The virtual reality space isn’t really that populated with strategy games if you think about it. Many try and wow you with pretty scenery or unique interactions that can only be done with this medium, but strategy games have gotten the bad end of the stick. Animal Force tries to be a competitor within this underutilised market and while it succeeds on some fronts and brings unique ideas to the table, its own imbalance ultimately results in its downfall of being a frustrating mess in its later game.
The world is being invaded by aliens that want to probe some humans out of major cities and it’s up to a gaggle of supernatural zero gravity animals to defend the helpless populace. There isn’t much in the way of a story, or rather there isn’t one at all outside of the setting. You go through a series of levels with each one being progressively more tricky than the previous and they introduce more enemy types to you while also adding unique animals to your arsenal. The setting is cute, the animals are these small endearing creatures with their own little aesthetic and the game has an almost kid-friendly veneer to it. But oh no, is it everything but a kid game.
It did feel like a kid game when I first went through the tutorial with a soft motherly woman explaining the mechanics of this game in the most obvious way possible. You play the game with a single Move controller that functions as your spaceship. This spaceship has the ability to pick up and drop animals as well as have a couple of powers that you can use when they are available. Each level takes place in a singular 3D arena while you are seated and the playing experience is actually very comfortable. You’re seated at all times, there’s no quick movement to make you hurl and everything feels responsive. However, it’s far from a relaxing game.
Animal Force is a tower defense game played in a unique way. Enemies spawn out of portals with a fixed path that they follow and if they reach the end of the path, they abduct a human. If enough humans are captured, it’s game over. As mentioned, you play in a 3D arena that you can interact with completely and move your spaceship around as you see fit. You get units in the form of animals that each have their own unique abilities. One unit can fire rapidly while the other erects a shield or shoots a bullet that makes enemies slower and so on. You only get three slots, so you need to carefully pick your loadout and see what works. You can also have animals stay on your spaceship and use them as a sort of mobile defence unit with you at the helm.
The first levels of the game are a ball. You place your units along the enemy path and they do their thing and you strategise on the fly. The game managed to capture my attention here, showing me that something like this can truly work. You carefully place your animals in order to use their strengths to your advantage and it can become frantic when the humans get abducted and you try and save them as they’re on their way to the UFO. It was great and the game really shined. Until I went a little further in and it became damn near impossible.
It was great and the game really shined. Until I went a little further in and it became damn near impossible.
If enough humans get captured, which are just a few, you’re done and you have to start the level over again. If all your animals die, it’s game over. It sounds fair, but the game throws merciless enemies at you that murder your entire flock in no time flat on a frequent basis and it’s pretty much a death wish if you place any of your animals unattended. I tried playing it my way, but the game just destroyed me whenever I tried something new. I ended up exploiting the game by using a unit that has a shield which kills enemies instantly and putting it on top of the spawners, effectively killing every enemy before they even appear.
The fact that I felt like I had to do that speaks volumes about the balance problems this game faces. No matter what strategy I tried, I ended up just eating it and resorting back to my little exploit which involved placing one unit and just waiting for a while. That’s not my idea of fun. What makes this happen is the combination of enemy fire and extremely aggressive chargers that take out your units in one single hit. If they touch them, even a little bit, they’re out. I’ve had instances where my entire army was just wiped out by a single charger late into the level and I had to restart the whole thing. You get new units whenever you kill enemies, but this is often unreliable as your whole stock can get taken out within seconds, no matter how hard you try to avoid it.
Get me out of this jungle
There are also boss fights in the game with big animal themed robot monsters and they’re just as hard as the levels that precede them. They are relentless, often wiping out your squad in seconds if you don’t pay attention and take forever to kill. Their designs are admirable and it would be an exciting moment during the game, but when you die, and you will die, you have to start the entire ten-minute encounter again. All of this could have been avoided with one simple change. Give your units health meters instead of them dying to anything instantly. That’s all it would take. Then you can employ strategies and use your units like they are meant to and if one takes damage, move them out of the way.
It’s an immensely frustrating experience.
But as the game is right now, it’s a solid concept with great mechanics and a reasonably unique aesthetic that gets absolutely ruined by the sheer difficulty curve. I often questioned whether I was just bad or that I’m missing something crucial going on. Even after upgrading my units, which you get by getting stars that appear in a level, it’s still extremely difficult. With just one method of moving around units and dodging attacks, you can’t have the reflexes quick enough to avoid total annihilation that comes from nowhere. It’s an immensely frustrating experience.
I managed to get a fair distance into the campaign, but ultimately found a level where I just did not know what to do. Nothing wanted to work, not even my little exploit because some enemies that shoot multiple fast acting chargers just ruin you within minutes. I don’t know what this game expected of me. Lightning fast reflexes, grinding my days away for stars to get the beefiest units, I don’t know. All I know is that it’s incredibly difficult and unrelenting.
There is one small saving grace which is the local multiplayer modes. There are three of them that pit players with controllers against the VR player and they’re actually rather fun. One requires the players to steal statues while the VR player tries to find them and shoot them, another has the players walk around while the VR player guesses which one the human player is within a crowd of people and the last one requires the controller player to rescue humans while the VR player tries and sabotage them by launching humans at them. They’re silly little party games that don’t have much impact outside of a little distraction, but their presence isn’t altogether unwanted.
The game is simply too difficult. It pains me to say as someone who tries and take adversity and conquer it, but this game isn’t just unfair, it ruins everything that makes it good by getting one small thing wrong. Your creatures dying instantly makes this a game that is too finicky to be functional and ultimately ends up just being an exercise in patience. Even with the small little tacked-on local multiplayer modes, Animal Force is something you should avoid if you have a PSVR. You’ll just find yourself wanting to throw the Move controller at the TV on purpose.