With the release of Earth Defense Force 4.1: The Shadow of New Despair, a revised version of Earth Defense Force 2025, developer Sandlot means to return to the form of its 2007 masterpiece Earth Defense Force 2017. While this effort easily surpasses Vicious Software Cycle’s Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon, a 2011 sequel that lacks the outrageous spectacle and simplicity of its predecessor, a feeling of déjà vu may strike the player throughout, and even after the game hits its stride, some of its ideas fall decidedly flat.
It’d be understandable if one quit The Shadow of New Despair while running through roughly the first 20 levels, which, with few exceptions, resemble copy-and-paste jobs from Earth Defense Force 2017, as the order and manner in which the gigantic ants, spiders, and robots invade the world are too stale and unthreatening early on. But similar level design in an action game series doesn’t have to be a drawback. Take, for example, WayForward Technologies’s Contra 4 and how it blisteringly updates Contra’s first level, packing in unexpected enemy locations for higher difficulty, introducing tweaks like the grappling hook, and utilizing the Nintendo DS’s second screen to force more player awareness of bullets and other threats.
Sandlot isn’t that inspired during the first quarter of The Shadow of New Despair. On normal difficulty (starting the game on a higher difficulty isn’t advised without gaining armor and weapons first), one could almost sleepwalk through most of the early missions. Granted, the class system from Insect Armageddon is incorporated, so finishing the levels with different skills and weapons could keep the proceedings from becoming too repetitive. And to Sandlot’s credit, new challenges occasionally show up in these stages, including resilient spiders whose webs run between buildings, ants slinging you around like a ragdoll (ingeniously, you retain the ability to aim and fire your weapon during this trauma), and four-legged robots that generate shields that you must walk through in order for your bullets to register.
But The Shadow of New Despair isn’t at its best until it cranks up the pressure with levels designed for maximum chaos and destruction. The real fun starts with Mission 22, “A Trap,” which restricts you to a small area as big bugs come down on you and other soldiers. The very next mission puts you in a nasty pinch between marching robots. Another suspenseful earlier mission is “Brute Force,” where you watch and shoot from a distance as monstrous robots are bombed from the air, but shields soon force you to get close to the robots in order to destroy them, just as insects followed by drones come out of nowhere to join the assault against you.
Unfortunately, Sandlot doesn’t ever completely shy away from using filler material after successfully building so much momentum. The missions involving the Godzilla-like monster, for example, become tedious because of their anticlimactic nature—and because a Godzilla-like monster approaches embarrassing obviousness. The same absence of a climax can be seen in a mission where you have to cross a bridge to destroy bug tunnels. This crossing exudes little tension due to a relatively low number of enemies, exposing the goal of the level as a trite retread of previous objectives.
When Sandlot packs the heat on, hilarity ensues, with obtrusive bug bodies exploding into pieces and high into the air, robots stumbling as if they’re drunk on the player’s firepower, your bullets often striking fellow CPU soldiers as they bark gung-ho nonsense, and buildings and infrastructure crumbling to the ground as the war gets out of hand. None of this is original or as surprising as it was years ago, when Earth Defense Force 2017 established itself as an all-time great and funny shooter. Still, the most over-the-top moments here are more entertaining than what’s offered by the overwhelming majority of big action games.