Developer: Trendy Entertainment / Publisher: D3 Publisher / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: 1200 MSP ($15) / ESRB: Everyone 10+ (Alcohol Reference, Fantasy Violence, Animated Blood)
What’s going on here? Two tower defense mash-up games for the Xbox 360 in one month? And they’re both pretty darn good to boot? Coming hot off the heels of Orcs Must Die! is Trendy Entertainment’s Dungeon Defenders, a combination of the tower defense and action RPG genres. With an emphasis on hacking and slashing through foes instead of strategically placing towers, Dungeon Defenders places you in the middle of the action as hordes of enemies storm your castle.
When looking at Dungeon Defenders it’s hard not to compare it to the similar Orcs Must Die!, but the two games are like the two sides of a coin. While Orcs Must Die! has a strong strategy element and more of a focus on placing defensive towers, Dungeon Defenders has a stronger focus on action and cooperative play. There are four character classes to play as in Dungeon Defenders: the Apprentice is a jack-of-all-trades who balances strengths in tower placement and fighting skill; the Squire has more significance placed on fighting than tower placement; the Huntress is a stealthy class that uses poisonous attacks and moves quickly; and the Monk is a healer who can fight and aid teammates. There is a huge emphasis placed on co-op play, so picking the right class to form a formidable team will lead to victory. Your character can level up to level 70, and you’ll gain skill points to use to enhance damage, health, tower strength, and more (think Diablo II). As you slay foes they will drop loot for you to pick up and equip. Finding new weapons, helmets, armor, and boots with slightly better stats will increase your overall strength much as they would in other RPGs. Weapons and armor can also be leveled up and customized by infusing them with mana that you earn from slain enemies. You have a lot of malleability in creating a character just as you want.
Each level can be played either solo or with up to three other players locally or via Xbox Live. Playing solo is a great way to learn the ropes for your character but playing with friends is what the developers had in mind. After an initial set up phase to scope the arena and set up traps and towers the horde will begin its crawl to the Eternia Crystal that you must defend. After you beat the enemies back there is another setup phase followed by another attack phase. Repeat that until you’ve defeated each wave and the accompanying boss monster at the end of the final wave and you’ve beaten the level. Beating a level isn’t easy. You will see many, many defeats before claiming victory, and a lot of that has to do with the nature of the game. If you’re not playing with four players you’re already at a disadvantage as the game doesn’t do a good job of scaling enemies down for solo play. Environments are fairly large with more than enough entry points to defend. Being too low in level can also spell instant defeat as you simply can’t keep up with onslaught of enemies making their way to the Eternia Crystal. Dungeon Defenders trudges heavily in the land of the grind. You’ll kill enemies over and over only to gain a level or two and try again when you’re properly equipped. Be warned: If you don’t like grinding to victory, you won’t like Dungeon Defenders. On top of this the game in incredibly difficult: the default difficulty will kick your ass unless you’re leveled up well. I ran through the game on easy mode and still got my butt handed to me more often than not. This all stems back to the game being a grind more than anything else.
Although Dungeon Defenders boils down to a grind-fest, it’s still fun to play with friends. You can jump in and join a game already in progress to lend your help, or you can set up a custom match to meet specific preferences such as level requirements and which stage to play. The game is easily at its best with four players: not only is dealing with all the enemies much more manageable, but you’ll find better loot and more mana. Certain towers can benefit from being placed near another player’s tower. For example, placing the Squire’s defensive spike wall in front of the Apprentice’s offensive magic missile tower spells doom for most all enemies. You can also heal and upgrade your own towers as well as your allies’ towers. I liked the co-op gameplay a lot: it’s a nice blend of action and strategy in a genre that otherwise wouldn’t have action, strategy, or co-op at all. Dungeon Defenders is a good game to have a group of friends to play with.
The controls are a mishmash of good and bad. Moving around, placing towers, and attacking is fairly simple. Skills like healing yourself and repairing towers are mapped to the D-Pad for quick access so the spotlight stays on the action. An auto-targeting system locks you in to attack the nearest enemy. This is a cumbersome feature as you cannot switch to a different enemy until you either kill the one you’re locked onto or move far enough away. The camera can be controlled manually but it will adjust automatically to try and give the best view on the action, ultimately negating any manual input. The camera will frequently get locked in awkward angles that obscure your eye on the action. Combined with auto-locking, the camera can become a bigger enemy than even the colossal ogres you’ll be fighting. Menus are also needlessly complex. Navigating through inventory, stat, and character screens can give you a headache with all the options, words, and preferences to choose from. Although controlling your character is simple, most everything else will give you trouble.
Analogy time: Dungeon Defenders is to co-op and customization as Orcs Must Die! is to solo play and strategy. The amount of customization in Dungeon Defenders is high: leveling up to 70, increasing stats, and finding and improving weapons allows for the creation of a very refined character. A grueling difficulty and intense grind hamper the otherwise stellar multiplayer experience. Though the underlying action RPG mechanics are well done, constant grinding through improperly balanced levels brings the game down a couple notches.