Start with a fairly typical fantasy setting where swords, bows and magic are the weapons of choice. Add in tower defense gameplay. Now, work in third-person combat so you’re able to directly swing a sword or cast spells at your incoming enemies. Throw in multiple classes with their own distinct looks and upgrade paths to spend experience on, co-op gameplay with up to four players as well as ranked servers, and randomized loot you can either equip or sell/trade. Now, put all of this into a very pretty, smoothly-rendered world replete with detail. If this excites you – if this sounds like the sort of game you would pounce on if it was available on Steam for $15 at launch – then I strongly suggest reading on, because Dungeon Defenders is the game you’ve been waiting for.
Let’s start with the story. In the land of Etheria, a group of heroes managed to prevail in their struggle against a great evil known as the Old Ones, locking their power into an assortment of Etheria crystals. While these heroes are away from their homes to take care of important but unexplained business, their children are left behind to tend to the otherwise mundane chores that come with castle upkeep. These children – essentially cute mini-versions of the aforementioned heroes – end up accidentally unleashing an evil assault onto the aforementioned crystals and now find themselves having to defend the crystals from increasingly deadly swarms of goblins, dark elves and more. And since the crystals are being kept in dungeons… you have Dungeon Defenders.
I probably don’t have to tell you that the story is not terribly unique – Etheria sounds like the answer to the question, “What’s the most generic fantasy world name you can think of?” – but I want to emphasize the skill of execution here. While the starting story may be serviceable but plain, the setting and the feel the game conveys is charming. It’s a light and cheerful story accompanied with narration by an appropriately “wise old sage” sounding gentleman, illustrated with some pretty drawings of the world and the characters involved. While the plot won’t be what drives one to play this game – and frankly, it doesn’t have to – it also doesn’t get in the way of enjoying what else Dungeon Defenders has to offer.
Speaking of what Dungeon Defenders offers, let’s talk about the graphics. If you’re a Torchlight or even Borderlands fan, then the graphical style should seem very familiar to you – the whole game manages to find a very comfortable halfway point between fantasy and cartoony. Everything is very bright and colorful and sparkly and… let’s just go ahead and sum it up with the word “vivid”. The good kind of vivid, where there’s so much color and detail on your screen at once – especially during more hectic moments in missions – that you can’t help but feel excited. “Look at all this SPARKLING and BRIGHT LIGHTS and MOTION, something amazing must be going on!” That’s the unspoken thought you’ll have in the back of your mind when playing this game.
Not only are the graphics very polished, but they’re also diverse. There are over ten different maps to play on with this initial release of Dungeon Defenders and a variety of different creatures you’ll be facing. In addition, the game lets you customize the color scheme of your chosen defender as well as the Etheria crystal you’ll be defending – so even if you play a game with someone of the same class as you, that doesn’t mean you’ll both be forced to look exactly alike. The important take-away point from this commentary on the graphics: They’re cartoony, very well-polished and pleasantly diverse enough to keep each stage feeling fresh and alive.
The audio is also above average. As usual, there’s only so much that can be said here – this review isn’t being written by an audiophile – but what I can say about Dungeon Defenders on this front is all positive. The soundtrack is appropriately driven and epic, considering that this is a game where you face off against enemies by the dozen – it does a fine job of setting the mood and playing off the excitement the gameplay delivers. The sound effects fit the actions and events they’re matched with, complete with the usual assortment of weapon-swinging “swishes” and tower-shooting “pews” you’d expect. Perhaps the best way to describe the music and sound effects alike in this game are that they keep you focused on the action.
And what about that action? This is where Dungeon Defenders really shines as the latest (on the PC, anyway) entrant into an increasingly popular game genre: Co-op action tower defense. Now, I have a particular weakness for any game which allows online co-op versus hordes of enemies – Killing Floor, the Left 4 Dead series, and (though it’s closer to League of Legends style gameplay) Monday Night Combat being good recent examples. But in case you’re not familiar with this proto-genre of game – or with the Tower Defense concept in general – I’ll run over the fundamentals for you, at least as they appear in Dungeon Defenders.
You and any co-op partners you’re playing with are placed on a map. Your primary objectives are to defend a particular point of interest on the map – the Etheria crystal, in this case – and to kill any and all enemies who appear. Enemies who get close to the Etheria crystal will start to attack it, and if the crystal takes enough damage to be destroyed, you lose. There are multiple entrances enemies can appear from and at the start of any level you’ll be informed how many enemies will be appearing from which door. In addition to simply hitting these enemies with your weapons and spells, you also place objects – towers – in the likely path of the invading enemies. For instance, you can throw down barricades the enemies will have to beat down in order to advance further, or put up electrical fields that will damage enemies as they walk through it. Since literally dozens of orcs, goblins and more can be marching on your crystal from a variety of directions at once, these towers are essential to hold back what can be a frenzied assault. To make matters more complicated, these towers cost mana to build – which you gain by defeating monsters, and in turn creates a fun if sometimes demanding cycle.
Dungeon Defenders adds its own layers to this genre. As mentioned, there are multiple classes you can start off as: The melee-centric squire, the dps-heavy mage’s appentice, the support/healing hybrid fledgling monk, and the trap-using, ranged-combat huntress. The class you pick determines what sort of towers you can erect in defense of the Etheria crystals along with what sort of direct combat abilities you’ll be using, with each class having their own particular emphasis towards damage, healing, or support. Not all of these abilities are available immediately either – instead you gain experience as you successfully slaughter invaders and survive assaults, which in turn allows you to level up and spend your points increasing your statistics. Each character can reach up to level 70 with 10 skills (4 character-related, 4 tower related, 2 “special ability” related) to invest points into.
Leveling up and customizing a character is great fun, and really adds to the game – few things convey a feeling of accomplishment like ending a challenge more powerful than you were when you began it. But Dungeon Defenders adds in the essential gaming addiction that has been missing – loot. During your defense of the dungeons, you’ll come across helms, chestpieces, gloves, boots and weapons to equip your chosen defender with. This equipment offers another way to increase your character’s statistics, and is largely randomized – which means that each time a piece of loot is dropped, you’ll want to compare the statistics to whatever you’re currently wearing and see what’s better. The game makes decisions a bit easier in the form of a tooltip which automatically compares new loot with the equipment you’re wearing, giving a green thumbs up if the new loot is better or a red thumbs down if the new loot is worse. If the tip doesn’t fill you with confidence, you can always store the loot in an item box for later perusal, or to sell it for mana or trade it to another player. In addition to this equipment, you also are able to acquire a variety of familiars – pets, essentially – which have some limited ability to level up, and can enhance your character depending on the particular familiar you’ve chosen.
Looking back on what I’ve described, I think it’s clear that Dungeon Defenders already offers quite a lot to the player. But there’s still more to speak of. As you defeat enemies, you’ll acquire mana. This serves not only as an in-game resource which you’ll use to cast spells or set up towers, but also as currency. In between games you can visit a tavern whose owner acts as a shopkeeper for the Dungeon Defenders world. There you can spend any mana you’ve accumulated on weapons, armor, pets or services. Each of the first three categories will offer three random purchase possibilities, which will randomize again after the successful completion of any mission. The last are a trio of always-offered (if very mana-expensive) options to give your character a temporary experience boost, to reset and reallocate your skill points or to change the name of your character. The Tavern also serves as an interactive replacement for a game lobby, in those situations where you want to wait around for your fellow players to arrive for some cooperative dungeon defending.
Cooperative play comes in a variety of forms for Dungeon Defender. Surprisingly, the game offers split-screen local multiplayer for up to four players – common on the consoles, perhaps, but a rare sight on the PC. In addition, there are two options for online multiplayer: “Open” multiplayer, and ranked play on the TrendyNet servers. Open servers allow the use of your local-created characters in multiplayer, along with support for user-created mod content. In comparison, the ranked servers require you to play online-only characters – which ensures (or at least tries to ensure) that everyone is playing their characters fairly and without exploits. Great for those of you who want to be sure that the players you’re cooperating with have leveled their characters legitimately and will be playing the game in an officially sanctioned way – or who want to take part in the Trendynet-sponsored events offered for Dungeon Defenders.
By the way, you’ve probably noticed I mentioned mods in that last paragraph. That’s no accident: Dungeon Defenders supports user-created mods, and apparently the devs are doing their best to open their game up to the modding community. This has the potential to take a game which already has some amazing long-term appeal and sweeten the deal all the more – and is a gutsy move in an age where free user-created mods more and more threaten to look like competitors to DLC. Not that there isn’t DLC planned for Dungeon Keepers – there’s a prominently placed “Download Content” button right on the main screen, hinting (well, perhaps “screaming” is the better word) that Trendy has more planned for this gem of a game.
I’ve praised this game up and down, but there is one flaw worth mentioning, and it involves one minor pitfall in Dungeon Defenders. I’ll put it simply: The tutorial does an okay, but not a perfect job of communicating how to play this game. It introduces you to the controls easily enough, as well as the fundamental concepts, but I found myself left with a lot of pressing questions that I felt should have been addressed right away. For instance, your character can only carry a limited amount of mana at any given time – what happens to the mana that I don’t pick up? Is it lost? Is it automatically added to my bank when the new round starts? If that was mentioned, I missed it – and I was trying to pay attention. Further, it’s very easy to feel overwhelmed when playing through the end of the tutorial. Part of this is because this is a game where the enemies literally attempt to overwhelm you – that’s how they win. But it’s also because this is a game which, while fun to play solo, shines its brightest and feels its most natural when you’re cooperating with other players – which the tutorial doesn’t emphasize. Even the most basic AI “tutorial buddy” would have helped this out immensely.
But frankly, that complaint is a few flecks of dust on a cut diamond. If you’re looking for a new co-op players-versus-AI-horde game, Dungeon Defenders is arguably the best option available right now. Great graphics, lovely music, tense gameplay – all with enough content to keep you coming back again and again, and avenues for both official and player-made content. Best of all, you can pick this up right now on Steam for 15$ – and they’ll even throw in four exclusive Team Fortress 2 themed pets for you to equip and raise. There’s also a demo of the game available on Steam for those of you who want to make certain this is the title for you before committing to a purchase.