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It’s good to be the king. You get to sleep in under comfy silk sheets while your vassals wake at dawn and go out to till the land. Architects build your towers. Wizards slave over mysterious, glowing artifacts. All the while, your coffers fill with gold.

One day, you’re awoken by one of your purple robed advisers alerting you that a rival lord’s army is at the gates. Such a travesty! Who does he think he is? And why does your adviser sound like a caricature of Sean Connery?

Defenders of Ardania (DoA) for Xbox Live Arcade starts with the player waking to find the enemy at the outskirts. Tower defense battles quickly carry you off into the lands of Majesty, in search of ancient evil, gathering key allies and powers along the way. With effective gameplay twists (yes, there is tower offense), DoA offers a gaming experience that may be rough around the edges, but is thoroughly entertaining.

Defenders of Ardania is a simple and honest game at its heart. It offers up every gameplay aspect right at the start — defense, offense, spells, buff, resource management — and relies on its presentation to wow the player. If we’re being honest, it does wow in many ways.

Defenders of Ardania is downright rich in the gameplay department. While most would say the biggest element is the addition of tower offense, the real bit is the strategy that it affords. With traditional tower defense games, the player’s aim is to set up suicide alleys to catch the enemy horde in crossfire. Other games like Dungeon Defenders try to amp up the action allowing the player to attack, but the crux is still defense. DoA goes far beyond that by allowing the player to send entire armies back at the opposing base, with the caveate that the enemy is also setting up towers to defend itself. The whole thing quickly becomes a complex game of chess.

Real estate plays a big factor as there are only so many places you can put a tower. The game also puts restrictions on placement, allowing players to only place towers closest to the base at first, opening up more spots on the grid as more towers find their way onto the field. Knowing that the enemy can block your suicide alley with one of its own makes the whole affair that much more urgent. A tower arms race ensues.  Layer on top of that waves of warriors, tanks and rogues going back and forth and it’s utter war on screen.

This fantastic arms race can at times become overwhelming. Especially when there is not one, not two, but three enemies to deal with. Imagine setting up a tower while there are four or five popping up around it. Then enemy waves going every which way on different prerogatives. There were several times when this player’s eyes opened wide and an expletive or two echoed throughout the room.

It can be easy to get lost because there is just so much going on. At the same time, no other tower defense game supplies this much action and chaos. It’s a tossup because an argument can be made on artistic merit — battle can be chaotic in real life, and the game evokes something lifelike. One could just as well easily argue that it is poor game design to clutter the screen; it’s just plain ugly. However, what can be said for certain is that multiplayer mode is never a dull moment.

That’s the fault of being a simple and honest game. The ugliness is held up right next to to beauty. DoA definitely has it’s ugly parts about it.

A big low point for Defenders of Ardania is the tutorial. A stop and go affair as most tutorials are, with DoA it can distill the excitement of tower defense / offense because often times it locks down full controls until the player does what the tutorial says. Meanwhile, take enough time and the enemy hordes can be seen sneaking underneath the tutorial text to get a head start on hit points. The truly sad thing is, there is a tutorial element in some form or another for nearly all the levels. Often times, it can just be a simple instruction like “you must destroy the base located here,” but the game never lets you forget it.

The tutorial’s voice acting is another thing all together. That Sean Connery caricature mentioned in the beginning, he’s real; he’s annoying; and he’s with the player every step of the way. It may have been a well thought out device, the adviser serves dual purposes as tutor and the conveyor of story. However, he delivers the message in such a way that the player may want to load him into one of the catapult towers and launch him into the wind. The other characters’ voices don’t fair any better. While voice audio may not be the biggest thing in a tower defense game, make it bad enough and it leaves one wishing they just stuck with silent text.

Despite the sputtering tutorial, as the player progresses into the later stages it can be hard not to appreciate the learning curve and appreciate the tutorial that DoA does offer. There is just so much a player can do in the game, and the controls that enable it all are spot on. Through the D-pad, players can easily cycle through the bevy of options that allow them to set up multiple tower types with upgrades, cast spells, send out countless combinations of army waves, set rally points and bounties — all while managing resources and buffs. This makes for fast action.

Nine times out of ten, fast action, depth of strategy and crisp graphics are enough to look past all the flaws that crop up throughout DoA. It makes for an ultimately positive experience to war against AI and, when you can, a friend. Sure, there are moments when the game herp derps (the voice acting definitely sounds like they were partaking in major derp), but when all the ugly is held up next to all the beauty, DoA‘s beauty wins out in spades.

This review was based on a digital copy of Defenders of Ardania for the Xbox 360.

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