|Genre: Strategy & War|
|Min OS X: 10.6|
Mac OS X: 10.6 | Other: Adobe AIR (included with installer)
"I never asked for this…"
All the way back in January 2012, the indie development studio Level Up Labs announced the release of its debut title, Defender's Quest: Valley of the Forgotten. Eagerly and enthusiastically covered by some gaming blogs such as Rock Paper Shotgun, the game made a decently-sized splash among the indie scene of 2012, and quickly garnered for itself a very devoted and loyal fanbase; the attentiveness, approachability, and community-friendly stance of sole developer Lars Doucet certainly helped too. Yet, among a lot of gamers, the game's release elicited a yawn; unlike other standouts in the indie crowd, Defender's Quest looked at first glance like just another Tower Defense game, set in the same pseudo-medieval fantasy setting. With games like Sanctum and Anomaly: Warzone Earth already successfully having rethought and recasted the traditional Tower Defense model in creative and powerful ways, did the world really need yet *another* Tower Defense game? A certain venerable (and quite rightly well-respected) member of the Inside Mac Games forums had this to say about the release of Defender's Quest: "..aaaaand that's where I stopped reading. :glare: Tower Defense games appear to be this day's match-3 games or WWII shooters: a thoroughly overused genre." – and of course, s/he was right. In an App Store world, where imitation is more than just the sincerest form of flattery, the release of another Tower Defense game seemed like just another validation of a development model for software that stifled and discouraged creativity in pursuit of the almighty dollar. Like Call of Duty, or Battlefield, Tower Defense had graduated from being a clever and engaging subgenre of strategy gaming into a tired, exhausted cliché.
All of the familiar tropes of a classic, and arguably now-boring, bog-standard Tower Defense game are here in Defender's Quest, comforting and familiar to the casual player like so much vanilla ice cream: there is a path between A, and B; enemies will appear at point B, and generally want to travel to point A to hand you a very bad day. You cannot change that, but what you can change is the positioning of various turrets to try to stop said enemies, with all manner of weapons and special abilities. Killing the enemies during the various rounds, interspersed by the obligatory "boss battle", gives you varying amounts of in-game currency, which you can use to upgrade your turrets between missions – and that's where I'll stop before I put everyone reading this article into a comatose stupor worthy of a Gil Amelio keynote speech.
Yet miraculously, these mechanics all, bewilderingly add up to a fun and engaging experience in Defender's Quest, and it works very, very well. Where FTL succeeded in remixing the elements of its genre into something very different (and yet quite the same), Defender's Quest succeeds through its creative presentation. If FTL served you vanilla ice cream, it would be stuffed into a blender with all of your favourite treats from your youth, melded together in a delicious smoothie. Defender's Quest on the other hand, serves you your vanilla in a fabulous ice cream cake. In back of your mind, you still know it's still ice cream, even though it looks very different. The heroine of Defender's Quest is Azra, a young woman who finds herself in a place called "The Pit", an extensive low lying area of her world that's been used as a semi-successful quarantine ward. It's intended to keep people safe from a horrible plague that has ravaged the land, turning people into various stages of undead monsters (yes, you're allowed to call them zombies). Like any plague though, people have survived to gain immunity from the plague's effects, but since the inhabitants of Azra's kingdom haven't yet discovered the wonders of modern epidemiology and pathology, survivors are greeted more with a face full of arrows from the guards, rather than a blanket, a hug, and a bowl of chicken soup. Across the game's extensive amount of levels, Azra tries to find a way to lead the plague survivors – and herself – out of The Pit, and into freedom at last. Of course, she'll do so once she deals with the minor problem of getting rid of everyone else in her way who *didn't* survive the plague.
This is one of the first points where Defender's Quest succeeds as a game - it recontextualizes all of the elements of a traditional Tower Defense game in such a way that they effectively serve the narrative; the game mechanic both serves and scaffolds the front and center establishment of the gameplay, as opposed to being an arbitrary mechanic onto which a game has been grafted. Here, the monsters appear to follow a set, predetermined path because they exist within an alternative realm between life and death, a place where coincidentally, Azra can actually fight them. However, lacking any combat skills of her own, she can summon the other survivors that she meets throughout the course of the game to fight for – and eventually with – her. Here, the towers are more than just inanimate artillery pieces or faceless structures, but actual characters that have importance to the plot; you even see the development of relationships and character arcs among them and with Azra which lead to implications further down the road in terms of gameplay and plot development.
The characters are of course, the tried-and-true archetypes of fantasy RPGs; the Conan-esque Berzerkers, who almost look like pixellated cousins of the illustrious units from Myth II which share their name, the bow-wielding Aragorn-esque Rangers, and the somewhat Gandolf-ian Healers, among many others. Meanwhile, Knights serve as your anti-armor units, and the Ice Mages are the area-of-effect magic damage specialists. You can buy more of any of these classes to join you (up to a limit of six per class), forming a band which at first may look like a ragtag party right out of an old D&D adventure. Eventually, as you gain more scrap to pay for additional units, your party will end up looking more like a well-trained army, but lest you use your Legion to roll over every battle in the map, the cost of hiring successive characters increases significantly as your party grows. Again, these characters are more than just towers to be shuffled around; the game does its best to cast them as living people in your game, with an organic method of progression. Apart from the usual upgrades to range and damage that you can give while in combat, your characters also gain experience, which can be put into enhancing their skills between battles. Each class has a rich skill tree, with a varying amount of both active and passive skills that unlock new attacks, new Defenses, and specific bonuses and/or abilities, like being able to penetrate armor or attack "cloaked" enemies. Characters can also deal out persistent damage through abilities like Poison Shot for Rangers, or Bleed. In addition to their abilities, you can also upgrade their equipment as well; loot drops from battles and weapons and armor from vendors can make a huge difference in battle, giving you a decisive edge at both higher difficulty levels and in later battles. On top of all of that is the ability to actually fine-tune the attack AI of your characters, allowing you to prioritize targets at key junctures.