Sometimes, all a game has to be is big guns and even bigger monsters to use them on. The Earth Defense Force series has coasted off that simple premise for years, and I happily indulge every time a new entry in the series comes along. Being a regular boots-on-the-ground soldier or a fast-moving armored warrior with heavy weaponry and thousands of giant bugs and aliens to eradicate has been the foundation of an endlessly enjoyable formula for the franchise. Only a couple of entries in the series dared to stray from the norms and introduce new elements — Insect Armageddon and Iron Rain. While both games are enjoyable co-op playgrounds, their more Western flair and altered game mechanics left a sour taste in the mouths of a lot of fans. The latest spin-off, Earth Defense Force: World Brothers, may look like it’s going in an equally unfaithful direction with the insane new art style, but don’t be fooled — this is a game by EDF fans and for EDF fans.
Earth Defense Force: World Brothers transports us to an alternate, voxel-pixel world at the brink of destruction thanks to something called the Dark Tyrant. With chunks of the earth scattered across space, it’s up to you to dive into these bite-sized locales, defeat the enemies and alien motherships infesting them, and bring peace back to this cutesy world. If you’re familiar with the already cheesy, self-aware writing of the series, World Brothers leans even further into that style. The game is busting at the seams with weird gags, silly voice lines, and constant fourth wall-shattering jokes or digs at previous Earth Defense Force games. The tone of the story sets the stage for just how much of a for-the-fans game this is.
When I first booted it up, though, I was mortified. I would have assumed that the simple voxel art style of the game would make Nintendo Switch a perfect home for Earth Defense Force: World Brothers, but this version of the game is plagued with technical issues. The resolution is insanely muddy — your characters and nearby monsters or environment details are already blurry, but items in the distance are barely legible. There are awkward cel-shaded outlines on most buildings that don’t seem to render properly on Switch, and any monster that’s more than a few feet away from you immediately has their animations become choppy and stilted to save system memory.
I assume all of these visual sacrifices were made in order to keep the frame rate stable (not that the Earth Defense Force series is even known for having good frame rates), but it doesn’t even manage to accomplish that; the game will sometimes freeze for half a second when performing random actions like switching characters or firing your gun.
The technical issues on Switch aside, Earth Defense Force: World Brothers adds some really interesting wrinkles to the usual formula that I immediately fell in love with. Traditional Earth Defense Force games see you playing as a single character from a set of four or five class types, but in World Brothers you put together a party of four freedom fighters by rescuing the characters hidden in each level. There are dozens and dozens of characters in the game, too. Many of them are based on characters and classes from the whole franchise, but some — like the sombrero-wearing Amiigo Brother or the unhinged idol-in-training Tapioca Sister — are absurd original characters that immediately help set the bonkers tone of this game.
You don’t pick up new weapons and gear in the field, but instead, the unique weapons of each recruited character get added to your shared arsenal. As you find duplicate characters, you also rank that character up, and each new level-up lets that fighter use weapons from an additional weapon class beyond their starting one. While El Dorado Brother may only be able to use spread weapons at first, rescuing more copies of him in new or replayed missions will let me equip him with snipers, melee weapons, and more. It’s a much simpler system than the endlessly random weapon grind of traditional EDF games, but the sheer volume of characters to find keeps it just as interesting. Plus, there’s an added excitement of discovering what weird and unique weapon each new character brings to your arsenal that never gets old.
Once your crew is assembled, your mission is the same as always — drop into a map full of stories-tall insects and wild aliens in order to kill them all. While the mission structure remains largely the same, the way you approach combat takes an interesting new turn thanks to the character system. You can swap between characters in your party whenever you want, leading to plenty of exciting combat strategies. Make a squad full of Wing Divers and swap to a new one when one runs out of fuel to keep flying indefinitely, or swap characters when you’re trapped by a giant ant or hit by a kaiju laser in order to instantly recover. Plus, when you’re playing co-op, you and your three online partners each have your own squads of four fighters, leading to hilariously hectic battles with a dozen voxel heroes running and gunning on screen at once.
The mindless thrill of the series is still here in spades, but Earth Defense Force: World Brothers manages to simultaneously streamline the gear system while also expanding on your combat capabilities with the character system, making every aspect of the game more fun to engage with and replay. Still, it’s a shame that the Nintendo Switch version is plagued with so many technical visuals. It’s one of the roughest visual experiences I’ve seen on the hybrid Nintendo handheld, and it’s a sour note that holds back one of the strongest entries in the Earth Defense Force series, as well as one of the most fun co-op games the system has ever had.
A review code for Earth Defense Force: World Brothers was provided by the publisher.