One criticism of the tower defense genre has always been that the level of passivity involved leads to ‘set it and forget it’ gameplay. Developers have been solving this problem by hybridizing tower defense with more action oriented genres. Orcs Must Die and Sanctum, which fused tower defense with third person hack ‘n slash and first person shooting, are prominent examples of this.

Developer: Most Wanted Entertainment
Publisher: Paradox
ESRB Rating: Teen
Released: March 14, 2012
Platforms: Xbox Live Arcade, Playstation Network, Steam

Defenders of Ardania doesn’t see the need to go that far, opting instead to stick with the genres roots. It doesn’t change the formula dramatically, but it does strive to solve the passivity problem in its own unique way. DoA changes one crucial ingredient: the conditions for winning. Whereas most tower defense games are holdouts against enemies who grow stronger and more numerous with each passing round, DoA gives you not only towers to build, but troops to dispatch and an opponent to overwhelm.

Curiously, players are given a limited number of towers that they can have erected at a given time, and that number varies from map to map. The available towers are meant to counter specific enemy types, all of which are fairly standard as far as the genre goes. There is an AoE tower which counters bunched up units, an anti-air tower for flying units, a tower that specializes in killing slow-moving tank types, towers which encumber quick-moving fragile enemies, and so on.

After the initial phase of tower building, you and your opponent will spend most of the rest of the game throwing combinations of enemy types at each other, hoping to exploit a preparatory weakness. It should be noted that there is also a limit on the number of units you can deploy  at a time, and you are also limited by a pool of resources which slowly replenishes over time.

I found the maximum tower limit jarring at first, but it opens up some surprisingly strategic avenues. Since you cannot completely cover all of your proverbial bases with the limited number of towers at your disposal, you’re forced to tear down buildings and create new ones to close breaches in your defense. A keen-eyed player will see that their opponent is well prepared for flying units and tanks, and send a massive wave of runners to his opponent’s castle. While the opponent reacts by tearing down some of his anti-air, you might re-max your forces with flying units to exploit his reaction. Further strategic and tactical options become available as you unlock spells, economy upgrades, and the ability to upgrade units and build heroes. These ‘aha’ moments are unlike anything I’ve ever experienced within the genre, and the desperate holds when the tables are turned are equally satisfying.

Unfortunately, the game’s campaign spends half its time dragging its feet and failing to translate that feeling. It isn’t until 8 or 9 missions in that it really opens up. In getting you acclimated to the mechanics and controls, it plods along for far too long while teaching you the wrong lessons. Resource supplies never run thin. Too few towers, unit types, upgrades, and spells are available early on to make for fulfilling gameplay or effective learning. What the first half of the game taught me was that I could win by building my towers, not upgrading them, and spamming the starting unit with mindless repetition – and that I could do so with impunity. That should not have been an issue for longer than two missions. The learning stages of the game do not present you with the tools you will need to be familiar with as the game goes on.

By the end of the game the situation turns completely around, and the difficulty spikes dramatically during the final mission. I’m not entirely dissatisfied with how hard the game becomes, but I’m not so pleased with how abruptly it reaches that point.

While on the topic of difficulty and defeat, I also have to take issue with the many missions that appoint you an AI teammate. During these missions, failure is contingent upon both your ability and the ability of your ally. The problem comes in when the AI begins to make bewildering decisions. For instance, during one attempt at a 2v2 mission late in the game my ally walled off a well defended path which caused attacking enemies to take a back-door through an indefensible route. My teammate was subsequently destroyed and I failed the mission.

This might not be as much of an issue if you play the missions in multiplayer mode, but I, and many others, have been unable to play the multiplayer. So I will simply note that all of the available multiplayer modes come standard in the campaign – free for all, 2v2, and a team version of survival mode (a traditional tower defense mode).

Pacing is also an issue despite the fact that you can double the game speed at the press of a button. Traditional tower defenses can be long and tedious, but it’s at least easy to approximate the amount of time a game will take given the size of the map and how many unit waves are inbound. The same can’t be said for DoA. Matches can be quick and decisive, or plod along for what feels like hours with little progress being made on either side. This is because adequate well-rounded defense can blunt a great deal of pressure until a weakness is exposed, and once that weakness is exposed, swift reactions can effectively mitigate aggression. The matter is further compounded by the fact that both players have access to a spell which heals a significant amount of health on their already overly sturdy castles. When upgraded, this spell is available every 4 minutes. Without a particularly sharp eye for weakness on the bigger, more defensible maps, matches can drag on with no end in sight.

By fundamentally changing the goal of tower defense, DoA takes some bold risks. This design shift is refreshing, but solves fewer problems with the genre than it creates. It is a concept that may only need its implementation refined, but it’s hard to make that judgment based on this one game. Bold does not always mean successful, and that is certainly the case here.

5.5 / 10

2 thoughts on “Review: Defenders of Ardania

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