Earth Defense Force: Iron Rain Review
Reviewed on Sony PlayStation 4
Not long after jumping from the dropship, our small group of soldiers were beset by a horde of giant ants. Looking up to the roofs of nearby buildings, humongous spiders had begun spitting web at us while birthing swarms of hungry offspring. "EDF! EDF! EDF!" came a familiar rallying cry as we unleashed our arsenal and brought the framerate to it's knees. In some ways it was reassuring to know that Earth Defense Force hadn't changed all that much in it's latest incarnation, but there are some key differences that set Iron Rain apart, both good and bad.
Before I point to the things that distinguish Earth Defense Force: Iron Rain, a little context for those not yet familiar with the series. Earth Defense Force, a.k.a. E.D.F., has been something of a cult hit since it arrived in the West on the last generation of consoles. It's mainstay features are huge battlefields and hundreds of swarming enemies on screen at once, ranging from cannon fodder like giant ants and spiders, through to increasingly colossal robots and alien motherships. Pick a class of soldier, selecting from your average Trooper, the high flying Jet Lifter, the heavily armoured and double weapon wielding Heavy Striker or the grappling hook and sword focused Prowl Rider. Pick some weapons and items to take with you and then brace yourself as a seemingly endless stream of baddies try to overtake you.
In broad strokes, Iron Rain continues those standards, but for me loses too much of what uniquely appeals about the franchise in the way it tweaks it's formula. Firstly, and most obviously to those who might have played EDF 4.1, is the increase in graphics coming at the cost of battlefield scale and enemy numbers. Battlefields aren't quite entire cities this time, instead being shrunk down to a few city blocks or even down to individual structures you'll be fighting within. It reduces the spectacle of seeing a tide of enemies gradually approaching in the distance considerably.
Those increases to graphical fidelity cost the series in other respects, as the number of enemies on the battlefield is lower than I had expected. The result is that a lot of the grand scale and sense of being a tiny, puny human facing down an entire invading force is diminished. Not lost, but certainly not nearly as strong as it was. The easily killed enemies of previous games have become much more hardy to counterpoint their reduced numbers and that too takes away some of the sense that the force you're fighting is a mindless horde of cannon fodder, piling fragile forces high with little thought to their own lives. More than that and perhaps least forgivable given the decrease in enemy numbers, the series' infamous frame rate issues crop up during the most chaotic moments and really diminish the impact of the shinier looks, with those drops coming even on a PS4 Pro.
All that isn't to say that Earth Defense Force: Iron Rain isn't bringing some interesting new twists to the franchise's formula, mostly in the form of the new enemy types and melee weapons. A small host of new robots have been added to the enemy's ranks and they're fun to fight against. Bipedal walkers can unleash a rain of fire from afar and swipe at you when close and tanks with elephantine attachments house harvested civilians that you'd best avoid shooting. The scale goes up and up, as towering, spider-like monstrosities fire lasers while opening hatches on their legs to drop off those previously mentioned bipedal walkers in alarming numbers. Taking on assorted collections of these enemies makes for a frantic challenge, with many of the larger types spawning waves of the smaller insects and robots.
Another effective addition to the EDF formula are melee weapons that allow you to get up close and personal with your enemies. In combination with the increased mobility of the Jet Lifter or Prowl Rider, these new weapons completely change the pace and tactics of a typical Earth Defense Force battle, with overt charges powered by the new Overdrive ability being just as, if not more effective than ballistics and energy weapons. At any time, you can click both analogue sticks together to activate the aforementioned Overdrive mode and drastically increase your movement speed, reduce reload times and give yourself an edge to overcome insurmountable odds. It works with any weapon too, not just these new swords, so those looking to unleash a torrent of lead with it aren't going to be left behind.
Another change to the series is the addition of a weapon and item shop, alongside character creation and customization. Instead of weapons and armour dropping from enemies in the field, they now spew a small selection of energy crystals and health crystals for you to collect. Three colours of gem correspond to killing the different types of enemy, so missions focused on bugs will only net one type of gem, and so forth. At first it's not too tough to keep pace with new items and maintain an interesting loadout, but later into the game I found myself needing to replay missions to get certain gems and farm credits. It's a level of forced grinding that's very off putting considering the way the series has always worked in the past. Online lobbies with titles like "Credit Farming" have been a regular sight since the game's release so with any luck the developers will recognize that they've perhaps gone a little to far in locking content away and will patch to increase rewards or lower prices.
In all, Earth Defense Force: Iron Rain is a fun, but flawed iteration of a series that's always earned similar reaction. When playing alone, it's long missions with brutal difficulty spikes make for a tough recommendation, mostly because falling in battle reduces your maximum health by half should you choose to try and continue. With a friend though, there's mindless fun to be had holding the last line of defense against the alien threat, provided you're happy to replay missions and grind for gear.