Most Wanted Games' Paradox-published Majesty 2 spin-off Defenders of Ardania marched into digitally-distributed battle last week. I've been cautiously poking its remixed tower defence setup with my Stick Of Judgment for the last couple of days, and I have spewed out the following words in reaction to it.
The single most interesting aspect of the Majesty games was the indirect unit control system, with entailed attempting to herd particularly unwilling cats. A legion of assorted fantasy monster-botherers at your disposal, but not a one of them would lift a finger to help unless you offered them enough gold to trudge across the map and start stabbing things. In a genre so defined by willing slaves, it stood out and seemed rich with possibilities for a more living world, and one where strategy comes as much from meeting your soldiers' needs as it does commanding and conquering. Since then, the series has resolutely failed to further investigate any of this, and instead opted for rote expansion packs and, now, a tower defence spin-off. A moment of silence for what might have been, then. Now, on with the more conventionally strategic show.
Defenders of Ardania isn't straightforward tower defence to its credit, instead putting you in the shoes of the aggressor as well as those of the protector. With a strict (and somewhat arbitrary-feeling) limit on how many towers you can build, success against your similarly betowered enemy and their e'er-advancing forces requires the near-constant generation of tiny marching men of your own.
Most of your towers will go up in the earlier moments of a level or match, then once you've got your basic structure in place you need to churn out forces tailored as dependent to biff enemies, take down opposing towers or get to your rival's base ASAP. On top of that are spells, tower upgrades and repairs and a teeny level up system for unit types, plus a race to grab special tiles on the map that bestow resource or strategic bonuses. You're going to be busy, basically.
There are plenty of smart twists upon what is rightly often accused of being a stagnant formula in there, and they're enough that I pressed on despite finding the package as a whole to be an awkward one. It tries its hardest to disguise how fixed its rules are, each level initially presenting you with a large, colourful fantasy vista that you'd swear blind you could stomp across in any direction you fancied, but a quick tap on F1 reveals the rather more didactic truth.
Each map happens on a fixed grid, with pre-determined impassable squares, and both you and your enemies use that grid to direct the flow of traffic. F1 shows this imperative grid, and it's near-impossible to play without it. That's fine, that's tower defence - I'm just amused that the game seems to be trying to pretend it's something else. Oh, you'll also want to tap F2 twice to show both your and the enemy's health, so expect the maps' slightly bland colourfulness to end up swamped by UI.
Tying Ardania to the Majesty games is the sleepily satirical fantasy setting, though here it devolves somewhat into straight-faced tropes, a narrator/advisor doing a passable but ludicrous Sean Connery impersonation and the concept of setting bounties on particular enemies. This latter doesn't involve any of Majesty's bartering (e.g. if your archers won't shift their arses for 500 gold, try 1000, or 1500 and so forth), just a straight-up marking of priority targets.
Many units don't entirely respond to it, often electing to simply march straight past and on to the enemy base, but if you want your Wizards and Dwarf Flying Machines, which are capable of taking out towers as well as infantry, to focus fire on a turret that's giving your standard troops a particularly hard time, that's the way to go. The enemy AI is reliably deft at rebuilding whatever you trash, however, so there's an additional layer of strategy in selling up one of your existing towers so you can build a replacement on top of the rubble of a newly-destroyed opposing structure.
That's pretty much it, at least in singleplayer. It dawdles along gradually offering up new unit types, spells and towers as the campaign wears on, as well as offering different races of enemy to clobber, but never manages to feel terribly dynamic about it. The harsh limits on tower building and expansion means it always winds up being a slow and repetitive war of attrition rather than a rollercoaster run up to thrilling victory, and in turn I struggle to raise much enthusiasm for tackling another level of similar. There's no bombast, just busy-work.
That said, it is reliable in terms of mixing up the settings - minotaurs and massive lighthouses one level, bear-filled jungles the next. It opens itself up more in multiplayer, where you get a choice of races and maps and none of this drip-feed of turret-types, but the effort that's gone into the Conneryisms and dwarf VOs and whatnot puts the lie to the idea that the singleplayer is a mere sideshow. In either case, it just feels too small. It's fleshed out tower defence admirably, transforming the genre's traditional auto-marching into something actively controlled and contained, but seems to have stopped short of turning its offence-is-the-best-defence concept into anything especially dramatic. Ardania is the right idea, but a uninspiring execution. If you're looking for a remix of tower defence, Anomaly: Warzone Earth is a far cheerier bet, if admittedly a slight one.
Meanwhile, here I sit, continuing to hope that the latter-day Majesty series one day elects to further investigate what truly made Majesty Majesty. As opposed to repeatedly hiring a bloke who sounds like Sean Connery and hoping that'll do the trick.
Defenders of Ardania is out now, on services including Steam and GamersGate.