This was something of a later title for the PSP, coming out in 2011 when I and probably everyone else was already all Monster Hunter’d out just from plain old Monster Hunter, making the endless parade of similar games of wildly varying quality that tried their own hand at this popular genre in the five years since Monster Hunter Portable‘s first handheld release something that had largely passed me by.
Fast-forward to the present day and… I’m still all Monster Hunter’d out really, the series doing what it does well enough that when I do feel the itch for a little wyvern-battering action I have no urge to seriously look elsewhere: but when you find a game looks interesting and costs less than a cup of coffee… well, why not?
This Japanese PSP/Vita (it released simultaneously on both, such was the PSP’s popularity) title is actually an enhanced version of an earlier PSP game, Lord of Arcana, itself one of a variety of games under the wider “Lord of…” branding umbrella of Square-Enix’s popular card-based arcade titles. Unlike a lot of other “director’s cut” or “special” editions Apocalypse doesn’t go down the typical route of grafting extreme difficulties and new equipment onto the existing game but instead significantly reworks a lot of the basic systems and really tries to address as many issues with the original as was possible within the time/budget the development team given. If you’re interested in reading about the specific differences between the two you can find a brief list of changes over here (Japanese).
Unfortunately for all that extra effort there’s still no escaping the game’s core premise; to cash in on the trend set by Capcom’s genre-defining standard by aping it as closely as possible. As such once you’re past the exciting in media res introductory battle and arresting FMV sequence the usual treadmill of weapon upgrading and material farming rears its well-worn head and never backs down: There’s your guild card. There’s the item shop. There’s the armour seller. I have to pick a mission from a chapter-divided list over at the guild counter, you say? I am [not] shocked.
Having said that when the creative leash is loosened a little there are some really practical and player-friendly decisions in Apocalypse that show some care and awareness from the development team: You can thankfully create an install file on your PSP’s memory stick, going some way to speeding up those frequent location-changing load times. Then there’s the initial character creation menus that allow you to properly view every alterable part of your customisable avatar up close before permanently committing them to a save slot. Weapon styles follow a similar pattern, giving you the opportunity to have a basic play with all of them before deciding which one you’d like to start off with, saving you the hassle of a do-over if something doesn’t play as you expected it to. In-game you can decide to tap or hold to lock onto an enemy, invert both camera axis, and even gather multiple materials out in the field at the touch of a single button. None of these details are going to change your life but they all contribute towards a more enjoyable experience and when the hand-cramps come – and they will, thanks to “the claw” – there’s some slight relief that the game has done as much as is reasonably possible to avoid the situation.
As you’d expect from a game of this type when you’re not stocking up in town you’re out on a mission, tasked with killing or collecting X of something like every filler MMO quest you’ve ever encountered or facing a boss creature head-on.
The areas these quests take place in tick all of the stereotypical fantasy boxes; a forest, a cave, a desert, and so on. I have no issue with that in itself – Phantasy Star Online‘s “Forest” stage remains an utterly timeless slice of cooperative action-RPG location work – but the most striking thing about Apocalypse’s stages is just how small they feel. Even on more substantial outings both the quantity and physical size of these individual areas feel very closed-in and artificial; little personality-free chunks that tend to wall themselves off from the next until you kill the “key” enemy out of the wave(s) of identical other mooks that assail you before moving on to the next area. The game does at least have the good grace to display an icon above this key monster’s head so you can always cut a battle short if you wish, but in many ways that only makes the lock-in feel even more arbitrary.
In fairness this small size does also mean that area changes only take a short while to load up and missions tend to take nothing more than a few minutes each to clear – both definite positives for a multiplayer portable title – but it’s a shame that it comes at the great expense of feeling any real attachment to these places or for any sense of exploration.
Combat is functional but unexciting, your Amnesiac of Destiny avatar capable of specialising in several ways of bopping their adversaries that due to the shallow move list and weak enemy behaviour follow a very basic “hit/avoid getting hit/use a special move or spell if possible” pattern that repeats ad nauseam. Beyond a hopefully obvious “Don’t stand in the fire, stupid” level of tactics there’s little for you to personally contribute to a battle bar hoping your levels (yep, traditional RPG levels), equipment, and potion pool are up to the job. Bosses may be visually intimidating polygonal titans but they lack any meaningful interest once you get down to business: Where’s the flinching to a well-timed attack? The chance to knock out their legs from under them with a series of precision strikes to a vulnerable area? Even just the character that comes from well-animated body movement and hit reactions is absent here.
Which isn’t to say that there aren’t telegraphed attacks for you to avoid or incapacitated states that allow you to throw everything you have at Bahamut or whatever you’re currently fighting, but it’s all so basic and straightforward that it never feels like you’re doing more than performing stock combat animations at each other until one of you falls down and doesn’t get back up. This problem extends to the various “Battle Arts” that unlock as you become more proficient (read: Kill lots of enemies with) a particular weapon type – there’s more than a few of them and you can switch between and level up these new styles too, but the differences don’t feel like they hold any weight. There was no need to alter my play style when I tried out a new one or felt that one favoured aggressive play while another was more technical or defensive – it’s just a few slightly different animations.
The “Cinematic Scenes” and “Finishing Blow” segments that occur during boss battles you may spot dotted around this blog post are nothing more than QTE’s by another name, a chance to press buttons when you’re told to (and only when you’re told to) in exchange for some extra damage while the in-game camera Dutch angles away to itself in the name of drama.
There’s potentially a lot of pleasure to be had in simplicity – just look at classic Ys‘ “bump” fighting or the original Dragon Quest‘s exquisitely designed adventure – but if you’re going to be a Monster Hunter game that doesn’t contain any aspect of Monster Hunter’s depth (I realise it may seem like I’m over-comparing the two, but if you’re going to take several years before squaring up to the biggest and the best the genre has to offer…) then you’d better make sure have something else to go in it’s place – raw excitement, a compelling plot, heck, even just some really gorgeous designs like Ragnarok Odyssey Ace – it doesn’t matter, just some sort of individual mark or flourish would do.
As it is, Lord of Apocalypse is fine, and only “fine”. If the PSP or Vita were lacking an official Monster Hunter or even Phantasy Star Portable game this would probably be enough to tide you over on the commute home until you could get to the real thing. As I’m sure you already know, neither handheld in any region has ever had anything to worry about on that front.
Overall it’s an interesting window into a bygone time when everyone and their mother hoped to have their own cooperative ARPG hit; but just as older gamers may remember tiring of the masses of mascot platformers, Tamagotchi clones, and monster-collecting titles that just about scraped by being acceptable enough back when they were riding on another’s coat-tails, so too is Apocalypse not much more than just another also-ran to add to a passed trend’s pile.