Review: Dungeon Defenders
Fate, cruel and twisted, conspired to prevent me from reviewing this game. I think it all started when I bought the game a scant twelve hours before we would get an official review copy like some sort of real video games site. It will end weeks from now, when I get tired of Dungeon Defenders‘ delicious treadmill of tower defense crossed with shooting mans crossed with chaos, finding it to be the game which has survived the massive week-long power outage I’ve endured.
Dungeon Defenders is a game with an incredibly huge problem: its beginning. Tower Defense games are rarely known for starting well, and Dungeon Defenders all but makes out with this trope. The first thing you will do in single player is start on normal (because we are self-respecting gamers) and will then suffer through an utterly tedious, incredibly unhelpful tutorial level. Then the second level will destroy you, because the difficulty curve is (even still) a little off.
It’s everything a Tower Defense shouldn’t start with: there are so few enemies, there’s an alienating control scheme, and in effect you will solve your problems by marching up to the enemies, clicking on them a dozen times, and then collecting the money they drop to build more towers. Except, oh wait, you can only hold 40 mana, and each time you beat a level you’ll get about 200. You will proceed with busywork: collect 40 mana, run back to build another tower, collect 40 more mana, build another one, and do it three more times. After the 30 minutes it takes to beat the level, you’ll probably have given up.
The question on everyone’s lips is “Why not play multiplayer, which the game is obviously balanced for?” Because that’s lazy. I’m an asocial bastard who doesn’t want a microphone, who doesn’t want to play multiplayer, cooperative or no. I want to do things myself, because I don’t want to have to deal with other people. If a game offers me a single player mode, I will take it. Dungeon Defenders offers me one, and that is what I want to play. Every review of the title has said, “This game is a blast multiplayer!” but what about the by yourself game?
Of course, Dungeon Defenders, by the end, made me want to play multiplayer. That’s Dungeon Defenders’ greatest trick: it loads the crap at the front. The first level is absolutely miserable, and the second level is a bit of a difficulty spike (even if you switch down to easy) because it wants to introduce you to the massive powerful enemy types you’ll later laugh at. But once you get past that second level, let me tell you: it becomes the sort of compulsive treadmill coupled with sticky frictions that Diablo 2 gave us.
The way Dungeon Defenders manages this is by introducing item evolution into a tower defense. Let me explain. You equip your character with all sorts of nonsense items: “Torn Unlucky Chain Shirt Level 1” or “Worn Academic Wizard’s Stick Level 1”. Each level you get mana from killing enemies and even more items which you can convert into mana, and you use this resource to make these things higher level. Each piece of gear has a number of stats, and every time you spend resources to level it up you can pick one of these to raise. This leads to enormous possibilities. Find a hat with twelve levels of possible progression and an initial two points in character speed, spend a few thousand mana, and boom! You’re significantly faster.
God this is a wonderful mechanic. The game’s leveling system is spot on: there are pretty major diminishing returns as you push your eight stats and two skills into the twenties and thirties, so you’re encouraged to level up pretty across the board (helps that every stat is immediately and plainly useful), but then you craft items, weapons, and familiars to make yourself a specialized badass.
The game itself plays well, too, once you get past the initial stages’ tedium. Enemies come at you thick and fast with a smart difficulty curve (at least on easy and medium; I’m nowhere near hardcore enough to go for the highest levels) so that you constantly feel overwhelmed but never enough so that a fight feels hopeless. The levels, too, become quickly more complicated, with multiple points to defend, tons of winding paths, and dozens of choke points to suss out. They all feel like they have multiple solutions, too. Sure there’s probably an optimal build for each level, but each character could deal with them differently. And with multiple people, it feels like you can face that highest difficulty level.
It’s varied, too. Each player character gets five different types of towers and two different skills, and in practice they do not play the same. The Apprentice, who I’ve played the bulk of my time as, is the most traditional, building towers and blockades and defending key choke points. The Squire does very similarly but focuses his damage into terribly efficient stabby blockades. The Huntress sets traps, and playing her must, I imagine, be similar to the recent reviewed Orcs Must Die. The Monk, on the other hand, is a purely support class who I could not possibly manage as single player, but whose towers look really wacky when playing with others.
Dungeon Defenders itself is a terribly odd game. It front loads the crap, and it expects you to stick it out to find the incredible treadmill behind it. It’s one of those games a lot of people won’t stick out because it’s just no fun in the early going, but it’s a game a lot of other people will because it’s a title you could play for hours and hours and completely forget the outside world. It’s wonderfully cruel in that regard, and I have to laud it for being near great because of it.