This review of Dungeon Defenders must begin with a short study of M. Night Shyamalan’s film, Lady In The Water. It’s a worthy comparison in its own way. Both game and film feature casts of characters who must defend their precious jewels from evil (in the film it’s a lady and in the game it’s an actual jewel).
One character in Shyamalan’s film also serves as a metaphor for the game as a whole. It’s Reggie the Guardian, that guy with one super buff arm and one regular arm. Translate that into Dungeon Defenders; from one side it seems to have true strength as a co-op RPG. Take a look from another angle, and it’s a rather bland tower defense title.
By looks alone Dungeon Defenders is bound to catch people’s interests and hold them for a good time. Graphically, the game delivers sharp, 3D cell shaded characters with smooth animation, who can be customized leveraging a wide color palate. The environments are also highly detailed — one can really get a sense of the grittiness of each stone on the castle wall, the inherent magic of glowing crystals, etc. It is apparent that Trendy Entertainment makes good use of the Unreal Engine in this regard.
If the game were to fall short presentation wise, it would be for the simple fact that it is full of completely worn fantasy tropes. The Squire (knight), Huntress (elf), Apprentice (wizard) and Monk (okay, wizard again) are not breaking away from convention. No matter how much one customizes their outward appearance or how wacky their names (and no matter that Trendy chose to render them as cute yet vicious children) they are just the same old characters with predictable abilities.
The environments fair no better. Triteness can be found in the snowy castle, the fiery forge, the cellar, etc. for a total of 13 levels. Then again, what is there to expect from a game with “dungeon” in its title? Dungeons are dungeons. At least, in this game, they are well designed and make for compelling strategy from a tower defense perspective.
A big part of what makes Dungeon Defenders fun is that, unlike other tower defense games, it challenges the player to strategize on multiple levels. Traditionally, the map is the player’s best friend. It is critical to have that bird’s eye view to determine the various choke points where you can catch baddies in crossfire, the places where you want to divert the flood of enemies. That’s only the beginning with this game.
Each round in Dungeon Defenders is broken up into a Build phase and Battle phase. This introduces the next level of strategy. During Build, the action is essentially paused, giving the player unlimited time to determine whether defense or offense is the best approach. The choices are really diverse since the game also allows you to cycle between characters and take advantage of their respective arsenals, accommodating any play style.
Examples — for those who like to hang back, it may be best to set up the Squire’s spiked barricades, with the Apprentice’s magic fireballs and the Monk’s lighting aura traps. Then, in Battle you can use the Huntress and her crossbow, dispatching enemies from afar while they spend their time trying to break down defenses. For the more adventurous, it may be fun to set up the Apprentice’s towers, Huntress’s mines and gas bombs and the Monk’s slow aura trap. Then, go gung ho with the Squire swinging his two sided broadsword in the midst of explosions and debris.
Dungeon Defenders offers a robust RPG experience on top of this all, making for the last level of strategy — character progression. Whereas Build phase allows switching between characters, only one can be used in Battle. Essentially, the game forces the player to think about which character she wants to level up since XP is rewarded only to the one used for finishing off the stage. The more a character is leveled up, the stronger her towers, traps and walls are. So, depending on play style once again, it will behoove you to favor certain characters, leveling up certain abilities at the expense of others.
There is also plenty of loot to be had. From more jewel resources to weapon upgrades to pets that augment the character’s stats and/or attack enemies, vanquishing the evil horde offers more reward than just satisfaction. Albeit, sometimes navigating the RPG portion of Dungeon Defenders screws with pacing.
Having a Build phase for the player to architect the perfect playhouse of death already brings the game to a halt. Having to cycle through menus, sort through items, sell items, lock certain ones, bank jewels, upgrade stats and so on, one can run out of breath. It doesn’t help that in the beginning characters are relatively slow as well. Sometimes it can feel like an eternity to travel from point A to point B just to set up a single tower or to repair a wall. Even when speed stats are accounted for, it is just hard not to yawn when traversing the map.
Another frustration comes from the fact that Dungeon Defenders favors co-op to the point that it marginalizes those who like to play solo. The game doesn’t scale, so the same amount of enemies that four players would experience is the same amount single players experience. In other words, if you play by yourself, you die. There may be a chance to survive solo on easy difficulty, but, who wants to be stuck playing on easy?
The game has a penchant for randomizing bosses, hammering this frustration deeper. The scenario happens something like this: you’ve managed to get to level X on your own (quite a feat!). You’ve gotten to the last stage of the level, and it seems like you’ll pwn this thing. Then the words pop on screen “an ogre has appeared”; that’s enough for a rage quit because that green behemoth has thousands and thousands in health points and the rest of the horde has broken through. Expect this to happen a lot; and if you’re not playing with three others, it’s a hopeless enterprise.
Pulling from the Reggie the Guardian metaphor from the beginning of this review, the game is strangely imbalanced, because the co-op side of things is great. Strategy takes on a whole new dimension when others are involved, and you feel the camaraderie in teamwork when taking down hordes of foes, including the seemingly juggernaut ogre. It has to be said that Trendy Entertainment had sought to build a co-op focused game early on, and they achieved their goal, even though the final product has one super buff arm and one mediocre arm.