Once again, there is an Earth Defense Force game out there. Once again, it is not good. And once again, I couldn’t stop playing it. Earth Defense Force: Iron Rain isn’t good in the same way eating an entire bag of Cheetos in one sitting isn’t good. There is very little your gaming life needs in this game. But some days, it might be the only thing you want.
Despite a new air of seriousness at the outset, it doesn’t take long to realize that Iron Rain is still Earth Defense Force, and not necessarily some reinvention for the series. Yes, the giant bugs are still invading Earth. Yes, you’re a hapless grunt who must kill the ugly bastards dead for hours upon hours with an ever-increasing arsenal of weaponry. Yes, the story is still told by the most questionable definition of voice acting this side of the very first Resident Evil.
Yet, for more than 20 hours, I kept coming back to it. Earth Defense Force: Iron Rain is in the business of immediate gratification; it gives you a weapon, lets you kill a whole slew of evil critters, generously showers you with rewards in the aftermath, and lets you progress. No questions asked, no sales pitch, few if any barriers between you and the main thing the game does extremely well, which is letting you kill a hell of a lot of bugs.
The game tells you, “Your name is Closer, an EDF soldier. You’ve been in a coma for seven years, Now you’re awake, and we need you to kill every bug you see.” It shoves a gun in your hand, an assault rifle to start with, then drops you in the middle of a grudging facsimile of San Francisco and tells you to go to work. And you do. Giant ants come out of the woodwork within a few seconds. And for what it’s worth, these suckers are smarter in Iron Rain than in previous EDF titles; they know how to flank, how to surround, and when to run to a place of safety. But you’ve got an assault rifle, infinite ammo (for most weapons, anyway), and a grudge. You blast away, sending giant insect thoraxes and the disgusting green guts inside flying everywhere until the city is more dead bugs than street.
That’s mostly a good thing, since Iron Rain’s cities and deserts and forests are depressingly threadbare and devoid of any signs of non-alien life, but they are much less hard on the eyes thanks to some decent texturing and new lighting effects. The improvements are noticeable, but Iron Rain, like every EDF game before it, still falls short of current standards in the looks department.
That’s par for the course in Iron Rain. Most of the new additions–character customization, a Horde mode called Mercenaries–are nice, but they don’t fundamentally change what the series has been since 2006. Mercenaries in particular feels like a watered down version of Destiny 2’s Gambit mode. It’s a fun way to pass time, but without concrete goals beyond collecting as many gems from fallen bugs as possible, it’s not something to pump serious effort into. One of the only two major game-changers is the fact that weapons are no longer exclusive for the series’ traditional classes–for example, Rangers can now wield swords and missile launchers if you so desire. If anything, the character customization is a nice cherry on top, allowing you the freedom to create the insect-slaughtering war machine of your choice.
The big new addition, however, is a brand new class of soldier tied to the Prowl Rider armor. With it, you not only get the ability to attach yourself to a surface and reel yourself in with a device similar to the omni gear from Attack on Titan, but the ability to summon your own giant bug to wreak havoc against its own kind. Once you get the gear about 15 missions in, it’s a literal game changer that splits the difference between the versatile-but-frail Jet Lifter (formerly Wing Diver) and the more hardy Trooper class. Verticality and speed are encouraged and not punished this time around. That’s to say nothing of the idea of strolling into battle riding on top of your giant scorpion friend.
That all sounds wonderful on paper–and it often is in practice–but there are moments where it can be clunky. The reel works, but it’s finicky about what surfaces you can swing to, there’s very little flexibility in how you can move while in the air, and you can’t fire or even use items while it’s in progress. Even with the new customization, Iron Rain plays pretty stiffly in many crucial ways, and getting soldiers to run while firing a weapon or swinging a sword is awkward. There’s a new Overdrive ability that helps in that it speeds your soldier up, makes reloading much faster, and regenerates health, but you only get one per stage, and you can only regenerate it during a fight using a rather expensive consumable item. It may work, but making the mechanics play the way they always should is rather disappointing when it’s implemented as your character’s ultimate ability. That’s all on top of the same problems the series has always had. Slowdown is excruciating when too many enemies or explosions are on-screen. There’s a ton of repetition after all the various enemy types have been introduced. Crucial plot points are presented during gameplay while under heavy fire. The lack of a checkpoint system means dying at the tail end of a 15-minute mission sends you all the way back to the start. Earth Defense Force is still a fundamentally janky game.
The game may slow down. You might take more than a couple of cheap hits. But that little jolt of endorphins when those six-legged freaks go legs up after pumping a few rounds into them is an awfully powerful motivator. A noise says you’re in the clear, you collect the energy gems scattered across the field, and congratulations, you’ve earned guns, healing items, clothing, and ample opportunity to try them out before taking them out on a mission. Come across a difficult enemy? You probably picked up a weapon in a previous stage better suited to the situation. Flying ships? There are homing lasers for that. Giant mechs? There are missile launchers for that. Giant hopping spiders? Run where they land and slice em in half. There are no penalties for experimenting, and Iron Rain is generous with the currencies needed to purchase just about anything in-game. Enemies just drop gems on the field, and you get an extra 30 seconds at the end of every stage to go collect as many as you can. Everything you need to buy new gear is right there for the taking instead of the buying, the grinding, or the waiting. Every weapon feels distinct and worth its while in actual combat.
Where Iron Rain fails as an overarching plot, it succeeds in creating a stronger and more engaging vibe than its predecessors.
Iron Rain’s plot is sorely lacking, a flaw highlighted by how much less tongue-in-cheek the game is compared to its predecessors. That said, your squadmates are affable, prone to gallows humor, and fill the ride home–and the game’s somewhat lengthy load times–with grim banter. A pop music radio show that plays during mid-mission menus is hosted by a peppy host named Olivia, whose endless cheer belies her obvious shell shock. There’s a human rebel faction you’ll occasionally have to fight with and/or against, and they add interesting twists on virtually every stage where they pop up. For the first time in the series, you feel less like a red-shirt in a 1950s alien invasion movie and more like a tired soldier fighting a tough war, trying to find the little moments of levity wherever you can. Where Iron Rain fails as an overarching plot, it succeeds in creating a stronger and more engaging vibe than its predecessors.
Even without narrative motivation, though–and in the latter portions of the game, there is much less of it–having an enormous loadout of weaponry and kinetic movement options means constant innovation is needed and possible. It’s engaging not because of the time sunk into it, but because it’s just so incredibly fun to do for its own sake. Iron Rain iterates instead of innovates; its version of advancement really just means removing a couple of shackles keeping you from making the bug-killing experience your own. There are expected current-gen niceties that would make EDF better, and yet it’s not hard to imagine the series losing something in the process.