The tower defence genre is one that has thrived on Xbox Live Arcade and if you were a particularly cynical individual it wouldn’t be out of turn to suggest that the community doesn’t really need another one....well unless it’s a bit special that is. Along comes Dungeon Defenders, standing tall, proud and more than a little bit special. With variety and depth to rival any downloadable RPG offering, it clearly proves that there is a lot of life in the genre and there is room for just one more.
Dungeon Defenders is a mix of both tower defence and third person melee gameplay played out within stylish puzzle filled dungeons creating a rich cartoon battleground for you to get lost in. On paper it all appears to very much like many similar tower defence releases and it’s easy to think “I’ve played games like this before, I’ll complete this no bother” but Dungeon Defenders offers more and rest assured even the most experienced player will need to have their wits about them to tackle this detailed and often heavily tactical experience. The depth of the title is best described as being “a bit like an onion” and that saying (thanks Donkey) has never been more apt. There are many many RPG elements to get lost in here, all potentially meaning the difference between success and failure - so much so that the title offers more content and replay value than the majority of full price releases this year. It really is no exaggeration to say that Dungeon Defenders is probably the deepest, most content rich XBLA game ever to grace the marketplace and is a snip at it’s price point.
The game is set in the land of Etheria and much like the famous World of Warcraft has all the classic fantasy staples. There is magic, good guys, big bad guys and naturally, heroes. As battle rages in far off lands the good guys leave the castle (the games focus point) to fight the bad guys leaving the women and children behind to look after the castle. What could possibly go wrong yeah? Well...the little tykes got a little bit bored, as kids do, and set loose some of the ‘Old Ones’ (aka the big bad guys) from their imprisonment within an Eternia Crystal (just go with it). Once free from the crystal there is nothing that can stand in their way as they attempt to storm the castle and overrun it before the grown ups return. Fortunately the little tykes who created this whole mess in the first place are actually heroes in the making...
The story as you can probably tell is a little bit of fun, some may say silly but it does a really good job of setting the scene; everything has a very Castle Crashers, or possibly more accurate a Costume Quest feel to it. As both of these titles were XBLA hits then that is high praise indeed and it’s this similar sense of fun that can be found throughout the game. It is all very tongue in cheek, some would say “kiddie” in tone but the game does an excellent job of fusing these potentially conflicting attributes, managing to look like a child friendly game all the while marrying adult themes, blood, guts and total carnage. Graphically it is very cutesy and colourful but this only adds to the joy of playing and is more than just serviceable.
As you begin you are first asked to choose a new character, of which there are four. The options available are the Apprentice, the Huntress, the Squire or the Monk and once selected (some customisation is available) the RPG elements slowly begin to reveal themselves (remember the onion). You can quite conceivably steam straight in and attempt to play the game as a throw away tower defence title, hell you might even be able to play it this way for two hours or so (medium difficulty) BUT you will hit a brick wall. Actually that’s an understatement, you slam head first in to a brick wall and perhaps, just perhaps, for a moment you will think “I shouldn’t have bought this, it’s not for me”. The game has an excellent way of creeping up on you during your initial play through and throughout the course of the campaign there will be several eureka moments for all levels of player. This should never be taken as a negative as the game is only highlighting your character and in turn your strategic limitations, forcing you to be a little more creative.
The campaign is made up of a series of increasingly complex dungeons, all of which challenge the player use their brain each level requiring certain configurations to ensure success. The variation per level will tax even the most experienced genre veteran and the game mixes tower defence with melee combat seamlessly. It’s not particularly fair to say that the campaign can be beaten in 4-5 hrs as this would only be achievable if you had already ploughed hours in to your team of characters. The game has so much depth and longevity that it’s cheapens the experience to state that it can be beaten in that time. Giant ogre and boss battles are littered throughout the campaign and they provide a difficulty spike that some may find a tad off putting, stick with it though and you will prevail.
If you can level a criticism at the campaign it is that it doesn’t hold the hand particularly well. Yes there is a tutorial but it only really helps you get started and only through trial and error do you truly unravel all of the layers the game has to offer.
Multiple difficulty levels, Xbox Live leaderboards, challenge rooms (for higher ranked players) are but a few of the things that lie within to lengthen the Dungeon Defenders experience and lengthen it they sure do. Insane difficulty requires the ultimate in tower defence management and I think every-one will agree that there is no greater satisfaction than beating a friends score on an XBL leaderboard.
While nosing around the tavern (excellent lobby system) it’s clear to see that there is a heck of a lot to explore within the RPG mechanics. Players have the ability to level each character, purchase new gear, rank up said gear, purchase pets to fight with you, level up the new pet(s) and passively improve character statistics. Hours and hours can be lost in the pursuit of the ultimate character and the desire to constantly improve is as additive as its ever been. When levelling each character there are multiple stats which can improve both the melee and defence tower capabilities of the character; armour and weaponry can also be upgraded to improve further on these character skills.
Working alongside XP is the games core currency, mana. Mana is everything within Dungeon Defenders and it can be obtained in a number of ways; loot plays a big part and can be both equipped or sold for mana, killing enemies causes them to drop mana and chests containing both loot & mana are dropped through each dungeon during every build stage. Mana is the life blood of the game and is used both in battle and back at the tavern - if you don’t concentrate on mana reserves you will struggle so there is a financial strategy element that needs to be managed throughout the game.
Perhaps daunting initially each dungeon can be tackled solo or with up to three friends, full co-op over Xbox Live. One key thing to consider when booting up Dungeon Defenders is that it is a game that is meant to be played with friends. Each individual can create all four of the main characters for themselves and everything is brought across in to a co-op game seamlessly, there is even a simple tavern which is used as a lobby. That’s not to say that the game isn’t perfectly playable solo as it is but it does benefit greatly when tackling the evil hordes with a group of like minded friends. Whether you play solo or via co-op, it is key to create each character thus allowing for all possible strategic options to be at your disposal. Creating and levelling a single character will only get you so far.
Each dungeon is set up in the traditional tower defence manner; build as many killing machines as you can during the ‘Build’ phase and then switch to ‘Combat’ phase to kick off the slaughter. At first placement of the available defences seems straight forward and a simple common sense approach seems to get the job done, however it is precisely at the point when you begin to think this that the game slaps you in the face and forces you to break away from what you think you know, encouraging you to experiment and work that little bit harder to find the correct solution. There are many ways to tackle each dungeon and this only adds to the feeling of experimentation and the outright joy felt when a particularly level which was previously failed just clicks.
The game is played out entirely in the third person, allowing for complete freedom of movement around the each dungeon and the controls for laying defences are mapped precisely as you’d want them to be. By utilising the bumpers all manner of actions are available for each character; switching between defence builds is simple, placement is the push of a button and as a result the game flows neatly between the build and combat phases. There are minor gripes with the controls, the dungeon can get a little over crowded at times and you often find yourself stuck on a defensive unit as you frantically try to make your way back to defend the crystal. The melee combat can throw up some targeting annoyances, again especially when faced with crowds of enemies. While attempting to hack down a group of enemies the auto targeting will spin you around and whizz you across to another group of enemies further away from the crystal, leaving you exposed and taking what is arguably unfair damage.
Once you are all set up defensively hit that button and let the hordes come at you. As mentioned the melee combat is a little weak in places but standing above the battlefield observing your defences rip through the multiple orcs, goblins, dragons, wizards and so on is immensely satisfying, not to mention devilishly addictive. Failure can frustrate as there is no wave check pointing, it’s simply back to the beginning of the level, but Dungeon Defenders is so devilishly addictive you will not care and nine times out of ten will dive straight back in.
After a few hours of carnage, hand to hand combat, character levelling, mana collecting and loot gathering you realise its all just clicked and has fast become one of the deepest most enjoyable romps you will play all year. For an XBLA/PSN title Dungeon Defenders is astonishingly deep and the amount of content for your money puts a lot of full price retail releases to shame. Perfectly playable solo and oodles of fun in co-op Dungeon Defenders is a must buy.