Platforms: PC | PSN | XBLA (reviewed)
Developer: Trendy Entertainment
Publisher: Reverb Publishing
The ubiquitous tower defence formula has resonated with millions of gamers, and this year has heralded a host of titles that attempt to integrate the traditional notions of defensive play with new and exciting mechanics. Orcs Must Die! successfully married direct combat and tower tactics, but Trendy Entertainment's effort goes one step further by providing a persistent RPG element that invokes the likes of Diablo and Torchlight. Dungeon Defenders is an incredibly brave proposition from a small independent studio... and a hybrid gamble that pays off in spades.
After four young heroes inadvertently release an ancient evil, they'll need to defend their all important crystals from waves of ravening invaders. Throughout a meaty collection of arenas with different spawn points, terrains and challenges, players will guard their crystal by deploying defensive installations along the routes that the shambling enemy hordes frequent. Standard tower defence fare to be sure, but you'll then need to directly use your character's unique abilities to deliver accessible and hectic death once the orcs, dark elves, wyverns and goblins begin their inexorable march. A stress-free build phase provides plenty of time for players to set up their perimeter between waves, though the fact that your character can only deploy towers within a tight radius means that you'll have to cover a lot of ground.
Each class brings a unique set of abilities, strengths and towers to the battle. The Mage uses his combat magic to keep enemies at bay while deploying traditional defensive turrets, whereas his ranged counterpart, the Huntress, lays down replenishable traps that debilitate foes and create killzones. The Squire lays the smackdown in physical combat (tying enemies up in melee so they can't advance) and rolls out a selection of tough physical barriers that can damage foes who attempt to breach them. Finally, the monk offers a strange mix of spear combat and buffs. Players can freely swap between their heroes in the build phase, allowing us to lay down a varied selection of defences and use their preferred damage-dealer in combat. Note, however, that the Monk is aimed at "Advanced" players... meaning that he's very difficult to get used to as well as being relatively underpowered compared to the others. In singleplayer, at least. More on that later.
Once you're ready, you can trigger the next wave and leap into the action. Simple and accessible controls make culling the herd a breeze (think Torchlight or Fat Princess), though you'll need to temper brutal offensives with the need to repair and place new defences as the hordes close in - as well as quickly identifying weaknesses in your strategy. The range of enemies will push you to the limit with a mix of standard melee drudges, flying foes and enormous bosses who take many minutes to kill (and smash through your meticulously designed stronghold if you're not careful). It's a thoroughly stressful and brilliantly satisfying setup since it effectively mixes cerebral tactics with visceral and slick combat. Each slain enemy drops mana that can be used to purchase new towers, heal yourself or bank for profit.
Killing enemies rewards your heroes with persistent experience that results in a dribble of skill points and increased levels. As your characters become more powerful, you can choose to have them specialise in direct combat, tower capability, tanking or practically anything in between. Even failed attempts feel like minor victories as your heroes level up regardless, making repetition and grind a compulsive joy. Myriad customisation options - even including the option to change the design and RGB values of your crystals - lets you take real pride in your characters, much like the best RPGs.
Raiding chests, acquiring gear from bosses and banking mana between waves grants you access to an obscene amount of upgradable equipment. Weapons, armour and even pets all provide in-game bonuses (as well as the occasional curse), and everything can be upgraded in numerous different ways. You can tailor any item to reflect your play style - or increase its value to trade with other players. Trendy Entertainment will soon be adding a secure trading facility, which hopefully means that skilled upgraders will start making a name for themselves online. It's another beautifully simple yet insanely deep mechanic that trounces the competition.
Trendy Entertainment are refreshingly up-front about the fact that Dungeon Defenders is primarily designed as a cooperative experience. And what an experience it is. Collaborating with three mates, both locally and online, is one of the most hectic, exciting and raucous gaming events of the year - with each player working to bolster and overlap defences in the build phase and then haring around the arenas to stem the brutal tide. Effective communication and cooperation is the only way to take down the larger bosses, and each class compliments each other perfectly. All is forgiven, monk.
Coupled with the persistent character development, loot trading and addictive mechanics, Dungeon Defenders has the potential to run and run. The huge number of available options and gametypes (including challenge rooms, multiple difficulty levels with better loot, limited Build Phase times and survival modes) will keep you playing - and invested, more importantly - for countless hours.
This multiplayer focus does naturally impact on the singleplayer portion, though. Rather than enjoying a dedicated mode, solo defenders only have the option of playing the same maps by themselves... which puts the emphasis firmly on massive, heinous grind to stay well ahead of the difficulty curve. The resilient bosses prove to be a near-insurmountable stumbling block for all but the strongest individuals, even on the easiest difficulty setting. Expect to replay the starting levels over and over with multiple characters just to become strong enough to progress. It's an observation rather than a flaw, but it's a shame that the easy modes don't scale to cater for solo heroes. If you rarely game with friends, Orcs Must Die might be a meatier proposition.
In terms of presentation, Dungeon Defenders' eyecatching Unreal-powered visuals are let down by some repetitive and annoying sound design. Chances are that you'll be too busy planning on-the-fly strategy with your cooperative partners to notice, though.
- Tight and accessible tower defence and combat
- Persistent character development adds an entirely awesome gameplay dimension
- Amazingly, infinitely deep and addictive
- Finnicky tower placement
- Slight class imbalance
- Weak sound design
The Short Version: Dungeon Defenders is an incredible achievement that offers limitless scope for hectic multiplayer combat, deep strategy and satisfying character creation. Ultimately its long term success will rely on sustaining and retaining the online player base with continual expansions, modes, features and content... and if Trendy Entertainment delivers, this could be one of the most important breakthrough hits of the year.