March 27, 2012
The first thing players should note about Defenders is that unlike most other games in the genre, it isn't a game that can be simply picked up and moved into. All the basics of tower defence are there, but pushed alongside the simple tower creation process is a slew of strategy options.
Players can create a tower near their castle, and slowly expand across the map's grid as each tower they place increases the friendly influence zone. As players are limited to the number of towers that can be dropped, it's important to place towers in positions that will both limit enemy unit movement in addition to keeping the enemy from placing their own towers too close. Where the usual strategy is to build as many towers as close to the enemy 'starting point' as possible, this means that players have to juggle defending the spots that enemy towers could do the most damage while taking up positions that the enemy would want to use to defend themselves.
Alongside the unique deployment features is the unit creation process, which allows players to deploy the same kinds of units that the enemy has in an attempt to destroy their tower first. Rather than simply having waves of increasingly difficult foes to dispatch, players instead are given a variety of units to deploy in order to exploit the opposing towers.
General soldier units are capable of surviving area effect towers, while taking more damage from single shot towers, healer units act as tanks which can survive multiple types of tower hits, while alternative units have abilities that range from flight, to doing damage to other units or towers as they pass.
This variation means that players aren't simply adjusting their unit creation (which also has a limit depending on the level), but also adjusting their towers accordingly. As no single tower really handles any situation well it's important to creatively adjust what towers you may be using to handle a particular wave. Levelling up towers certainly helps do more damage to particular units, but it's bad planning to level victory on having harder hitting things the enemy can adapt to.
That being said, resource management becomes a large section of the game, as players can not only level up existing towers but purchase new units, abilities and static buffs. As players continue to create individual units they gain experience and will eventually level into more effective (but more expensive) versions of themselves, and as each unit does damage, more gold can be earned to spend on everything else.
It's worth noting that this point that static buffs can increase the rate resources are earned, increase the unit/resource pool cap, or use spells that can level individual towers or enemy units.
Strategic points can be captured to increase the speed in which players can purchase upgrades, which adds yet another element of strategy to the games tower placing mechanics.
For as deep as the game is there are some flaws however, as the direction of your troops can be a bit unpredictable at times. Players are given a rally flag where their units will move towards first, and if it happens to be in the same direction as an enemy base they'll take the shortcut as well, but as enemy towers are dropped it can be a little difficult to keep track of where your troops are going and where they should be. It can also be a bit difficult in multiplayer matches to readily distinguish which towers are player controlled and which may belong to an enemy/teammate. This is to be expected as Defender's grid system is a bit more open than other games in the genre, but still frustrating for those who may not have a keen enough eye to spot the difference between the purple tower or the blue tower. Or worse, may have a hard time finding one of their own towers behind a wall of opposing graphics.
It's also fair to note that each match can take an astonishingly long amount of time to complete. Depending on the individual players' grasp of the units/towers, games can drag out in the worst kind of way, as decent tower combos will prevent all but one or two units from ever making it to a castle. Combine that with the fact that players can heal themselves and you've got a game that makes single player matches a little too easy, and multiplayer matches almost four to five times as long as a typical single player campaign level. These flaws are definitely unique to Defenders, as the entire system requires players to juggle offense and defense in such a way that no one player should ever hold an advantage for long. Perhaps the removal of the magic spells (or an increase in the effectiveness of upgraded units) would circumvent these issues in the future, but for now the games uniqueness is effectively its own worst enemy.
In a lot of ways Defenders of Ardania is easily forgiven for its flaws, particularly since the player is never ruthlessly punished for trying new things. The game's pace is slow, and victory is earned at an almost predictable crawl, but there's something to be said about a game that's willing to try and further a genre that very few other developers are willing to advance. Taking that into consideration the game is quite fun despite its flaws, and should provide players looking for a little something different just that. Defenders will not amaze and astound but it will certainly leave an impression that's almost guaranteed to be a positive one, and there's no doubt that should the developer decide to revisit this series in the future that only a few key changes are needed to make this game absolutely brilliant. For now, we'll just have to settle for the unpolished version.
Defenders of Ardania was reviewed on the Xbox Live Arcade.