Dungeon Defenders: Be the Tower

I’m going to try to stop prefacing my reviews with the phrase “I really liked this game, but…” because it’s really starting to sound insincere. It really makes one understand the plight of reviewers that have been around the block a few times. Take Yahtzee, for instance. He’s coming up on 280 videos, and it’s sort of tiresome to always have something negative to say about a game. Beneficial? Yes. Encouraging? Occasionally. Zero Punctuation kind of by-passes the whole business by starting off with an attitude like someone treated Yahtzee’s burning rake injury with a vinegar-soaked tensor bandage. That’s not to say that I don’t thoroughly enjoy him, or that you should too, but be aware: there’s a lot of “inappropriate” language. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7EpzwuZOvKY&list=PL58FD3A7244B64B99 As you might already be aware, that was just a framing device for a shameless plug. I love me some game reviews. Oh look, here’s one now! Dungeon Defenders? For me?! You shouldn’t have!

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Dungeon Defenders is another one of those mash-up games that attempts to combine two different, but not mutually exclusive, “genres.” Genre here being a loose term that’s continually changing definitions. This time, it’s classic tower defence with a playable hero defender that levels up as you go. Oh, also, you can level up your armor, weapons, and get pets. If I was a bit more cynical, I’d probably say that more games are adding RPG elements in an attempt to lengthen game-play. That being said, the tower defense formula is used to being shaken up, and this game does it pretty well. Let’s start with the premise…

There was a group of adventurers that defended the land, locking evil away in some magic doohickey, before leaving on a crusade of some kind. You are one of a group of miniature versions of the original adventurers that knocked over the magical device while you were playing one day. This small accident, which would have been preventable with an IKEA home display case, has the unfortunate effect of unleashing evil forces that bray ceaselessly for the blood (?) of any and all nearby Eternia Crystals, which they will do anything to savagely assault, without cessation, until the crystal is destroyed, or you’ve killed them to the last soldier. That is, unless victory requires them to jump down a small ledge, or attack en masse. As with all tower defense games, there’s an unusual feeling of triviality about the whole business as monsters tend to meander single-file, in straight lines, directly into enemy fire. On one hand, it seems like it could be a cynical depiction of industrial warfare, but could be used to describe a customer service job equally as well. Choose your demoralizing, cynical metaphor and let’s move along.

You summon towers using mana crystals that you get from chests and downed enemies (that, incidentally, drop items, too), and your hero gains experience. Once you’ve gained enough EXP (I feel like I can comfortably use that abbreviation from now on without losing anyone), you level up and can put an increasing number of points into abilities that either boost your character’s personal abilities, or that of its towers. Also, it increases the amount of mana you can carry on your person at any given time. Any mana that you didn’t use is stored in a mana bank, not accessible during levels, and is: used to buy items, or pumped directly into items until they hit a levelling threshold after which point you can level them up in much the same way you level your character. Different items will enhance different stats, have different level caps, strengthen different abilities, etc. So, you can see how far the rabbit hole could go. It’s not the insane customization level of Disgaea, but let’s be thankful for that, because, in many ways, the RPG elements hamper the tower defense part of the game. At least, they do at first.

This is where I got a bit frightened that we were just wasting time for time’s sake, but it does serve a purpose. You see, when you start a new character you can only carry enough mana on your person to make one basic tower, or two barricades, at a time. So, if you want to create more elaborate defenses, then you’ve got to run back and forth collecting mana crystals to build more towers. It’s not too bad, because the early levels are designed with simplicity in mind, so there’s not a lot of running. It’s more annoying that anything. Eventually, you sew enough pockets onto your invisible rucksack that you don’t have to worry about that. This particular mechanic is in place to provide a decent pace to the levelling curve, though. While some towers are unlocked based on your level, tower up-grades are based on the amount of mana you can carry at a given time. For instance, in order to up-grade a tower to level three, you need to pump 400 mana into it. If you can only carry 380, then you’re stuck with your wimpy, level two death-dispenser. It also makes you hop around like a frenetic jack-rabbit in search of mana during rough combat sections when you need to cast a healing spell or repair a barricade on-the-fly. That being said, gaining mana is also a double-edged sword. Once you die, all the mana you were carrying on you disappears. You can bank it between combat sequences, but if you die near the end of a particularly viscerally-gratifying wave of plonky-plinky mana-gem collecting fun, then you’ve lost a good chunk of your reward, and resources that you might use to bolster your defenses further.

I have some visual problems with the game, as well. The maps, while extremely helpful, leave something to be desired in the elevation department. This level, for instance, is far more simple to defend than the map would have you believe.

ImageThe lower levels are easy to discern, but there’s a logic to how you should set up your defences that just isn’t apparent until you’ve run around checking all the stair-cases and firing-lines. That being said, there’s the need to run around the level opening up chests at the beginning of every level so that you can get starting mana to begin constructing your defenses, any ways. That, and identifying random items that are laying on the ground, will keep you running around levels for days. You better make sure you check them all out, too, because they get sold at the end of every level. I’m making that sound like a bad thing, but it’s really useful on multi-player maps, and even single player, when you just don’t want to have to pick up every individual piece of gear and sell it. That being said, identifying an item only takes one second of scrolling over it, before it’s immediately compared to your currently equipped item. The shop even has a convenient Lock-Item-Sell-All function that speeds up the selling process. The game knows it’s going to be shoving gear up your nose, and it knows equally well that, by allowing you to level up, name, and customize items, it’s discouraging you from switching them that often, so it designs around that understanding.

The camera is a bit dodgy. It zooms in and out to multiple vertical levels, each with its own horizontal logic. There’s even a first-person mode for when you’re having trouble seeing around the awful corners it occasionally stuffs you into. There’s also a problem with summoning towers. When you’re placing it, there’s a helpful circle that shows you where you can place your Crowd controller, how you can rotate it, and its field of influence. The problem comes into play with the field of influence, arguably the most important attribute of your tower besides the direction it’s facing. The camera tends to swing up and hover directly over-head, limiting your view.

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This would be a major issue, except that it’s usually a pretty simple direction-choice, and the camera generally obliges if you’re on a larger level, zoomed all the way out. This is further aided by the general flow of game-play. While some veteran tower-defense players may have been a bit perturbed by the limitation of vision, the building of barricades, or building single towers are a time (when you might be used to mazing instead), this game embraces the differences in the combat engine.

Having a fairly direct effect on combat through personal intervention means that, on multi-player mode, your towers won’t be doing all the work. That being said, if you were to insert a combat-skilled player-character into a classic tower defense, then they’d pretty much just be another tower, albeit a mobile one. That’s kind of the case, but instead of building mazes, or strategically positioning all your towers, with over-lapping lines of fire, to mow down waves of enemies, now you’re building fortifications that are being directly assaulted. It feels a bit like a MOBA, but without the other team, and the creep aren’t using sticks. Also, you can build towers. Thankfully, you don’t have to maze, because there’s a pretty stringent limit on the number of towers you can build based on their value and the levels’ defence value cap. As a result, a lot of you end-level mana will go towards repairing towers, casting spells, or padding your mana bank.

This difference in combat really shakes up the whole formula. It means that you can directly intervene when a defense is in trouble, weakened or destroyed. Barricades and towers taking hits means that up-grades also increase health, adding another level to your up-grade strategy. Bosses can be more interesting. You can kite an enemy away from a defense while an ally fixes it. If you’re like me and lucked out by finding a tiny god tied to the end of a staff, then you can handle whole waves yourself. You can even, and are indeed encouraged by the game to, build a tower-buffing character, and a dps character. I’m sure there are other builds, but I only got so far in the game, before it badgered me for more money so that I might enjoy its DLC. It all goes towards adding another layer of tension or purpose to the combat sections, other than frantically building towers further down the line to catch stragglers. Now, you might be frantically running around a level to kill a suicide mob, or a nasty troll (It also makes picking up items more palatable, because you’re out there, any ways.). There’s a subtle layer of choice to make between staying behind defences to add to their fire-power, or charging out to take down more dangerous enemies, because leaving your fortifications means that you’ll be picking up mana that you might lose upon death out in the thick of it. It makes multi-player a more interesting proposition, and can make for some daring manoeuvres, because you respawn (sans out-of-pocket mana) when you die. You never get the feeling that you’re out of hope, or things to do, until the Eternia Crystal falls, because you can jump in to fill the gaps. That, more than anything, is a welcome addition.

All in all, the RPG elements make for an interesting addition to the tower-defense concept. Thankfully, the Dungeon Defender developers knew that they’d have to re-imagine a few concepts if they were going to add it on, and the game plays rather well. Aside from having a slow start, and a bit more faffing around than I’d like between levels, as well as a couple of minor, workable handling problems, the game is an entertaining take on a familiar concept. It’s the Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes of Tower Defences.

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