Developer: Level Up Labs
Sleep is for the weak. Work is for chumps. Personal relationships are fleeting.
And we now have a superior replacement for all three courtesy of Defender's Quest from Level Up Labs. Despite being a unassumingly small project from a tiny team, this ripping indie yarn is easily one of the most ruthlessly addictive games I've ever played... and does to the tower defence genre what Puzzle Quest did to Bejeweled. Which is to say that the accessible core experience has been augmented and improved by a meaty storyline, relateable characters and satisfyingly nuanced persistent RPG mechanics.
This is undoubtedly impressive in its own right, but Defender's Quest ultimately succeeds because the raw tower defence gameplay is some of the best you'll find anywhere. Pay attention, folks, because this deceptively deep hybrid deserves to take 2012 by storm.
Players are cast as a former librarian to the crown, Azra, who's thrown into an enormous plague pit after contracting a horrendous disease that's decimating the continent. The oubliette has become its own sprawling nation state as more and more victims are quarantined, and after a run-in with the nightmarish transformed victims, Azra discovers that she has the ability to phase into a twilight world between life and death and defeat the otherwise-invulnerable horrors. As she journeys through the pit, she gradually attracts a small army to her cause hellbent on escape, justice and, well, defence.
What this boils down to is classic tower defence fare. Azra can't move while in her otherworldly trance and needs to be defended from waves of enemy attack as they trundle along preset routes. Her newfound psychic powers (expressed by regenerating Psi points) are primarily used to place her allies onto the battlefield, where they effectively function as immobile towers. Once deployed, each unit attacks foes in their range and can access a range of automatic abilities if you decide to invest Psi points in battle-specific upgrades. More on that in a second. Powerful berzerkers dish out medium damage to small groups, Rangers deal out fearsome ranged attacks, healers keep your units topped up - yes, your foes can and will fight back - and Ice Mages slow down and debilitate the rising tide. Oh, and the mysterious Ultimate unit manages to be so breathtakingly unexpected that I wouldn't dare give the game away. Trust me, you won't be able to deploy many of them, but they're oh so worth the expense.
Defender's Quest also provides a satisfying amount of tactical depth. Some enemies need to be stripped of their armour, many can travel through water (bypassing your defences at the most inopportune times) and yet others are cloaked in shrouds of darkness which makes them nearly impossible to hit. To combat this, you'll need to put your faith in your defenders. There may only be six different classes on offer, but each packs a number of surprising secondary skills that unlock if you invest in upgrades.
The healers, for example, can be boosted to blast out waves of holy force that deals light damage to enemies in their range and also serves to light up darkened foes. On the flip-side, you'll then need to deploy them nearer to the front lines where they're more likely to be damaged themselves... and hence need to be defended by more units... and you've suddenly got a tactical conundrum on your hands that rewards forward planning and tactical placement. Choosing the perfect location and deciding whether to spend your Psi points on boosting warriors or deploying a larger number of weaker ones is consistently thrilling. On top of all that, Azra can access a range of direct abilities such as lightning bolts, telekinetic force and buffs - which all cost Psi points to activate. Making the right decision at the right time is paramount, though each level can be bested in myriad different ways.
All of this depth would be useless without a slick interface, and Defender's Quest does a fantastic job of keeping you in command. A range of different game speeds allow you to take each wave at your own pace, or pause the action while freely able to deploy units or unleash spells. Specific units can be ordered to target the closest, weakest, fastest or strongest foes in their range, giving you an unprecedented level of direct control. Comprehensive keyboard shortcuts map everything you need within easy reach. Strategy games sink or swim on the strength of their GUI, and Defender's Quest is a perfect example of listening to player feedback and correcting common faults with the genre. More than that, it's just a shining example of a tower defence game ought to be, pure and simple.
So far, so brilliant, but the best is yet to come. Defender's Quest is an RPG, and as such you'll be able to persistently improve your growing army. After meeting the archetype of each class on your travels, you can recruit new units from towns and villages; each of which gains experience, levels up and can be customised with new abilities via some streamlined skill trees. Rangers can be upgraded to deal poison damage, for example, whereas Knights can choose to specialise in removing enemy armour rather than dealing direct damage. Spoils of war can be spent on new weapons and armour to further improve your troops - and each and every one of your maximum thirty six-strong roster becomes a trusted friend over the course of the campaign.
All of the (inordinate number of) stages have multiple difficulty settings that reward new items, greater experience and harsher challenges depending on your level and skill, and you can replay them an infinite number of times to keep your army ahead of the level curve or afford the pricier weapons. On its casual setting, the story will likely take about five hours to complete, but sticking to standard difficulty and grinding against the harder modes makes for a game that will last you many, many sleepless nights or unproductive days. Tower defence games and RPGs have always boasted the infamous "just one more go" factor, and Defender's Quest packs the best of both worlds for a negligible price.
The storyline is definitely worth a mention. Azra's transformation from helpless victim to a trusted leader is an engaging and occasionally moving journey, and one that keeps you powering forward even though it's occasionally a little on the generic side. However, the overtly humorous overtones and use of modern-day slang is likely to split opinion: many will enjoy the sidesplitting asides whereas others will find it difficult to immerse themselves in the game world anywhere near as much as they'd like. Personally, I love it.
Presentation is primitive by design, which isn't to say that Defender's Quest looks bad. In contrast, it thrives on a detailed sprite-based visual style backed up by a rousing and capable sountrack. The simplistic cutscene portraits may irk some players, though, and I have to report that I occasionally encountered some slowdown. In fairness, this could be due to my dizzying range of email, download and chat clients running in the background.
Level Up Labs has confirmed that more end-game content, new endless survival modes, extra story scenes and other features will be headed to Defender's Quest in future updates, and the game automatically checks for new content every time you boot it up. You'll know about it as soon as we do, and it's just icing on an already-impressive cake.
- Near-perfect tower defence action
- Ruthlessly addictive and deep RPG mechanics
- Massive value and staggering replayability, bargain RRP
- Art style may deter the foolish
- Writing will enamour some yet infuriate others
- You will lose sleep, jobs and friends
The Short Version: Defender's Quest is magnificent. Like Puzzle Quest and Runespell: Overture before it, Level Up Labs' creation takes an already-popular genre to glittering new heights while refusing to compromise on the core gameplay. Don't miss this unexpected indie gem.