Review: Dungeon Defenders

I love tower defense games. I’m not always great at them, but I love them. The last good tower defense game I’ve played, however, was Plants vs. Zombies. I wasn’t sure if that was because I hadn’t heard of any games since then or that there just weren’t any good games coming out. That was when I was given Dungeon Defenders as a gift on Steam during one of their famous sales. It looked interesting, to say the least: cartoony-looking characters, including a squire with heart-patterned underpants and no lower armor; gigantic crystals to defend; hordes of enemies; and epic music seemed to combine into an intense role-playing game. But looks can be deceiving, I told myself, so I loaded the game. I was pleasantly surprised with what I found.

Dungeon Defenders
Systems: PC (reviewed), PS3, Xbox 360, Android, iOS
Developer: Trendy Entertainment
Publisher: Reverb Publishing
Release Date: October 19, 2011
MSRP: $14.99 on Steam

A long time ago, a land called Etheria was protected by four champions who locked away the power of evil, immortal beings called Old Ones in Eternia Crystals, after a long and epic struggle. These champions have recently gone on an adventure and left their kin in charge of taking care of the castle. These children, bored with their chores, were playing when they accidentally broke one of these Crystals, unleashing the Old Ones. Now, without the guidance or protection of their parents, they must protect their home using everything they’ve learned.

In the game, you choose to be one of four classes: Monk, Squire, Apprentice, and Huntress. The Monk battles with a spear or sword and uses auras to inhibit the enemies. The Squire uses a sword to attack enemies, turrets, and blockades to defend your Eternia Crystals from being destroyed. The Apprentice uses staves and magic and his towers to attack enemies from a distance. The Huntress uses a crossbow for a weapon and deploys traps for the enemies to be ensnared. There is a DLC pack that allows you to play gender-reversed characters as well (e.g. an Adept, which is a female Apprentice; or a Ranger, the male version of a Huntress). The weapons can be upgraded via the forge. Like most tower defense games, you have a build stage where you set up your towers, traps, auras, and blockades; and an action stage which tests your defense building’s ability to help you fight off the bad guys before they get to your Eternia Crystal(s) and destroy it/them.

"In the wake of this struggle, the champions locked away the power of the Old Ones inside the Eternia Crystals..."

Between battles, you go to your tavern, which has a shop where you can buy and sell your items. It also has a forge where you can trade out and upgrade gear. This is used as a meeting place when you’re waiting for friends to show up. Any gifts you get from the game will be here as well; e.g. on Christmas, they have presents full of mana under the tree. Mana can be used as currency for buying items. As a side note, I also noticed some menorahs as decorations, which pleased me greatly as I feel other important holidays get obscured by Christmas. After you beat the story mode, you’re in for a surprise if you feel like exploring the tavern a bit more.

I must say the graphics and music for this game are impressive. The character design is charming, to say the least, and the level design is very nice. Everything has a childlike wonder to it. The music doesn’t get repetitive, though a few of the character grunts are a bit weird-sounding. I really have no complaints about how everything looks and feels. It’s smooth, vibrant, and eye-catching; and the control you have over how your characters look is decent. I was able to make an Adept that looked like Mia from Golden Sun with little effort. The music is appropriate for the battles you’re entering into; they’re fast-paced, moving, and make you feel epic as you’re demolishing those Old Ones.

The game itself doesn’t have too steep of a  learning curve, which is good because the tutorial isn’t terribly helpful. There are hot keys you can use, and they’re rebindable for those who like to use them. You have the option of building “towers” (I use that term loosely because only the Apprentice has anything that remotely resembles a tower) to aid you in defeating enemies. You can even get pets, known as familiars, who help you in fighting off baddies and can be upgraded; and they include some based off characters from other games that you might own, like Team Fortress 2 or Portal. I didn’t have any problem learning how to play the game, but it helps to have someone who has already played through to lead you through the first few levels while you figure out how everything works.

The menus take some getting used to, and it can be difficult to control the characters at times, however. A couple of times, I fell into lava because I tried to jump over my towers since you can’t walk through them. The camera angle can also be a bit awkward, as you have this kind of bird’s eye view of your player and have to drag your mouse to the left or right side of the screen in order to turn. There are other camera angles available, but none of them are really satisfying. This doesn’t render the game unplayable by any means, but it can be annoying.

One of my favorite aspects about this game is that it actually gets harder as you go on. As the levels progress, things grow more complicated: maps include more entrances for bad guys and Eternia Crystals to defend; wyverns who are able to fly over most towers; ogres who can smash harder than several enemies combined; and kobolds that basically act as kamikazes who ram into you and your towers with dynamite attached to their backs. The game also becomes more difficult as players are added because the number of enemies you go against increases quite a bit. This forces players to talk to one another and let each other know when they’re in trouble. It also requires cooperation because there are a couple of different ways to beat each level. You can put everything into towers and just sit by the Eternia Crystal(s) and relax or focus on upgrading those towers, or you can get in on the action and fight off bad guys at the same time. As the game progresses, you’ll be able to hold more mana, which allows you to build a wider variety of towers. You’ll have to be careful, though, because each tower takes up a certain number of defense units, and you have a limited number of units you can use. If you’re playing with other people, you’ll have to talk about what you’re building and where, and you’ll have to talk about which towers can be destroyed if they’re needed later on in each level. You might also need to talk about who gets what loot as not every item that drops will be relevant to your class.

Speaking of multiplayer aspects, it’s difficult to get past the second level of story mode by yourself, so the game actually really encourages that you play with other people. This is both a pro, because there really aren’t that many good multiplayer tower defense games out there; and a con, as sometimes you’re probably not going to want to play with other people. If that’s the case, you’re in for an uphill struggle because the second level is nearly impossible to beat by yourself unless you do some serious grinding. In fact, I was quite relieved when my friends wanted to play and show me the ropes as I couldn’t figure out how to beat that level and still haven’t been able to grind enough to make it possible for me to do so. Most of my experience has been co-op, which I think is what the developers intended.

You can play Dungeon Defenders locally or online. As far as online play goes, you can play on either ranked or open servers. The ranked servers are moderated while the open servers are basically anything goes, including mods. You can choose to host a private game or to join in on public games. Online play for this game is just like the online play for any other game: you’ll get some really cool people, especially if you play with friends, and you’ll run into some asshats. You’ll also run into occasional server crashes, though I’m not sure if that’s on Steam or Dungeon Defenders. Keep in mind that you can’t use characters across modes; that is, you can’t use a local character in either open or ranked servers, or vice versa. From what I’ve been told, this is because of hacked items and mods and wanting to separate the modes. I understand this and agree with the move completely, but I didn’t realize that my local player wouldn’t transfer over to the ranked servers. It wasn’t a big deal at all in the end, but it could have been made more clear.

If you get tired of playing the story mode, you can always up the intensity. You can play on easy, normal, hard, intense, or NIGHTMARE. If that’s not enough for you, there are also several challenges that are available, and the list is updated often. For example, you might need to help deliver Santa’s presents by defending the Christmas tree with towers as you find the presents and drop them off at the tree. Some are free and some are paid DLC. The holiday packs are often about $3 while packs of multiple challenges are usually around $13. I’d recommend only buying the paid DLC if you’re really interested in doing them.

There are some really good meme references and Easter eggs in the game. For instance, the Apprentice’s description begins with, “Donning his robe and wizard hat,” a 2002 reference to an old cybersex meme, which led me to name my Apprentice Eminem. If you find Trendy Entertainment’s secret room, you also see posters that are references to other games and movies. You can also find your parents’ weapons, though that seems odd to me since by then you’re a) too strong for them, and b) they’re where they are when your parents are supposed to be off on an adventure. I mean, you’d think they’d bring their weapons with them.

I also have to hand it to the developers to allow for user mods. This opens up the game’s potential so much, especially since the mods can actually focus on expanding the game, instead of fixing bugs like some other games that have been released this year. Some mods that I’ve found but haven’t tested out so far do things like enable the Eternia Crystals to attack, give the Apprentice an autofire option, increase the level cap (currently at 70), and add more weapons and maps.

For $15, this game is worth every penny—and in a sense, I feel like perhaps the developers are ripping themselves off. The DLC is worth getting when the game gets a bit stale. Considering how cheap the game is, I wouldn’t feel too bad about getting the paid stuff. This is definitely one of the better games I’ve played this year.

PROS
* Pretty graphics
* Good music
* Easy to learn
* Game actually gets harder as you go on
* Multiple ways to beat levels
* Variety of map types
* Great multiplayer
* Several play modes
* Decent achievements
* Cute meme references/Easter eggs
* Supports user mods

CONS
* Awkward camera angles at times
* Unruly movements
* Occasional server crashes
* Menus can get confusing
* Grinding necessary for solo offline play
* Offline and online characters aren’t linked

FINAL SCORE: B+

Disclosure: This game was not sent by Trendy Entertainment. At the time of writing, the reviewer had completed the main storyline in 10 hours, achieved a level of 34 and completed 8/63 achievements. The reviewer was currently working on post-game content. All screenshots were taken on the reviewer’s laptop and not her desktop computer.

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