Saturday, November 19, 2011

Dungeon Defenders Review

Dungeon Defenders, developed and published by Trendy Entertainment.
The Good: Enjoyable local and online co-op with distinct classes, upgradable items can be equipped, unique challenges and rules
The Not So Good: Limited arsenal of weapons and traps must be unlocked, repetitive combat with insufficient strategic options, offline character can’t be used in ranked multiplayer matches, can’t save progress mid-level
What say you? A tower defense role-playing game with fun cooperative play but restricted weaponry: 6/8

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Tower defense games have certainly taken on a life of their own. What started out as a niche extension of the strategy games has blossomed into a full-fledged genre. Now that the basic tenants of tower defense games have been laid out in conventional titles like Defense Grid, more experimentation has been injected into the formula by adding competitive features (as in Rock of Ages), reversing the game mechanics (like Anomaly: Warzone Earth), or taking inspiration from other genres. We’ve seen the first person shooter adaptation Sanctum and the third person shooter take in Orcs Must Die, but now it’s time for some role-playing. Dungeon Defenders has finally been released, adding experience, loot, and classes to the typical tower defense game. Does this mixture work?

Powered by the Unreal engine, Dungeon Defenders has an interesting art style that trends towards the “cartoon” side of role-playing tropes. The cell-shaded graphics look nice and work well with the theme of the game, giving you some fanciful environments to fight in and exaggerated enemies to fight against. There is also no shortage of bright colors in the game. The levels and characters could use a bit more texture detail and smoother models, though. The effects are suitable for the game, with minor amounts of blood accompanying numbers displaying damage like a traditional RPG. The level designs are a bit repetitive (you are defending dungeons, after all), but they exhibit some unique elements to differentiate each map. On the sound front, things are kept quite basic: combat is chaotic with slashes and magical powers abounding, but there are few instances of voice acting (mostly restricted to the tutorial) for immersive purposes. The music is fitting but not memorable. Overall, Dungeon Defenders delivers average results for your monetary investment when compared against an increasingly competitive indie classification.

Although Dungeon Defenders is primarily designed as a four-person online cooperative game, you can play the game offline. However, this is strongly discouraged as the game is extremely difficult for one person and your single player character cannot be used in ranked online matches. Dungeon Defenders features thirteen campaign missions where you must defend crystals from the incoming horde. Additional rules are available for more variety: a survival mode, where waves will keep coming until you die, a pure strategy mode where you can’t attack, and a mixed mode that spawns random enemies. The game also features over ten challenges that introduce some unique, interesting rules, such as a constantly moving crystal, specific enemies, or putting you on the offensive. All of these features add up to more replay value, despite the fact that the missions on a single map play out the same way as you utilize the same chokepoints. Joining a multiplayer game is easy using a quick match system or the host browser; you can also join matches in progress during the build phase, which is neat. A difficulty setting is available to increase the enemy count for more experienced foes, although the number of enemies does not seem to adjust based on the number of players. Your progress cannot be saved in the middle of a game, which can be a problem when a single level lasts upwards of thirty minutes, deleting all of your hard fought progress. Finally, the tutorial serves as an extensive but laborious introduction to the game.

Like most role-playing-type games, Dungeon Defenders features classes of varying abilities. Each class gets two standard attacks (usually either melee or ranged), two special attacks that typically affect an area, and five traps that are gradually unlocked with experience. Each class starts out with only one trap, which makes the first handful of missions very, very boring as you are greatly limited in what you can do. A variety of items can be found and equipped (helmets, weapons, armor, gloves, and boots); these are dropped by enemy units, and boost attack and defense ratings against fire, lightning, poison, or in general. Classes are pretty standard: the apprentice is the magic ranged guy equipped with tower traps, the squire is the melee guy with blockades, the huntress is the ranged girl with proximity traps, and the monk is the support guy who can boost nearby allies. During each battle, you can earn experience that is spent to improve your abilities: health, damage, attack rate, and movement speed. You can also choose to expand the capabilities of your turrets, increasing their health, damage, attack rate, or area of effect. New traps are also unlocked as you level up, and if you play enough, and you’ll have access to all of the traps, and there will be little reason to go back and use weaker options. Additional options include the ability to purchase really expensive pets to accompany you into battle or trade in useless weapons for mana used to upgrade better items in your inventory.

Each map throws waves of enemies at you, and you can build defenses and trade in items between each wave (you can also building things during invasion, but it’s a lot slower). There is a hard limit to how many structures you can place in a map, even if you have the mana to afford more (killed enemies provide a constant supply of mana), although you can upgrade existing defenses. Dungeon Defenders features repetitive combat: you start out with only a primary and secondary attack, and even when you level up and unlock two additional abilities, your strategies remain very limited. Your role on the battlefield is to repair structures and eliminate the stragglers that have wandered past your stout defenses. Traps are quite effective, and intervention is only needed to remedy places of the map that were overwhelmed with enemy forces. The slow default movement speed makes this an arduous, tedious process, and the maps are just large enough to make walking from one side to the other a chore. The enemies consist of basic, ranged, magic, flying, exploding, and boss variations to require slightly different tactics (blocking, slowing down, or attacking at range). Still, if you clog the pathways with enough things, most enemies will meet untimely death. Dungeon Defenders also clearly displays how many enemies of each type will spawn at every location, so there is little guesswork involved in placing your defenses in the “correct” locations. Still, taking on a huge number of enemies with your friends is undeniably fun, despite the minimal tactical options available to you.

Dungeon Defenders is a solid combination of role-playing and tower defense that suffers from too much repetition through the limited means with which you can engage the enemy. Giving each class only five total traps and two special powers really reduce your strategic options, making each scenario play out the same. Add in the fact that you only start out with one of the five traps, and things can get boring. However, Dungeon Defenders is good fun online, where you can enjoy the game’s chaotic cooperative action with other human players (hopefully) using each class effectively. However, your single player avatar cannot be used in ranked matches online, so you must start over with limited options. The game’s four distinct classes each play a role on the battlefield: the melee squire, the ranged huntress, the magical apprentice, and the support monk. You can see the possibilities for great teamwork online, and battling it out alongside your friends is a blast. While items can be upgraded over time, I’d like to see a lot more variety in the traps, spells, animals, and items. The enemies are also very basic variations (melee, ranged, magic, flying, and powerful bosses) on common themes. Dungeon Defenders has a fair number of levels with varied layouts, and some of the challenges have interesting rule restrictions while the alternative game modes are welcome. While Dungeon Defenders is an admirable attempt at a happy marriage of role-playing and tower defense, more content is needed to completely round out the package.