The tower defence genre seems to be filling out a bit now. Not in a bad way. It's not getting flabby or anything. Perhaps more cuddly, at least if Orcs Must Die and Dungeon Defenders are anything to go by. Dungeon Defenders in particular is super delightful to the point of being saccharine. As violent as the theme is - murdering convoys of fantasy creatures with spikes and spears and magic - you just want to pick it up by its Unreal-rendered polygons and give it a squeeze. So cute!
Yes, the "running around actively combating the creeps" offshoot of tower defence (a sub-genre that includes the excellent Sanctum, which is a good sci-fi alternative to this) has found its most adorable incarnation in Dungeon Defenders. It's colourful and compelling, with surprising depth, and really goes all out to get a charm potion down your neck, sending you off into a goggle-eyed dream of four-player co-op delirium. But that's not to say it's not challenging: /Holy fuck/ it can get difficult.
But let's knock this lurid beast on the head for a moment, lay its body down on the examining table, and use the big sharp knife of analysis to lay out a few of its constituent organs on a large metal tray. What's it all about? Well, it's about defending a crystal. Goblins and orcs and stuff are going to come in and try to smash it, for reasons contrived. It's your job to defend it. You do this by running around in third person as one of four character classes. Each of these has his own set of abilities, both as a character you control, and as a builder of structures which can be erected to defend the crystal.
Some folks who play Dungeon Defenders will probably have a crack at it solo, and if they do this it will rapidly become clear that this is not really the way to tackle it. Multiplayer is the way, and the maps (and challenges thereof) really do lend themselves to having lots of people running about as the various classes. You can play local split screen - which I did with a chum on an Xbox pad and me on mouse and keyboard - or you can play online, which I also did for 2 to 4-player sessions.
- The first class is the apprentice, a wizard. He's got a big old hat and some ranged attacks. His towers provide a range of attack and defence powers, as you'd expect from any tower defence game. Dungeon Defenders tell us that this is the easiest character to play.
- Then there's the Squire, whose towers involve quote a lot of chucking spears and rocks at the enemy, but who has no ranged attack at all for himself. As a melee character he's pretty good, and has special abilities that blocking and hitting slightly harder than usual. Dungeon Defenders tells is that The Squire is of a medium difficulty to play.
- Third up is The Huntress. An elf lady with a bow, she has lots of ranged power. Her buildable bits are traps, which can be set off to do superior damage. Can also stealth to some extent to get around the map without trouble. The creeps in DD, you see, will go for you, and a band of them can flatten you quite quickly up close. Anyway, Dungeon Defenders tells us that she is difficult to play.
- What Dungeon Defenders does next is tell us that class four, The Monk, is for veterans. The reason for this is not quite clear, as he doesn't seem particularly challenging to me. His powers are odd, however, because what he's able to leave in the path of enemies are various force fields that have different effects (slowing them and down and so on), which I suppose takes some getting used to.
Yes, the four classes do seem well designed to complement each other. They're not so focused as to create that MMO tank/healer/damage sort of routine, and their range of abilities can be quite esoteric, but they do offer a spectrum of tactics, allowing some players crowd control, others harassment, and others straight-up damage to the streams of baddies that roll in.
Everything is, of course, limited by a resource: mana. This magic pool, which is collected from the crystals dropped by slain baddies, is used for everything you build on the field (in a distinct "build" phase, which allows you to prep between attacks) but also for upgrades which you will perform later on. Because you are running around whacking dudes in the action phase, building and repairing is limited, not least because you need to stay alive. Yes, additional challenge arrives from nearby creeps going for you and chasing after you. If you die, there's a respawn timer, which allows enemies to get ever closer to the crystal.
Right, listen: I'm not even scratching the surface here. Dungeon Defenders seems like a simple and cute sort of thing, and it is, but there's multitudes in here, all of them wrapped up in a bow of pristine presentation. There's levelling up of persistent characters, and points to spend on your character during play, and an inventory full of loot which can be equipped or stored or sold. There's a brilliant lobby system with a shop, where you can sell stuff, but also where whoever is hosting the game can fiddle with the setup of the next session while you all talk it over. The way the game is set up allows you to play locally, or to play with specific online characters on ranked servers, via "TrendyNet". This seemed a bit disconnecty to me, and I found myself getting "connect lost" in about one in three games. I suspect that's due to launch popularity and general teething, but it's catastrophically irrirating when this game leans so heavily on online play.
Hrmph! I wonder, actually, whether perhaps Dungeon Defenders actually does too much. I don't mean this in terms of "perhaps they should have done less", but rather that the game struggles to articulate everything that is going on to you. The first time through the full tutorial is a quiet wall of information, which most gamers will soak up quite readily, but it leads lots of stuff unanswered: What do all these towers do? And the stats I am levelling up? The rest of the game has to be trial-and-errored a bit, which means going online right away is probably not entirely advisable. It's what I did (of course) and I found myself standing around a bit, working out what was going on. Best to grab a chum and play splitscreen for a bit. (I did that, later.)
I know some readers will be thinking "I want solo play, not for me", but really it's a minor bump, and playing with randoms does work pretty well. That said, getting tactics co-ordinated can be tricky, and even on the middling difficulty maps you face some astonishingly heavy waves of enemies, which means Dungeon Defenders will defeat you, from time to time. This, I feel, is a good thing. This is a game that throws down a chunky, shiny little gauntlet, without demanding lunatic twitch skills, or even strategic prowess. It's got something else going on. A sort of organisational combat thing where knowing your priorities and weighing up the odds counts as much as timing or flat our skill.
What Dungeon Defenders does more often that defeat you, however, is delight you. The action cascades through each level, with swarming, seething masses of enemies, and - when things are going well - a stream of traps, attacks, and other effects from the defenders. It's a superb thing: gloriously colourful, robustly made, filled with tonnes of loot and skills and towers, all so much that you will still not master it in a few days. I could say more. I won't. Just consider this worth a look.
Dungeon Defenders is out now. UPDATE: RPS Steam group for DD here.