The deliriously stupid and endlessly enjoyable Earth Defense Force series has continued to rock right along with hardly any deviation from its basic formula: the games give you some guns and let you destroy waves of horrifying giant insects, nothing more. And while this franchise doesn’t appeal to everyone, EDF has a very dedicated following that doesn’t mind the wonky controls or subpar graphics — we just want to experience the thrill of mindlessly blasting away at enormous ants, spiders, and space frogs armed with heavy outer space weaponry. Like any long-running series, EDF wants to stretch its legs a bit and look for ways to grow, which explains why we have Earth Defense Force: Iron Rain, a reworking of the tried and true formula that attempts to inject some fresh blood by introducing character customization, tighter controls, and more RPG-like elements. Unfortunately, the end result doesn’t feel nearly as good as it should.
Let me preface everything I’m about to write by saying that I don’t mind difficult games. In fact, I openly embrace a natural, well-developed challenge, as opposed to artificially injected roadblocks that compensate for a lack of proper content. Sadly, Earth Defense Force: Iron Rain presents challenges that feel neither fair nor justified, a shame since it has many positive qualities that sets it apart from the proverbial pack. Unfortunately, trying to thoroughly enjoy Earth Defense Force’s unique brand of janky lunacy proves difficult, thanks in part to the punishingly missions you’re often forced to complete. Instead of enjoying a mindless shooting gallery filled with enormous bugs and disgusting aliens, you will find yourself on the brink of complete and utter frustration when facing difficulty level spikes that seem hard for the sake of being hard. As a result, you’ll spend more time grappling with irritation and struggling with disappointment.
Other games in the Earth Defence Force series earned their difficulty; the more you power through the seemingly endless waves of spiders, ants, and robots, the more vicious they become. That’s fine; again, I have absolutely no trouble with difficult games. However, Iron Rain kicks you square in the teeth right out of the gate, and if you don’t plan for it, you’ll find yourself overwhelmed by bugs before you can find your footing. During the first level, for example, my hero (named Closer in the game) became trapped between two gigantic ant corpses, and before I could free myself from the situation, I became surrounded by other enraged bugs, all of which seemed impervious to my weaponry. It didn’t take long for them to completely drain my health, leading me to stare slack-jawed and wide-eyed at my television. Thinking maybe I’d stumbled into a grimy pit of bad luck, I tried again, only for the same freaking thing to happen, though I’d actually made it a little farther down the block this time around. I wondered if, perhaps, I simply sucked, so I decreased the difficulty a bit.
Unfortunately, even on the easiest difficulty, Iron Rain still destroyed me in a matter of minutes. Oftentimes, Closer became so overwhelmed by enemies that I couldn’t tell which enemies I’d already demolished and which still had a thirst for my blood. During one memorable skirmish outside a gas station in the desert, I encountered so many overpowered enemies that I wondered if I could possibly overcome this scenario without returning to my old friend, Easy Mode. Only after I experimented with some of the weapons in my arsenal did I find the right recipe for success, which, truthfully, isn’t something I want to do in an Earth Defense Force game. No, I want to grab a weapon, jump into the fray, and begin laying waste to whatever horrors the level has in store for me. Simply put: EDF isn’t smart enough for strategy.
My irritation with Earth Defense Force: Iron Rain’s difficulty aside, I do appreciate the game’s willingness to try new things. In addition to the new leveling system — which forces you to spend a combination of colored energy gems on health upgrades and new weapons — you’ll find a handful of new classes to tackle, including one that allows you to take control of a giant insect of your very own. Granted, this mechanic seems much cooler in design that it does in execution, but you’ll have fun messing around with if you’ve ever had the desire to ride on the back of a giant alien bug. Again, since the levels seem designed to force you into using a very specific loadout, you don’t have a lot of wiggle room for experimentation. As much as I wanted to ride my creature into battle against a ferocious Godzilla-type behemoth, I opted instead for a tank, which provided me with a lot more firepower. I missed the freedom to play how I wanted in other Earth Defence Force titles, which will ultimately limit how often I return to this installment for another go-around, if at all. That makes me sad. No joke.
Unfortunately, collecting energy gems to buy new weapons, gear, and health boosts means you won’t have access to an incredible arsenal of weaponry by simply collecting loot dropped by downed enemies. In fact, you’ll have to wait until the game chooses to unlock options before you can spend any money on them, which severely limits the items you’ll have to pick through during the early stages of the game. During the levels where I kept getting swarmed by lethal, gunk-spitting ants, I desperately wanted a shotgun that could deal a massive amount of damage in short bursts, but the one I needed would only arrive in a later level. Instead of playing the same level over and over to grind for better loot, which you can do in other Earth Defense Force titles, you have to use what the game chooses to unlock at the end of a level. It might sound like I’m picking nits with this complaint, but imagine games like Borderlands if you didn’t have the option to amass massive amounts of loot. The game’s landscape would change dramatically, a problem EDF fans will encounter while playing Iron Rain.
Despite my criticisms, it’s obvious that the developers wanted to take the Earth Defense Force franchise in a different direction with Iron Rain. As mentioned, the controls definitely feel much tighter, the graphics look sharper and a lot more detailed, and the story doesn’t feel quite as slapdash and half-baked. The voice acting also makes a leap from “absolutely atrocious” to “not that bad, actually,” though the story still suffers from excessively corny dialogue and the kind of leaps in logic that would cause most writers to lose control of their facilities. That said, the goofy story and eye-rolling dialogue fit perfectly with EDF’s tradition of outrageous narratives and cornball interactions between its characters. Although the developers clearly wanted to expand the appeal of the game to reach people outside of its niche, I’m happy they didn’t drop what made the Earth Defense Force titles so appealing and entertaining in the first place. Too bad about the gameplay, though.
To be perfectly honest, I didn’t expect to dislike Earth Defense Force: Iron Rain. At all. Being a fan of the franchise, I expected to jump directly into the fray and enjoy my time with the latest installment, so you can probably imagine my disappointment when it deviated too far from the formula to my liking. And while some might think I dislike Iron Rain simply because I’m not good at it, my frustrations go beyond the difficulty. Again, I’m all for a challenge, but when your game lacks the proper mechanics to allow you to successfully navigate these white-knuckled encounters, you never have a fair shot of overcoming them. Instead, you find yourself fuming with frustration as you come to the crushing realization that you cannot overcome the odds using the tools at your disposal. Earth Defense Force always works best when it’s just you, a goofy little EDF soldier, and a few weapons against a legion of disgusting enemies. Iron Rain attempts to up the stakes a bit by throwing around new systems, classes, and ways of leveling up, but by doing so, they ruin what made the series so fun in the first place.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game. A copy was provided by D3 Publisher.
Although Earth Defense Force: Iron Rain attempts to take the franchise in a bold new direction, the latest installment in the long-running series makes too many mistakes to be anything other than a letdown.