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Tower defence citybuilding has reached its peak with the adorable but deadly Thronefall

Out now in early access, it's small but perfectly formed

A topdown view of a medieval settlement in Thronefall
Image credit: GrizzlyGames

I don't know about you, but I've been immensely enjoying the seeming renaissance of tower defence citybuilding games recently. The grimdark horrors of Age Of Darkness: Final Stand might be a bit too hard as nails for my personal liking, but there's something about the act of building up my little settlements and defending them against ever-larger nightly hordes that just unlocks something in my brain that says, 'Yes, more of this, please'. It's the same feeling I got from the blocky delights of Diplomacy Is Not An Option and the deckbuilding, comic-book stylings of ORX, too, but now there's a new kid that's ridden into town who I think might be the king of the lot.

Thronefall is a more minimalist take on the citybuilder tower defender, but while its bright colours might look like the distant cousin of a Townscaper toybox (it is, after all, made by the same dev wot did the equally charming Islanders), this deadly little thing is absolutely genius. It's only just come out in early access today, but I've been having a great time with a pre-release build of it, and can feel it sinking its claws into me with every attempt at its final level.

A settlement in a desert canyon is armed to the teeth with soldiers in Thronefall
The points of construction may be fixed, but the freedom to kit out your settlement as you see fit has its own kind of strategy to it. | Image credit: GrizzlyGames

Like other citybuilding tower defence hybrids, Thronefall is structured around a safe, build during the day cycle, and murderous terrors you'll need to pick off during the night. Unlike some of its rivals, however, you can call the night forward at any time you like by holding down space bar, giving you ample time to decide your next move and where best to spend your small pot of gold coins. You'll earn a handful of cash after every night survived - assuming the hordes haven't destroyed all of the buildings that produce it, of course - and the key to success is using it to build the best possible defences for your castle. Houses give you some nominal offering to your coffers, for example, but later levels also have gold mines to exploit, or fishing ports you can construct that bring back a steadier and growing stream of income over successive days.

The truly neat thing about Thronefall, though, is that each construction point is fixed on the map from the beginning. Once you've built your castle, little nodes will tell you where all the other buildings can go, and you can ride up to them on your cute, tiny horse (or press a button) to see what it is and how much it costs. Certain points might let you build watch towers, for example, that can fire arrows at incoming enemies, while others might let you build fields and windmills to generate even more money. As you upgrade your castle with said money, you can also upgrade these buildings even further, eventually unlocking towers that pour vats of boiling oil at regular intervals, for instance, or barracks with three squads of knights rather than just one.

A settlement is under attack at night in Thronefall
Some nights have single waves of enemies to defend against, but others hit you with multiple enemy types all at the same time, often from different directions. It's surprisingly thrilling stuff. | Image credit: GrizzlyGames

Working out what to spend your money on is really the only thing you have to consider here. Of course, with its fixed maps and fixed building nodes, you might think that pairing couldn't possibly be compatible with a good fun time. After all, where does the strategy come in if the game funnels you down a fixed and specific route each time? But that's precisely why Thronefall is so damn brilliant, because when enemies appear from different angles of attack every night (thankfully marked up on your map in advance), it scratches exactly the right cluster of tactical, puzzley brain cells to make it feel devilishly moreish.

It scratches exactly the right cluster of tactical, puzzley brain cells to make it feel devilishly moreish.

Part of that, I think, also comes down to the fact that you're not some invisible godlike figure here. You're a king riding around on your horse, leading your troops into battle (commanding them to stand in certain spots if you wish). You can also join in the fun with attacks of your own, too, and there are different ones to pick from at the start of a run. You'll need to be a bit careful, though, as your regal limbs are surprisingly fragile, and the ten seconds it takes for you to respawn can feel like an age when a group of ogres and battering rams are closing in on your castle.

It's not merely game over when your castle's destroyed either, as you'll gain experience points at the end of each run, which in turn unlock additional perks and weapon choices for your miniature monarch. You'll really need these for its later levels, too, of which there are currently four. I sailed through the first two no problem at all, but the western-themed canyon in level three and the icy loch of its current finale are properly hard, and I'm still chipping away at the latter even after unlocking a dozen or so of its 30-odd perks. For me, though, the challenge is pitched just right - I came within spitting distance of victory once in level four, and I know in my bones that if I plan a bit better next time, that victorious trumpet will sound once again.

A settlement in an icy loch in Thronefall
Thronefall earns its minimalist stripes with its striking colour palette, and stripped back, but intuitive, clean UI. Alas, I have no more coins to spend upgrading my barracks here. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/GrizzlyGames

I love its presentation as well. Its colourful little dioramas are gorgeous to behold from its zoomed out, top-down view, but crucially its buildings and enemy types remain readable at all times. I love the sound the coins make as you slot them ztsk ztsk ztsk into each structure's construction pot, too, and the whoomph each building makes as it boings into being in front of you. It's very pleasing, as are the upbeat whistles and recorder melodies that pipe up over the rest of its medieval soundscape when the arrows start flying at nightfall.

As you gallop around on your horse to fight off invaders, you quickly realise there's a surprising amount of ground to cover, too, as its maps are just large enough to divert and split your attention between its multiple waves of enemies. Some settlements have natural chokepoints to help stem the flow, but other points of entry are wide open, leaving you to pump funds into constructing walls and towers to slow them down more artificially. There's a lot to it considering its small size, and I'd strongly recommend giving its demo a shot (which contains the first two levels) if you're curious. I'll certainly be returning to Thronefall as it continues its journey in early access, and I'm excited to see what other picture perfect landscapes we'll be building a life in during the months to come.

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