Dungeon Defenders review
It's not often that you see games transition from their mobile origins to the PC; the typical path being tie-in games for their console counterparts but recently there seems be an influx of these sorts of titles, such as the Kinect-enabled Fruit Ninja. The mobile market is typically a great way of prototyping wacky or otherwise 'out there' ideas and so it's great to see those titles appear on the console or PC. Dungeon Defenders' concept of tower defence mixed with third-person hack-and-slash may not be the most original, but it certainly has its fair share of charm. Having already played it on the Asus Transformer (an Android tablet to you technophobes), I felt I was uniquely suited to check it out on the PC.
The game is notably improved from its tablet origins. The underlying Unreal Engine 3 being, of course, extremely capable for scaling up on the PC and taking advantage of your hardware. The game sports a cel-shaded cartoon vibe, which looks exceptionally nice with the high resolution textures, giving the game a stylish feel. The game also has the colour saturation turned up to eleven, making the colours particularly vibrant; combined with the lighting system, this makes almost everything glow with an unnatural light. It's oddly enchanting, and at times, Dungeon Defenders will also surprise you at how much character each of the arenas have.
Let it burn!
For those unfamiliar with the concept behind Dungeon Defenders, the premise is simple. As a wave-based tower defence game you have to defend your Eternia crystal against armies of monsters. Each match consists of a number of waves, and each wave is split into two phases. A setup phase where you get to place your towers and prepare for the oncoming swarm. Once you're happy with what you've done, you unleash the monsters. Creatures emerge from a fixed number of doors that swing open when the action starts. All manner of creatures want to take you out, from the basic goblins to huge trolls. Dungeon Defenders mixes things up by introducing specific monsters during the campaign, such as troll bosses and flying wyverns.
During the action you take charge of a hero which you can use to aid in the defence of your crystal. There are four different classes available at the start of the game, each of which posses different abilities catering to different skill levels. The beginner class, the apprentice, is an all-rounded spell caster, providing a mix of offensive and defensive constructions such as the flame tower or a magical barrier. The later classes cater to more specialised abilities such as the trap-based Huntress or the hack-and-slash knight-inspired Squire. Before you can even start building anything though, you need to get some mana, earned by slaying the various creatures that you come up against, and handily given as a top up at the start of each build phase. In additional to dropping mana, monsters also give you experience points (XP) which is used to level up (what else?!). Experience is persisted against your character so you can retry previous challenges using your levelled up abilities. Each level, you can choose to spend a number of points upgrading either your hero properties or your tower stats. During matches, near your Eternia crystal lives the Defenders Forge which you can use to manage your gear mid-match as well as swap out with other heroes, allowing you to take advantage of their unique abilities and offensive/defensive buildings. Any unused mana can be 'banked' here, and then spent later in the in-game shop.
There's rather a lot going on in this scene
The interface consists of a mix of MMO-style hotbars for your favourite abilities and touchscreen-style radial buttons in the centre of the screen. Whilst its perfect for touchscreen interfaces, I was not so sure how it would work on the PC, but instead of feeling clunky like I thought it would, it instead acts as an efficient way of getting to what you need. A tap of your middle mouse button brings it up and a right click dismisses it. Your more commonly used used actions can be assigned to the hotbar for quick access and each of these can be triggered from the keyboard. Annoyingly, the system for placing towers isn't so refined, not only forcing you to place them within a certain range of you but panning the camera back, often causing it to be obscured by the scenery.
The game's levels can be selected from the in-game hub world which takes the form of a tavern. Not only can you access the campaign and challenge levels but you can also practice your skills on the stuffed mannequins or speak to the barkeep to purchase new weapons, armour and even pets. The Defenders Forge is also present here, in case you want to experiment with your other heroes or start afresh.
Unlike most tower defence games, Dungeon Defenders is played from a third-person perspective
Be warned though, Dungeon Defenders has a steep learning curve. The tutorial (which takes place in the first level) is a breeze with minor enemies for you to contend with. Once you get beyond this point however, the game ramps up the difficulty to a ridiculous extreme, and I found myself getting taken out mere moments after the game had taken the training wheels off. Dungeon Defenders' problems lie in that it only tells you the bare basics and let's you figure out the optimum strategy, such as whether upgraded towers are the way to go or if you should invest points in improving your hero. Due to the persisted nature of the heroes, it appears that the game even wants you to fail in order to level up your characters. That said, once you've levelled up a little bit and have got a handle on the game mechanics, you should get over this hurdle, but as it stands it's an annoying early game grind.
Now that my rant over difficulty is over, you'll be pleased to know that despite this, the game is fun to play. It's best played with a few friends though and luckily the game features a well integrated co-op mode. The game's tavern hub serves as the in-game lobby where you can all meet up and select characters, etc. Once that's decided the host selects the arena and off you go! This is a pure co-operative experience, and you need to work as a team to successfully defend you dungeon. If one of you doesn't build their defences in the right places, then the whole round can end in disaster. It's fun and at times incredibly frustrating, but Dungeon Defenders on the whole seems to strike the right sort of balance between the two. The game supports in-game text and voice chat, but as a Steamworks game, you'll probably just want to use the tried and tested Steam chat.
Dungeon Defenders has translated fantastically to the PC, taking full advantage of the Unreal Engine to provide often breathtaking environments with a great colour palette. By adopting a keyboard and mouse control system, the game becomes a lot more fluid than its tablet version, allowing for a more responsive control of your character. The often frustrating difficulty curve is the only blemish in what is an exciting and often chaotic action game. This is definitely recommended for anyone who's been tempted by the tablet version but were put off by the interface or just enjoys the tower defence format.