Cubemen mostly succeeds with new take on tower defense

Cubemen’s aggressively simple design combined with clever manipulations of traditional genre mechanics creates a play that is fun, but slightly too long.

Time played: 5.2 hours
Achievements Unlocked: 25/44 (56%)
Price: $4.99 (Currently $1.99 on Steam)
Developer: Three Sprockets
Platform played on: PC
Also available on: iOS and OSX

The game presents the player with three game types. Each revolves around a variety of three-dimensional levels, two or more spawn points, and the titular cubemen, voxel-style humanoids with access to a variety of weapons and color coding.

Units within the game are split between two classes. The first are your soldiers, units purchased with the game’s currency that fall into the standard Tower Defense types, including slowing units, morters, flamethrowers and the rest. The second type is spawned cubemen, who enemy spawn points build automatically in the Defense gametype and build out of both sides’ spawns in Skirmish and Mayhem modes.

Cubemen skirmishing in a top-down view

A top-down look at Cubemen's skirmish mode.

Skirmish is a two-way battle in which both you and the enemy auto-spawn cubemen and must build soldiers to support their attack on the other player’s spawn point. Mayhem is much the same, only with more than two players and teams. The player has no control over the auto-spawned units.

Here is where Cubemen differentiates from the standard tower defense model. In your average TD game, you drop towers on the map and that’s where they stay. In Cubemen players can spawn soldiers and then move them around continually. An especially useful convention for those maps with multiple enemy spawn points, as it allows the player to alter their defense, depending on where the enemy is coming from.

The other major difference comes in how the units interact. In most tower defense games, your defensive units are either shooting down from the walls or used to block and reroute the enemy’s path. In Cubemen the enemy can walk right past your units and not all levels provide a convenient out-of-the-way perch.

In the early part of the levels, there is a charm to this mechanic. It gives the game a greater ebb and flow than standard TD because there is less risk in expanding and contracting your defense. This type of action is especially important because there are no upgrades available for soldiers, you can only spawn more and different types.

The movement also creates that enjoyable panic that comes from sending your units chasing after the enemy.

Fiero in tower defense games comes from the art of creating the perfect killbox. They are addictive because it’s all about building a deadly machine whose components are your defensive units. The best RTS games are about build-trees, unit mixes and strategic implementation. Cubemen takes components from both but misses out on important elements.

Because many maps lack the ability to create a literal killbox, where you can fire down on units from all sides Cubemen trades one of TD’s significant tactical layers to push players into greater movement of their units on the map.

The RTS influence, movement and more frequent unit building, eliminates real unit balance. Lower level units rapidly become a burden if they survive, having to be moved out of valuable territory, and there’s no reason to build more. Higher expense units Lazlo the laser soldier and Sid the sniper are really upgraded versions of the first peashooter as stand-alone units. They aren’t worth the additional expense because they don’t introduce unique enough mechanics. Instead, I won games bassed on the number of rocket soldiers I built.

Cubemen's Ricky the rocket soldier, hard at work.

In this Skirmish map, Ricky's placement means his powerful rockets can reach every corner of the map.

Because there’s no upgrading, rocket soldiers come out of the box with weaponry that seeks out enemy units, deals significant damage and has a good range. For the cost the result is overpowered. By the last fourth of the game, there’s no reason to build anything but rockets and the occasional healer.

The balance issue compounds in the Skirmish and Mayhem game modes, where the player can face AI or other humans in real-time.

Both limit the positions you can place your soldiers and the fun is in the race to lay down the right units and properly control the map. The games boil down to who can build flamethrower units to get to rocket soldiers the fastest and position both unit types correctly on the multi-level terrain. It isn’t necessarily a problem, except that control occurs too early. There’s usually another fourth of the level left by the time victory is irrevocable. Past this point in AI games you can’t speed up fast enough and against humans you can’t speed up at all.

Most of every Cubemen level is a mix of building units to trump other units and territory control. By combining this with the ability to reposition units based on the threat you are facing, Cubemen is highly engaging and quite fun.

The real shame is that it can’t maintain that engagement throughout play. The end of each game gets boring and frustrating against other human players without something to continue ramping up the action. Cubemen needs more attack mechanics, shorter levels, heavier spawned cubemen, cheaper upper-level soldiers or some combination of the above.

Cubemen is fun to play. It is one of those games that I’ll keep in my downloaded library to constantly revisit or fiddle with on my laptop. The new approach to TD is refreshing, but it isn’t as addicting as standard TD because, past a certain point, it simply stops raising the stakes.

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