The PSP has seen some choice releases lately, and this sudden burst of quality has been a welcome respite from what felt like an eternity of nothing to get excited over. Tekken, Valkyrie Profile, and LocoRoco are all fine titles that PSP owners can be proud of, and Bandai Namco's Bounty Hounds seemed well-suited to join their ranks… but don't let appearances deceive.
Sporting a highly attractive art style during cutscenes and a level of in-game graphics that can't be sneezed at, Bounty Hounds makes a good first impression. However, after the excitement of taking down big bugs with even bigger weapons wears off, it becomes clear that the game says what it has to say in the first few minutes and then proceeds to repeat itself for hours afterward.
There's a throwaway sci-fi story about terraforming, eliminating squatter aliens, and some sort of interstellar collusion behind the scenes, but none of it means anything nor affects gameplay in any way. The heart of Bounty Hounds is about beaming down from an orbiting mothership, killing a mountain of creatures, collecting equipment, and leveling up.
Don't get me wrong, sometimes this sort of quasi-dungeon-crawling game can really hit the spot. But in order to do so, every element has to be nailed and positive feedback must be constantly streamed into the player in order to stave off the inevitable feelings of boredom and repetition. Bounty Hounds fails to do so, and suffers greatly for it.
Extremely similar to Phantasy Star Online in space-age aesthetics and setting, Bounty Hounds at least gets one thing absolutely correct—there are a million pieces of armor and weaponry to acquire, and the function and appearance of said pickups is widely varied. Huge kudos for that, since it's an area where many developers trip themselves up by not going far enough. That's about the only thing it gets right, though.
The first problem to pop up is the equipment interface. There are a limited number of slots in the inventory, and it's impossible to drop things no longer desired or equip new items in the field, so between constantly having hands full and wanting to try new bits of gear every few minutes, beaming back to the mothership via frequent, chunky load times is unavoidable. Once there, managing this inventory requires noodling around in my apartment (where else do you get dressed?) and at the local weapons shop, so the entire process takes longer and requires more steps than it should. It may not sound like a huge issue, but in a game of this nature, ease-of-use is what it's all about. Developers can't afford to fumble here.
With most of the appeal of hoarding items blunted, the game could have been salvaged by addicting combat, but it's not. Although four weapons can be equipped and switched up in real-time, the fighting never rises above the feeling of straight button-mashing. Walk towards a group of enemies, destroy them and move on to the next. Forget about exciting action, combat feels like nothing so much as an infinite wheat harvest with an ocean of enemies waiting to be cropped. The mindless, repetitive and flat "missions" are only made worse by constantly babysitting a camera that's too close and too low, often hiding enemies that are literally right next to the on-screen character. A mini-map in the corner helps a bit, but this botched camera work is frustratingly unacceptable when fighting bosses.
It's a shame that so many balls get dropped because there's a lot of potential in Bounty Hounds. The graphics are great, I like the setting, and I love games that go all-out when it comes to weapons and armor customization. However, even though there are lots of things to like, the disc never comes together in any cohesive way. It's almost as though the developers focused everything they had on the art style and equippable items, but forgot to make sure the rest of the game worked as well. A tedious slog, this sort of project is a risky one to undertake since the potential for boredom to kill the experience is so high. Missing the mark even a little bit is enough to sink most of the entries in the "level up and collect stuff" genre—Bounty Hounds misses most of them by more than a little.