game establishes the premise people know and love, yet you can tell it's the first installment.  It's short nor does it have much of an incentive to play, aside from curiosity.  Then comes the sequel, which polishes what made the original work, but goes further by adding content and new mechanics which became the norm for the series in future entries.  Earth Defense Force 2 is an entertaining sequel, and though the visuals aren't the best, the entertaining action makes up for it.  Only hardcore fans curious about how it all started should track down the first game.  Everyone else should stick with Earth Defense Force 2017.

Final Scores:
5/10 (The Earth Defense Force)
7/10 (Earth Defense Force 2)

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Review: SpongeBob Squarepants: Battle for Bikini Bottom Rehydrated (PS4)

THQ epitomized video gaming of the 2000's.  They were the middle ground between large publishers like EA and smaller publishers like Eidos.  At its peak, THQ pumped out original games such as Red Faction, Destroy All Humans, and Saints Row, while also publishing licensed titles based on properties like Evil Dead or SpongeBob SquarePants.  Following its death and rebirth as THQ Nordic, the studio started reviving a lot of the former publishers classics.  With a new coat of paint and several quality-of-life improvements, SpongeBob SquarePants: Battle for Bikini Bottom Rehydrated intends to remind gaming veterans of the good old days while updating the experience for the modern age.

Plankton is up to no good.  Having finished building an army of robots, he aims to use the machines to attack his rival the Krusty Krab and steal the secret formula.  Instead, his mechanical army turns against him after Plankton accidentally flips the command switch to "Don't Obey."  The robots escape and wreak havoc on Bikini Bottom.  When SpongeBob sees a news report showing what is happening, he calls upon his friends to help take down the rising robot riots.  Little does he know Plankton is trying to manipulate the sponge into helping him get back into the Chum Bucket, so he can regain control of his robots and resume what he had intended.

Take the plot for aa 12-minute episode, stretch it into a seven to eight-hour adventure, and you have the game sitting in your disc tray.  The story is not spectacular, but the set-up fits perfectly within the context of the source material.  SpongeBob is not known for having insightful plots.  It is about making people laugh, and the game has plenty of laughs to go around.  The writing is stellar and does an excellent job at translating the characters from television to video games.

2/10? Sure, and monkeys will fly out of my butt.
SpongeBob is a goofy, naive individual who always does his best, even if he fails to realize he is being toyed with.  Meanwhile, Mr. Krabs takes the opportunity to profit from the crisis any way possible.  The game's charming, upbeat nature never ceases to put a smile on one's face.  Plus, the visuals enhance the feeling of being in the nautical city of Bikini Bottom with its warm, colorful graphics.  Video games live and die on gameplay, not presentation, and though the gameplay is atypical for the genre, it is enjoyable.

Battle for Bikini Bottom Rehydrated is a 3D collect-a-thon platformer inspired by the likes of Super Mario 64 and Spyro the Dragon.  The goal is to free Bikini Bottom from Plankton's mechanical menace.  SpongeBob does this by traveling to various locations, completing tasks, and collecting knick-knacks of varying importance.  Platformers succeed or fail based on their controls and fluidity, and the game does not falter with either of those.  The controls make platforming a cinch to do, which is good because the latter half of the experience is filled with pits and other hazards waiting to claim SpongeBob and company.

Everyone's favorite yellow sponge can move, jump, attack enemies with his bubble wand, and perform a ground-pound.  Throughout the adventure, SpongeBob learns new techniques from Bubble Buddy.  These include throwing a bubble bowling ball to hit buttons and baddies from a distance, hitting targets above him with a bubble helmet, or conjuring up a bubble torpedo to hit hard-to-reach things.  Aiding SpongeBob are Patrick and Sandy.  Most stages feature a bus stop allowing you to swap characters.  Patrick is the heavy-hitter.  His belly slam stuns enemies and he can throw objects like watermelons to hit buttons or launch himself across a gap if he is standing on a platform.  Sandy the Squirrel uses a lasso to hog-tie robots from a distance, glide across gaps, or swing from specially marked anchors.

Bouncing on top of musical notes in Squidward's dream is one of the game's higlights.
All of these powers and their respective characters will be put to good use while venturing through Bikini Bottom.  Locations include Jellyfish Fields, Goo Lagoon, Rock Bottom, and Kelp Forest; sadly, there is no magic conch to consult.  Each level features a mixture of combat puzzle-solving, and platforming.  Getting into the Chum Bucket requires 75 of the 100 golden spatulas strewn across the game.  Spatulas are earned through a variety of different means.  Some of them are acquired by finding a certain number of items for someone, like finding 15 of Patrick's socks or paying Mr. Krabs X number of shiny objects, the game's currency.

A lot of the concepts have been done plenty of other times in similar titles, but the game's concepts never run on fumes.  The game is not a total cakewalk, either, as some of the puzzles are quite tricky to solve.  Combat is simplistic, but the different robot types keep things engaging.  Plankton's robots come in a variety of shapes and sizes.  Small robots armed with an electric prod only take a hit to destroy, but others, such as the tartar sauce launchers or the ones stacked like a totem pole require two or three hits to take down.  Always keep an eye out for Duplicatotrons, machines which keep conjuring enemies until the device is destroyed.

While SpongeBob and Patrick have to get up close and personal, Sandy lassos them, removing any danger these goons normally pose.  Disappointingly, the boss fights are easy.  Each encounter boils down to "dodge attacks, wait for them to get tired, and hit them when vulnerable."  The only exception is the fight against Robo-SpongeBob since you have to destroy all the weak spots dotted around the body, and in the fight's second phase, SpongeBob journeys inside the mechanical behemoth to defeat him for good.  Since this is a remake, it would have been neat to give these old bosses new tricks to surprise players with.

Why karate chop robots when you can just hog-tie them like it's the rodeo!
As mentioned earlier, the game treats death like a slap on the wrist.  If SpongeBob or any of the other character die, they immediately respawn with no penalties whatsoever.  The game autosaves after each checkpoint, character swap, or collectible found, so losing a lot of progress is never an issue.  However, the knockback from taking damage is a bit excessive.  Nothing says fun like falling into a pit because a hit from tartar sauce launched SpongeBob back a good two to three feet.  Purple Lamp Studios did introduce a few minor improvements to improve the flow of gameplay.  In the original, any tutorials you came across automatically played, but Rehydrated fixes this by making the tutorials signs you interact with.  The tighter controls make the downhill sliding sections easier to handle.

Purple Lamp Studios also added multiplayer.  It is a horde mode where one to two players fight off waves of enemies while avoiding attacks from a mechanical Squidward.  This mode lets gamers play as characters not playable in the main game like Squidward, Mr. Krabs, or even Gary the Snail.  Unfortunately, I was not able to test this mode, but according to other players, the mode is disposable and not worth putting time into, although it does incorporate cut content from the original game, namely Robo-Squidward.

Battle for Bikini Bottom Rehydrated is a drastic improvement over its 2003 release in the graphics department.  The visuals are vibrant and pleasing to look at.  The developers nailed the look of the show and it is great to explore locales such as SpongeBob's pineapple house or Sandy's tree-dome and catch all the visual references sprinkled about.  Since the game originally released in 2003, most of the gags are nods to stuff from seasons one to three, though there are a few new nods to the recent seasons.  For example, one of the paintings in Squidward's house is of "Handsome Squidward."  Stand around long enough and SpongeBob or Patrick will give the exaggerated face you see in a lot of SpongeBob-themed memes.

Here's this giant enemy jellyfish...
Rather than redo the voice work, the remake utilizes the original voice recordings with the masters cleaned up.  The quality is good and though there is a slight graininess to the voices, it never sticks out.  The performances themselves are solid and the dialogue is hilarious.  Clancy Brown nor Ernest Borgnine voiced their characters Mr. Krabs and Mermaid Man in the original game, opting instead for soundalikes.  The soundalikes are awful, sounding less like genuine impressions and more like knockoffs.  On the flip side, the music is great, whether it is the ukuleles of the Bikini Bottom hub world or the surf rock of Goo Lagoon, all the tunes are catchy.

SpongeBob SquarePants: Battle for Bikini Bottom Rehydrated is simplistic yet fun.  The feel-good slapstick tone of the adventure never ceases to delight.  Contrary to certain gaming outlets, the game is less a disaster and more a wonderful if routine adventure.  The 3D platforming gameplay is not groundbreaking, but it is well-polished and keeps the action focused.  Even when the difficulty ramps up, it never becomes frustrating due to its forgiving nature.  Battle for Bikini Bottom Rehydrated is a prime example of the mid-tier game, a title which is not revolutionary but simply a fun time anybody can enjoy.  Sometimes, the best games are the simple ones.

Final Score: 7/10