The action/tower defense hybrid came out of nowhere. Most genres step in shyly, try out a few things, and long after their label as a species of media entertainment has been stamped, you can see a major studio or two actually having the courage to add a member or two to the family. Even so, the triplets Sanctum, Orcs Must Die! and Dungeon Defenders somehow synced up and invaded our PCs in roughly the same time patch, a sign of absolute bravery from each of their producers.
But from me especially, who much like a space monkey, was blasted on the risky adventure of testing uncharted roads one after another, adventure in which a mere mortal would have been overwhelmed or – who knows –depressurized. The more „terrestrial” predecessors had been, a few years back, the custom Warcraft III maps, where a Naga Shrine was actually a water tower, the orc towers threw rocks and generally speaking, every tower was actually a borrowed building model with altered functions. But the isometric perspective, the lack of direct contact and the recycled graphics stamped the whole experience with a very impersonal and rushed feeling. The direct implication was missing, as well as the tension and versatility of having a protagonist. And people playing Tower Defense games did it with one hand and the same look of apathy old people playing Bingo in movies get.
All this changed with Orcs Must Die!, a title with a production value, degree of visual finesse and an approach as intense and charming as it can get. After Orcs Must Die!, Bossman entrusted me with Dungeon Defenders, I title I confess I hadn’t heard about, even though I kept trumpeting about Orcs Must Die! lack of co-op in its review. I had been limited to competing in leaderboards with my buddy, CioLAN, and was extremely glad once I found out that DD not only has this implemented, but actually orbited around it.
When you start out, Dungeon Defenders asks you to make a character, picking one of four classes, each with its own abilities and traps. In the difficulty order that the producers suggested, they are the Apprentice (a mage that looks just like League of Legends’ Veigar), Squire (a tiny knight with a sword three times his size), Huntress (the Ranger archetype) and Monk (a support class that specializes in auras.
The customization is in picking the skin (if you have unblocked the alternative ones), picking a name and changing the basic colors on the costume. And you can also get the New Heroes DLC, which features gender-swapped versions of the main characters, but equipped with all new abilities, stat ramps and so on.
Traps vary depending on class, and the big advantage of the co-op mode is the synergy you get by cleverly combining your traps’ positions when belonging to different classes. For instance, a Gas Trap placed by the Huntress, which considerably slows down attacking monsters, alongside the more destruction-oriented traps that the Squire lays, multiply your damage output consistently. The same can be said about the Monk’s Slow Aura or the Apprentice’s magical barriers, which take out the invaders’ elemental immunities.
The storyline is quite generic (which can be said about the one in OMD) and graphically represented by a bunch of static illustrations (just like the ones in OMD, in fact). The true heroes left the kingdom, and its destiny is now in the hands of miniature warriors. Hence the kid anime look of the game, a very perky cel-shaded cover over fairly minimalistic models.
Aside from the co-op mode, what decisively sets Dungeon Defenders apart from OMD! is its much more generous dose of RPG elements. The characters level up classically, by gaining experience they get from monsters slain as well as various rewards at the end of each round or map and a level up brings along a few points that can be invested in the hero’s attributes. In the upper side of the panel we find the health pool, damage, speed and casting speed (casting is used for placing, fixing and upgrading traps) while the lower side displays trap attributes: damage, range, reload speed and health pool.
Furthermore, the equipment (which randomly drops off monsters or is gained from chests spread out on the map) can be used and upgraded too. Given that you’ll have industrial quantities of equipment lying around, and after a while the useful ones will be quite rare, the producers introduced a useful item identification system for the items that are better than what you have: they appear green on the map and in the game screen two green brackets will surround a yellowish aura.
The rest will be sold automatically, and the mana (the game’s coin unit) will be automatically distributed among players. Mana is used for any and all engineering endeavors on the map – placing traps, improving them, repairing and even as currency for the heroes’ special abilities. Outside of maps, mana is invested in upgrades (whose cost will increase every level), shop equipment or pets.
A nice surprise were the four gift pets for activating the game on Steam, each of them depicting a Team Fortress 2 character, with special abilities specific to Dungeon Defenders. The doctor will heal you, the Pyro and Heavy will deal damage, and the engineer repairs buildings. Aside from these, you also have an array of other possible companions, from dragons and chickens to a cowboy that levitates, ensuring enough variation both in their aspect as well as tactics. And if you have enough mana, you can also respec your character (reset the attributes and redistribute points to your own liking) or get an experience bonus that’s both expensive and useful.
For Halloween, the producers put in a free DLC containing a modified map with holiday decor (Halloween Spooktacular) addressed to advanced players (60+) and certain skins attached to each character. And since we’re talking about the maps, barring the ones from the campaign (split into three acts, at the end of each you have a boss to fight, with its own vulnerabilities) there’s also various challenges with interesting objectives: assaulting the crystals on your own, annihilating randomly-appearing paratroopers and so on.
If you prefer a lone gun approach – though I have no idea why someone would, especially at this point – you can swap your character at the end of each wave, to bring in your own variation in the trap maze. All of these, of course, in the limit the game imposes for the trap number – otherwise it would be extremely unbalanced, favoring the players.
Sadly, we don’t have a level editor here either, and the basic maps look a bit smaller and crammed up than the ones in OMD! In their defense, however, they’re pretty well represented, and the details and backgrounds provide more variation than the competition.
However, there are a few departments where Dungeon Defenders is slightly weaker: collisions, the combat system and animations. Where Orcs Must Die! gains favor is precisely the natural flow of combat, the complex moves and contact sport. Even if both titles are equally cartoonish, DD looks more like a Lego videogame, and the clipping, collision or invader block bugs make their presence known soon enough. Thus, OMD is decisively more good looking and convincing, while Dungeon Defenders shines thanks to its focus on co-op and replay value.
Dungeon Defenders is quite addictive, but after you spend enough time, this attribute dilutes its fun factor, turning what was initially a tactical advance and collaboration effort into a repetitive farm meant to improve your attributes, gear and obtain achievements and mana. What’s certain is that this timeframe will probably be bigger than the one in OMD, and if you care about the amount of interactive time a game offers, you should pick Dungeon Defenders. Same goes for your penchant towards cooperative play. Same goes if you’re a stat and loot whore.
In the end, the analogy is this: long and fluctuating – Dungeon Defenders, short, intense and good looking – Orcs Must Die!. Given that the price tag is more or less the same (which is very low) if you have to choose, please consider the above characteristics. I confess however that, although the game is currently shelved, there are bigger odds for me to go back to Dungeon Defenders than OMD, mostly because I have already exhausted the latter’s content.