By Mike Bezek
“Not my cup of tea”, said the jaded gamer who was more quick to condemn the seemingly laid-back genre then to give it a fair shot at its own foray into the field. “That’s only for casuals”, snorted the presumptuous gamer who failed to see the appeal of a simple tower defense game. To say that I kept my distance from this outlook on this genre would be an outright lie; in fact, I made it a point to avoid it altogether. Then I laid eyes on a game that took the elements of the time-consuming brilliance of Torchlight, added the simplistic and addictive gameplay theory of Plants Vs. Zombies, and wrapped it up in an artistic delight not seen since Borderlands. A game, that I had practically no prior knowledge of before it landed in my Steam queue, ended up being one of my biggest addictions of this year and for good reason.
Just Another Knight Fighting in His Boxers
Dungeon Defenders is the lighthearted tale of young children filling the rather large shoes of the once glorious heroes of their homeland. There is no shame in the blatant cliché that is played into when it comes to the characters of this game, as you have the choice of either a monk, hunter, apprentice, or squire to defend this charming medieval land. A short introduction later, you are dropped into a world where hundreds of slavering orcs, goblins, and wyverns are clawing at the doors with the singular objective of destroying your Eternia Crystal. Unlike nearly every other tower defense game out there, your direct physical intervention on the battlefield is key to conquering each wave of enemies. Each unique class in the game has their own individual traps and abilities that they can use to turn the tide of battle, and players will learn how quickly using that diversity is key in winning a bout.
By scouring the battlefield while in the “Building Phase”, which can be set to an infinite time or can be on a timer as per your choice of difficulty, you will able to collect blue crystals which work as currency to summon defenses. You are able to move freely around the battlefield in third person and summon your defenses where ever you please, as long as the game permits you. The simplicity and ease of placing down a defense, whether it be in the Building phase or in the heat of the actual battle, is aided by an elegant ring system. The middle mouse button calls up a ring that allows the player to access traps and abilities that can be used on the fly. While its overall elegance does the best job that it can to make the trap laying process as smooth as possible, it sometimes falters by being a bit clumsy in tense situations.
Traps range from towering flame pillars that hurl gigantic fireballs that spread to nearby enemies to translucent spheres that can electrocute enemies or heal allies. The sheer amount of possibilities in each round makes every match a new challenge every time you load up the game. As you progress, the joy of learning how to employ traps effectively is met with the generous scaling challenge of each dungeon. At the end of the day, it is up to you to decide how dynamic each match is going to be.
Once you are done spending copious amounts of time deciding how to perfect your phalanx, the battle begins and the real fun begins. Enemies attack in waves, allowing you a little breathing time to check on your defenses and assist ailing sections of the map. Each class moves at a different pace and attacks in a different way, which makes deciding who your attacker locks on to a huge tactical choice. The squire can mow down gaggles of goblins with his unwieldy sword, but his speed keeps him from being able to respond quickly to situations in other places that need him. Each character is a joy to play and ensures that you will always have a fresh and new experience no matter how many times you decide to take on the same dungeon map.
The single player experience holds it’s own in respect of the patient and introverted gamer, but makes the total experience muddy with a sluggish interface that slows gameplay down considerably. Having the ability to switch freely between characters while in the building phase becomes a chore very quickly as you are forced to return to the central part of the map, navigate the interface to “drop” all of your magic so that the swapped character can pick it up, and then switch over to that character. What seems to be a minor inconvenience in the beginning turns out to be a tedious task later on. I found myself simply not wanting to trudge back to the center just so that I could spring a few more traps using a different character. A simple solution to this problem would be to allow the player to swap freely in any location during the building phase, instead of making them run back and forth in an endless game of trading faces.
Something else that personally aggravated me to no end was the total lack of keyboard customization. The hotkeys for all available abilities and call buttons are bound to the 1 through 0 keys and are impossible to reach in any conventional situation. The game does feature an elegant ring interface that will require the player to memorize exactly where a desperate ability is needed in the heat of battle. I found that if I had the ability to customize certain abilities elsewhere, my matches would have not been so strained due to either having to take a hand off the mouse to press a key or bring up the ring interface and navigate to my desired ability.
Three’s Company, Four is a Massacre
Where Dungeon Defenders really shines is its multiplayer experience, and it shows that this was how the game was meant to be played from the start. You and three other strangers will be pitted against waves of foes while using either voice chat or text as a means of communication. During my time in various games, I was surprised to see how adept the community was at creating unique and effective defenses. While conversely, there was no ability to vote kick players (in certain modes) that were AFK or not contributing to the battle at all. These players, while being obnoxious, also presented the three of us the challenge to strategize a defense while being a man down. This had to be the first time I looked at a negative situation in a challenging way, and I welcomed it.
A quick hit of the C button allows you to call out for assistance to anyone available to help. The effective and clean map lays out only the most important information via icons that move in real time. Once you get your bearings, being briefed on someones situation is just a hotkey away. It’s the simple and elegant designs in this game that allows for so much fun to be had while actively strategizing and coordinating with other players.
Matches come in two distinct flavors: ranked or free-for-all. As you can guess, ranked matches bring in mostly talented players who understand the goal and strive not only to coordinate an effective defense with their peers, but also to reap the most rewards in being the most effective on the battlefield. Free-for-all mode allows for tinkering of rules and other options and is simply a more casual way to join matches that doesn’t require you to be very skilled. The downside of this mode is that you will run into a decent amount of players running in circles and typing general nonsense into chat while you will be protecting your allies against the invasion. I found myself sticking to ranked matches with the constant need to become better and obtain more effective gear so that I could outrank other players.
The collection fetishist will definitely be tickled by the sheer amount of equipment thrown at players on a constant basis. Not only will you be hoarding tons of loot from the battlefield, but your excess mana, which acts as currency, can be spent in the tavern which acts as your base. While the Tavern Keeper only stocks a small amount of equipment at a time, you are able to lock items in at a certain price, and come back later to purchase it, or chance it and allow him to have a totally new inventory next time you visit. Players are also able to purchase a wide variety of miniature dragons that will buff your player and also help you fend off enemies as well. Being able to add pets to your repertoire only adds to the never-ending collection frenzy that was already fun on its own.
Beauty sans Originality
The first thing that struck me about Dungeon Defenders was its bold and unique art direction that gives it that little splash of character to help it become memorable. Visuals from favorites like Borderlands and the console cult-classic Okami make every battle a pleasure for the eyes. Crisp, colorful visuals are supplemented by character and item design laced with personality. Weapons that characters wield are grossly oversized just to emphasize the amount of detail and character Trendy Entertainment put into them. Nothing beats the feeling of finding an awesome looking upgrade that you can show off to the world in all its colorful glory.
A slight stumbling stone in this department is a reliance on unoriginal designs in the character and monster department. The knight bears a very Castle Crashers-like resemblance, and the apprentice is simply a carbon copy of every standard fantasy game mage from Final Fantasy to Trine. Orcs and goblins are exactly what you would expect them to be, green and filled with cliché.
But this is all easily forgivable for a game that handles its visual experience so well. The very first map you encounter features a beautifully crafted watermill turning slowly in a pool of water gently reflecting ambient light, and upon closer inspection, you will find that it gives way to a luminous cave behind it. Such attention to detail in a genre that has little to no focus on the smaller things is a welcome and refreshing sight. Each level is filled with little nuances that almost compel you want to make the rounds checking every nook and cranny to see if the developers took the time to articulate such an unimportant section. Some maps have a definite lack of flare, which is a stark contrast to standouts like the first level, but the overall care and diligence given overall makes up for some slip-ups.
The soundtrack that accompanies the lovely visuals is a rousing bit that is a bit skimpy in comparison to its impressive visual counterpart. Tracks are limited to the tavern, building, attacking and general menu themes. While music is not a major player in this game, the small selection that is available makes up for the lack of variety. The battle theme is a rousing anthem that rises and falls continuously throughout and always seems to hit the right notes when things seem to get a bit too hairy. Conversely, the tavern theme induces a cozy and calm attitude which helps the sometimes interface-laden chores you will be encountering while swapping gear between characters feel less tedious.
Is It Worth Your Money?
Indie games are notorious offenders when it comes to overpricing for their ventures, but not Trendy Entertainment. Priced at $15, you will be getting an experience that most games will charge a $25-30 entrance fee. With 14 levels to choose from, a scaling and challenging experience, an excellent online community, and a collection addicts wet dream, I can’t imagine what someone could possibly be turned off with enough to not buy this game. This one was under my radar completely, and I found myself into the double digits of playtime within a few short days of having my copy. While Dungeon Defenders is in need of small improvements to turn a great experience into a spectacular one, this is simply one of the top contenders for Indie Game of the Year, right alongside Bastion.
Dungeon Defenders Technical Summary:
- Time Played – 14 Hours
- Widescreen Support – Yes (Detailed Report via WSGF)
- 5.1 Audio – No
- Bugs – Random kicking from matches, interface presented some lag times, problems entering matches or establishing a connection
- DRM – Steamworks
- Control Scheme – Keyboard/Mouse
- Game Acquisition Method – Review Copy
- Availability – Steam
- Demo – Yes
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