Dungeon Defenders has a lot of hyphens. It could be considered a multi-player, co-operative, first-person, role-playing tower defense game. That’s a bit of a genre-stretcher, to be sure. Developer Trendy Entertainment names it thusly:
Dungeon Defenders is the first competitive four-player co-op, tower defense/action-RPG hybrid for XBLA, PSN and PC that delivers the visceral combat of action RPGs and the strategic element of tower defense games
Yeah, so as you can see, it’s not exactly easy to pin down. Start with the hack ‘n slash and basic action mechanics of Diablo. Toss a handful of Magicka’s irreverent humor. Then, throw in the first-person tower defense nature of Sanctum, add a dash of four-player co-op a la Gauntlet, and the graphics and RPG nature of Torchlight, and you begin to get a picture of what we’re talking about here. Oh, you can also add in just a smidge of World of Warcraft and maybe League of Legends. Just a smidge.
You have an initial choice of four character classes: Apprentice, Squire, Huntress, and Monk. The Apprentice is a wizard who has a particular affinity for strong offensive towers but is nearly useless in melee. The Squire is a tank/melee fighter who builds spiked walls and other fortifications to control the flow of enemies and slow them down. The Huntress is a ranged attacked who builds traps and snares, and the Monk is a buff/debuff class with decent melee and ranged attacks; his “auras” (instead of towers) aren’t extremely strong offensively, but he can heal allies and slow enemies as well. There are two locked classes as well: Barbarian and Series EV.
Dungeon Defenders starts you off in a tavern—this is the hub of the game world. In the tavern you can take care of your business. You can shop, upgrade your character, sell unused gear, buy pets, check previous mission stats, and generally manage all the myriad aspects of the game without having to worry about staying alive. And when I say myriad aspects, I mean it. This game is complex, and rolls deep in stats. Not only do you have to manage your character’s upgrade tree, but also your towers’. You also have effects on all your stats from your weapons and armor. Check out the upgrade tree:
As you can see, you can upgrade your hero’s four attributes, abilities, and tower attributes. The tower attributes are across the board; you can’t focus on a single type of tower to upgrade (although you can upgrade individual towers while in combat). This brings out anxiety when it comes time to level up and you only have precious few points to spend; do I focus on character development or do I want strong towers?
I suppose a case could be made for either, because in this game you can attack enemies head-on with magic or weapons, or let your towers do some (or all) of the killing for you. Unlike Sanctum, where your guns had only limited utility, your character can wreak quite a bit of havok by getting down into the shit, as it were. When my little monk Puraimu jumps into the fray with his glaive, watch out. The enemies fall before him like so many sheaves of wheat before the scythe.
That’s not to say that the towers are useless. Quite the opposite—victory often depends on clever use and balance of both disciplines. After all, there are only one (or two, or three, or four) of you, and dozens upon dozens of creeps. Some towers control the flow of enemies (blocking them, slowing them down, etc.) while others damage them. You can even build support towers (such as a tower that heals characters that stand within its radius). The strategic possibilities are quite intoxicating, and leave for a great deal of variability in play.
The idea that the monsters are mindless creeps is blown away in this game. They have AI in that they will decide what is the bigger threat and veer off their march to deal with it. A giant ogre starts stomping relentless through your defenses, but if you’re standing off to the side blasting him with annoying bolts of magic, he may turn and glare at you, deciding to smash your face in and go back to deal with the towers later. You aren’t helpless, though… You can also knock the enemies off their pre-determined paths to really set them back—in one case I was able to knock a large monster off of a ledge, all the way back to the beginning of the path just by closing in tightly with my weapon and forcing him off the edge. The combat is really quite refreshing and not entirely on-rails.
That means you have to be very good with your tower placements; the enemies aren’t dummies. They’ll just walk around them if they can. In addition, you have may have certain situations that require certain types of towers; only through bitter and humiliating defeat will you learn that not every tower is ideal all the time.
Playing through the single player campaign is not as straightforward as one would think. There are a few things that are utterly un-intuitive but very helpful to know for beginners, such as realizing that this is an RPG and, like the classic RPG trope—if you can’t beat a level, grind and level up your character before you try again.
It’s easy to fall into the idea that this is “just a tower defense game” and the mindset that if you lose a round, you just need better tower placement. While tower strategy can make a huge difference, the strength of your heroes and towers definitely factors into it as well. It’s also easy to forget that you don’t need to plow through the game with a single hero. Rather, hero swapping mid-round is encouraged, and could enable you to finally break through a wave that keeps wiping you out. Perhaps your Huntress has strong towers, but you prefer your Monk’s strong ranged attack on a particular wave. No problem. Build traps with your Huntress then swap to your Monk to start the attack. The Huntresses’ traps will still be there (and your Monk can repair them as well). When you realize you can do this, it makes the game a lot easier.
Let’s talk about the bad item management system for a moment. When you see an item you can “lock” it. This means it binds to your character and cannot be sold or traded unless you unlock it. This is ostensibly to prevent ill-intentioned friends from grabbing your loot from you if you accidentally drop it, or accidentally selling an important item in the store. I guess. It’s very confusing at first, and the item and store interfaces take some getting used to. When you hover over an item, you get an at-a-glance icon (red thumbs down if it’s worse than what you have, green thumbs up if it’s better) to be able to make quick decisions in the field about upgrading your item. If you happen across a better pair of boots in the field, this can help quickly determine whether or not it’s worth wearing them even while enemies surround you. However, the action is frenetic enough that most of the time it’s easier just to grab everything and sort it out later when things calm down (in between waves). Besides, the game often bases “thumbs up, thumbs down” on primary stats, which is not always the most strategically sound decision. Maybe the crossbow does less penetrating damage per bolt than what you have now, but the next wave is very vulnerable to shock damage, and it does +22 shock damage per bolt. That kind of thing.
The shop (in the Tavern) is confusing at first. There will be things you can’t afford at the beginning of the game, but as you level up and get money and come back to the shop, the prices increase. It makes no sense. Therefore, you have to “lock” the items in at the price you want so that they prices don’t increase while you’re out adventuring. Items that are unlocked will get flushed out with new inventory every once in a while. Therefore, if you see a pet or a sword or some gloves that you want but can’t afford yet, you have to lock it down in the store or it might get exorbitantly expensive or disappear entirely the next time you come back. I see no logic in this system at all. The store could, you know, have a bigger than three item inventory. That might help.
Once you figure out the store/item system and the interface, it’s time to learn tower strategy. Each class provides entirely different types of towers (in fact, most aren’t even towers). Monks lay down bubble-shaped “Auras” that buff/debuff, the Huntress lays down mines and gas traps, and the Squire can build fortifications, and so on.
Your decisions about tower radius, tower speed, upgrade speed, tower strength, melee strength, and every other stat that you can control will all have very striking effects on how much trouble you have with a given wave of enemies. Taken together, you begin to see that—despite the cartoony look and silly humor—Dungeon Defenders is a very, very deep game.
Bring a friend
The multi-player side of Dungeon Defenders is where the game really gets wild. Having a friend or three along changes the dynamic considerably. Since many of the maps have multiple entry points and paths to the monsters’ goal, it can be very hectic to run around with a single character and try to manage the mess. Having help is a giant relief. In the single player dynamic, you may get to a point where you are laying down slowing and binding towers at distant monster entry points so that you can control the timing of the attacks. You melee and deal with the immediate threat while the distant monsters have to struggle through the morass you’ve laid before them. Not so with multiple players. You can each pick a door and hold your ground. This changes the game entirely.
The game supports not only network play, but also four-player split-screen. Of course, this makes a lot of sense on Xbox 360, but I suppose you could also plug four Xbox 360 controllers into your PC if you were so inclined.
You can trade items and pets with other players
The game supports Steam and GameSpy accounts, which is refreshing. It also has in-game voice chat that works just fine. Players can drop in and drop out of your hosted game without interrupting your progress as well.
The single-player and multi-player campaign mode will keep you occupied for quite a while, as the game ramps up to a pretty good challenge level. You’ll definitely be replaying some of the core levels a few times before you’re skilled enough and strong enough to beat them. Even then, you can go back for “perfects” and achievements. Because the game is so deep, you’ll find that your $15 has purchased quite a bit of entertainment value.
On top of the core missions, there are other modes such as Survival (endless creeps), Pure Strategy, and Mix Mode. By playing the other modes as well as increasing the challenge level of the campaign mode (up to ‘insane’ difficulty), you can earn better loot and epic gear.
To buy or not to buy?
This game is taking a pounding in some circles. People have been complaining about the controls, the wonky camera, and the difficulty. I’ll say that when I first got my review copy, I was pretty unhappy about the camera and controls, but there’s no point in worrying about it now because they’ve patched the game twice in the last three days, and those issues are pretty much gone. In a previous iteration, your character was relatively “centered” on screen, which made aiming ranged attacks absurdly difficult; your character’s big head was in the way. In the current version, they’ve moved your character model to the left, giving an over-the-shoulder third person view akin to Gears of War, which makes it far easier to aim.
The game supports Xbox 360 controllers, and honestly, that might be a better way to play. I’m used to keyboard and mouse now, but the view swapping got a little tiring at first (zooming out to aim and fight, and zooming in to move around the map). Dual analog sticks (one for aiming, other for camera) would make more sense in this viewpoint, but the game is definitely playable with keyboard and mouse. They also just added support for third and fourth mouse buttons (thumb buttons) in the last patch.
One last thing to mention is the humorous cameo appearances of other gaming culture nods; Cloud Strife’s sword is leaning on a sword rack in the tavern. The Aperture Science Portal Device is usable by the Huntress. There are TF2 characters in the game. It’s silly and fun.
If this game was $25 or $40 or $50, I would say, eh… Try the demo and if you like it enough, buy it. However, the game is $15. At that price, it represents a very good entertainment value proposition. It’s definitely worth $15 to enter this crazy game world, earn up to 57 Steam achievements, play with your friends, and smash a bunch of offensive monsters all night. I highly recommend it. And also, come play with us.