You could almost call it Dynasty Warriors in space, but that would be selling Bounty Hounds, the latest action game from Namco Bandai Games, a little bit short. While the game does rely heavily on a shallow hack-and-slash action design, the simplicity of the combat belies an enjoyable and relatively deep character development system. That, combined with the game's slick presentation, makes Bounty Hounds more than just another mediocre take on a tired formula.
In the game, you play as Maximillian, the leader of a group of elite mercenaries known as bounty hounds. The game takes place hundreds of years in the future, when humankind is at odds with all sorts of alien races as it attempts to colonize the universe. As a bounty hound, you get paid to explore hostile planets and kill aliens, rescue human survivors, and essentially clear the universe of all alien life for the sake of human progress. Of course, that won't blow up in your face, right?
The basic gameplay is mind-numbingly simple. You teleport from your spaceship to one of the four planets in the game and then move from one checkpoint to another, killing wave after wave of aliens along the way. It works much like any other third-person action game, where mobs of enemies slowly approach and you go to work mashing one of the two attack buttons until you've cleared the area. The combat does get repetitive quickly, simply because there are so many aliens to kill, and though they all look unique, they tend to behave the same. That is, they just stand around waiting to be killed. There are some bosses that will challenge your endurance more than anything else, but there's still very little depth to the combat. Instead, the modicum of depth in Bounty Hounds comes from the character customization system.
You can equip Max with up to four weapons, although you can wield only two at a time. Since you can change weapons on the fly, you can switch up your approach to slaughtering aliens midstride. With more than 500 items to collect in the game, the possibilities are seemingly endless. You can equip a bazooka in your left hand and an axe in your right, a sword in your left and a hammer in your right, or maybe you fancy a shotgun in your right hand and a laser rifle in your left. The fact that you can dual-wield any combination of weapons makes for some satisfying and varied attacks. And since there's an attack button for each arm, it's easy to string together effective and often devastating combos to take advantage of the unique strengths of the two weapons you have equipped. For example, a hammer inflicts a ton of damage but is very slow. A way to get around that shortcoming is to equip a sword in your other hand, quickly slash at an enemy a couple of times to send it reeling, and then finish it off with a crushing hammer blow.
In addition to the weapons, you can use special abilities in combat. You have the ability to generate special force fields that grant a variety of effects based on how you've set up your character. Some fields will increase your defense, and others your offense. You can also perform special attacks by using weapons in conjunction with the fields. Each weapon has a unique special attack that usually dramatically increases the range and effectiveness of your strike. However, using the fields or special attacks drains your energy gauge, so you'll still spend most of your time hacking and slashing as usual.
As fun as the weapon-combo and special-ability systems are at first, the enjoyment is fleeting. The problem is that the enemies don't pose enough of a threat and don't have varied enough behavior to make any of these ancillary tactics necessary, and when it comes down to it, you're still just hitting the same two attack buttons over and over again. It doesn't help that the missions are all so straightforward that they require little thought and leave no room for deviation. With some more variety to the enemies, environments, and action, Bounty Hounds could have been a great game. As it is, it's a game with some interesting concepts that are squandered on derivative and boring mission designs.
You could fight your way through each of the four planets in the game in five or six hours, but if your tolerance for button mashing is high, this is a game that you'll probably want to play through more than once to collect more items and continue to build up your character. Beyond the campaign, there are a couple of mini-modes to keep you occupied. There's a challenge mode where you can fight through 99 enemies in a nondescript arena. After you kill those 99 monsters, you fight a boss. There is no reward for this other than the satisfaction of besting your previous record times, which makes the mode feel useless. You can also play Bounty Hounds with a friend, and it does support game sharing so you only need one copy of the game to play. However, the multiplayer is just a simple one-on-one deathmatch between your customized character and a friend's. The multiplayer isn't fun because the characters and battles are never varied enough to make it interesting.
One thing Bounty Hounds does right is project a unique and darkly appealing sense of style. There are some great-looking cutscenes in the game that use a compelling comic-book-style effects, which lends an increased sense of drama to the story. The four different planets each have a theme, so you'll see a desolate wasteland, a lush forest, an industrial complex, and so on. The environments look great, with plenty of color and detail. The enemies also look great. There are dozens of unique creatures to fight, and they all look detailed and menacing, and they animate well. The player characters are well done too, with some satisfyingly exaggerated attacks and nicely detailed armor and weapons that give your character an ever-evolving look as you upgrade your equipment throughout the game. The game also moves at a decent frame rate most of the time, with very few bouts of slowdown, even when there's a huge boss or a dozen enemies on the screen.
The only problem with the presentation is the camera. Most of the time the camera is situated closely behind your character's back, but it often strays as you move around the screen. You can usually snap the camera back behind you with a tap of the L button, but that doesn't always work, and it isn't an ideal solution to the problem of camera control. Since you'll often be surrounded by enemies, it can be difficult to see what you're attacking or what is attacking you. As a result, you'll end up just swinging away and hoping that you hit something, rather than moving and adjusting the camera over and over again. There is a minimap with radar to show where enemies are in relation to you, but it isn't always precise and still doesn't solve the problem of not being able to see what you're attacking.
The music in Bounty Hounds is great, with special themes for each of the planets, as well as dramatic orchestral tracks that play during the cutscenes. You'll hear primitive tribal beats as you fight giant insectoid aliens in a forest, eerie electronic tunes that loop as you explore a desert wasteland, and other tracks that work well to keep the action moving along. The weapon sound effects are weak, with tinny laser fire and weapon clashes that don't give the weapons much of a presence in terms of sound.
Bounty Hounds brings some interesting concepts to what is otherwise a straightforward action game, but those concepts are unfortunately not enough to lend the game any significant amount of depth to sustain interest for more than a couple of hours. However, if you're a fan of action games like Dynasty Warriors and are just looking to slice up lots and lots of aliens, you'll get your money's worth from Bounty Hounds.