Monday, February 13, 2012

Dungeon Defenders (PC)

Rating: 4 out of 5
Pros: Smooth gameplay, drop-in-drop-out multiplayer co-op, constant updates
Cons: Minor progression issues, most new content is relegated to DLC for additional purchase

Dungeon Defenders is a 3D fantasy game by Trendy Entertainment that features a rather unique blend of action RPG and tower defense elements. It retails for $14.99 on Steam, and I was looking at it for a week or so before I finally decided to purchase it. Luckily when I did go to buy it, there was a 75% off Steam sale and I was able to pick up Dungeon Defenders for a little under $4 a copy. I actually picked up a 4 pack and gave the other copies to friends and family so that we could play together. All of the DLC (downloadable content) for the game was on sale for 75% off as well, and I went ahead and purchased all of it for my copy while I was at it.
The game has co-op multiplayer in split-screen, over the LAN and/or over the internet. This is drop-in-drop out, allowing up to 4 people to join and leave freely without restarting the game. The more players are in the game, the more enemies come in each wave and the tougher the enemies become. In general, this keeps the game fairly balanced regardless of how many people are playing. There are some maps however that are just harder to complete single-player, such as Glitterhelm Caverns, where the enemy spawn points are spread out and it's hard to keep an eye on all of them at once.
The main goal of Dungeon Defenders is to protect what are called Eternia Crystals from increasing waves of enemies. Enemies come out of set spawn points and make their way towards the crystals. These crystals have a limited amount of health, and when they get destroyed you lose the level. In the beginning of the game there is a single crystal on each map to protect, but by the end you will find yourself having to protect up to four of them at once.
Players can initially choose from one of four characters, the Squire, the Huntress, the Monk and the Apprentice. These classes are labeled as to the approximate difficulty of playing with them. The Apprentice and the Squire being the easiest classes to use, and the Monk and the Huntress best used after you've gotten the hang of the game and how it plays. Each class gets five different "towers" that they can setup to help defeat enemies. Most of the reason that the Apprentice and Squire are easier to use is that they each have walls as one of their towers that can block off choke points for their towers to do their work. The Monk and the Huntress actually don't have physical towers at all, instead the Monk has Auras and the Huntress has Traps.
There's a pretty good variety as far as towers go. Squires have physical towers with a lot of health -- harpoons, spiked walls, etc. This makes them very versatile as they're always useful to some extent. The Apprentice has magical towers -- fireball towers, lightning towers, magic missile towers. They do a lot of damage, but half the towers do elemental damage only. Since enemies can have elemental resistances (an enemy with a small fire icon beside his name is totally immune to fire damage) this makes them slightly less versatile than the Squire towers. The Apprentice does have a magic wall which strips the elemental resistance from any enemy that hits it though, and his magic missile tower and deadly strike tower have no elemental affinity, so this isn't a problem most of the time.
The Monk lays down Auras which cover an area of the map. Ensnare aura slows down all non-poison immune enemies that walk through it; electric aura damages all non-lightning immune enemies, healing aura heals all players who are standing in it, etc. These are ridiculously useful, but since the Monk has no physical barricade to keep enemies from just walking through choke points, it's a bit more difficult to play. The same holds true for the Huntress with her traps. Proximity mines blow up and damage enemies that walk over them, gas traps blow up and stun non-poison immune enemies temporarily when walked over, etc. Again, really useful but lacking a physical barricade of any kind.
To make things even more interesting, you can use multiple classes in one map. Start the game on a Squire, go throw up some barricades and towers, and then go over to the forge and switch to your Monk. Now you can lay down Monk auras in front of your Squire towers. Switch again to your Apprentice and you can throw up some fireball towers to help out behind the barricades. It's this ability to strategize that makes the game so much fun. Granted, this becomes less important in multiplayer mode because you're likely to have different classes in the game all at the same time anyway.
You're given a set number of defense units for each map. Every tower takes up a certain amount of units, and when you've reached this limit you cannot build any more towers. This helps balance the game out so that you can't just spam tons of towers all over the place and overwhelm any challenge the map may otherwise present. On top of this, towers cost "mana" to place, which is the game's currency. There are a few treasure chests that you can open once per wave on the map that drop mana (and sometimes items after the first wave). This is your starting mana pool, and it limits what you can initially build to start the map.
There are 7 different types of normal enemies, plus the ogres add an additional challenge to some maps. Some enemies charge up and melee, one shoots arrows, one ignites some dynamite and charges at you full speed... one even heals groups of enemies and summons skeletons. The ogres are huge enemies that hit hard, have a lot of health, and can overwhelm defenses if you're not prepared for them. At least ogres don't have an elemental immunity in the standard game. While there's not a large variety of enemies, they do have versions using alternate colors to let you know that they are much stronger than the originals. In addition, there's a large boss enemy at the end of the 4th, 8th and 12th map that always drops a set piece of equipment depending on what class you are playing when you defeat them.
There are also only like 14 maps to play on and none of them are excessively large, so overall the variety of locations and enemies is a little lacking. It's not too bad though, and there are various challenge missions available for each map to keep things interesting. In addition, there are multiple ways to play the game. For instance, there's a pure strategy mode that you play with only towers. You're unable to interact with the enemies in this mode, and face increasing waves of enemies that your towers must destroy alone. There's also a survival mode where you fight through like 25 waves of enemies, as well as multiple difficulty settings for every map. Playing a map in survival mode on insane difficulty will have enemies numbering in the thousands on later waves, and may take you a few hours to complete (if you can complete it at all). Be prepared to invest a lot of time in this game.
There's also a lot of loot in Dungeon Defenders to help you along the way. You can pick up helmets, armor, gloves, boots, weapons and pets. Unfortunately your character's looks do not change as you put on armor, but picking up a new weapon will show that weapon in your character's hands. You can unlock different outfits to change your characters looks, but I have to admit I'm a sucker for games where you can actually see your newly acquired armor equipped on your character. There are a number of DLC packs available that add in additional characters, equipment, maps and costumes. It's all relatively inexpensive, though some are more worth purchasing than others.
Aside from the tower aspect, you can also run around with your character and attack enemies directly. The Squire is a melee class, the Apprentice attacks from range with magical staves and the Huntress shoots from range with various guns and bows. The Monk is unique in the fact that he can both melee and attack from range, but which is stronger depends a lot on your weapon. Different weapons have different amounts of damage and increase your various character stats by certain amounts. The weapons also have different sizes, and a larger size both increases the reach of your weapon as well as obstructs your field of view as it takes up more room on your screen. Obviously large weapons are better for melee classes since they can hit more enemies at once, but less optimal for ranged classes because there's more weapon in your line of sight.
Your character has stats to indicate his damage, health, speed, tower repair rate, tower attack rate, tower attack strength, tower health, and tower area of effect. He also has two skills that you can activate that are different for each class. The squire has a circular attack to hit enemies around him, and a blood rage to increase his damage and speed considerably. The circular attack has a fixed mana cost, and the blood rage drains mana at an increasing rate until you run out. As you kill enemies, they drop mana and items though, so you can often end up with a steady supply of mana to keep your skills active -- especially in later rounds when your fighting hundreds or even thousands of enemies in a wave.
Skills are increased by leveling up your character and distributing the available skill points into whatever stats you desire. They're also increased by the extra stat points that come on the equipment you pick up and equip. Equipment can be further upgraded by taking it to a forge and investing an increasing amount of mana into it, up to the maximum level listed on the equipment. Every upgrade you can choose to increase one of the stats on the equipment.
The tavern acts as the central hub of the game, where you start off when you first log in and where you meet up in multiplayer games before choosing a map. There's a forge there, as well as a vendor to buy a couple pieces of equipment from. The equipment changes after you finish a map, and the quality of equipment depends on which map and which difficulty you were playing when you finished it. There are also some training dummies in the tavern that you can attack to test your damage, as well as place towers to attack them to test your tower damage.
There are a few issues with progression, leaving you grinding the same maps for long periods of time in order to get small upgrades until you can progress to the next map or difficulty level. These happen at a couple points, but the most notable is progressing between insane difficulty and the new nightmare difficulty introduced in a DLC pack. Then again progressing between nightmare mode and the nightmare survival maps. There's also a constant stream of patches for the game, tweaking one thing after another in an attempt to bring some balance. You can tell Trendy Entertainment isn't a large company with millions to invest in getting everything "just right" before release, as it seems like they're trying to fix it as they go.
You can play Dungeon Defenders in either a first-person or a third-person view, you have but to scroll the mouse wheel to move the camera to switch between them. The graphics are extremely polished and fluid, with smooth animations and detailed particle effects. The game reminds me a lot of Torchlight or World of Warcraft with it's cartoony style and smooth gameplay. The level designs are varied, featuring a number of different indoor and outdoor levels, mostly themed around the castle that you're climbing as part of the story line. The background music is well done and only adds to the ambiance of the different levels. It isn't distracting or repetitive at all, and I actually leave it turned on and not muted in this game. The sound effects consist of all the explosions, clangs and grunts that one would expect.

System requirements include a 1 GHz dual-core processor, 1 GB of RAM, 2 GB hard drive space, a 256 MB video card that supports DirectX 9.0c and Shader Model 3.0, as well as broadband internet if you're going to be playing online. It runs great on all 3 of the desktop computers I've played it on. It does run on my sister's laptop (a Toshiba Satellite L675 with integrated Intel HD graphics), but it stutters a lot and is glitchy even on the lowest settings. Playable enough for her young children to enjoy, but no fun for anyone else.
Overall Dungeon Defenders is a wonderful game, and the crossing of action RPG and tower defense is well executed. The interface for placing towers with the mouse only is a little wonky, but since the towers also have hotkeys that are mapped to the number keys, this minor quibble can be easily overlooked. It's well worth the respectable price tag, and if you can catch it on sale at Steam like I did then there's no excuse for not picking up a copy or four.

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