One of the castle’s gigantic wooden doors creaks open, revealing a swarm of primitively-armed goblins stomping together as part of one monstrous hive mind. On the other side of the hall march similarly stomping archers towards the same target, the Eternia crystals that form the lifeblood of the kingdom. A crash, and an over-sized ogre joins the collective lurch forward. Between them and the land’s doom stands you — and up to three of your friends — and your knack for trap and tower construction.
Dungeon Defenders is Trendy Entertainment’s first foray into the tower defence genre, with action RPG elements skillfully welded on top. Rather than laying out obstacles and waiting, praying, that enemies will stumble into them, Dungeon Defenders plops you firmly into the boots of several skilled fighters to take the fight to the pests personally in the battle to protect the all-important Eternia crystals at the heart of each stage. Should the crystals go smash, it’s game over.
There’s a hero to suit every need. The squire is best for charging in and dealing out damage hand-to-hand and blocking progress with barriers, while the apprentice is a long range magic master; the huntress can sneak around laying bomb traps, and the monk’s strength lies in powering up towers and team members, with a speciality in enemy-impeding auras. Better yet, you don’t have to choose between them. You’ll inevitably pick a favourite class, but players can create up to eight heroes to alternate between during battle, and are encouraged to switch them around regularly to take advantage of their varied talents.
Contests in Dungeon Defenders are split into two distinct parts. During the build phase the aim is to place towers at opportune attacking points, whilst gathering the mana used to fund just about everything, obstacle assembly and repair included. You can also visit the forge to swap your characters about, upgrade weaponry and organise your items; a shared inventory allows for easy movement of objects between characters.
Once prepared, a trip to the Eternia crystal activates the combat phase, wherein dozens of enemies will tip forth to test your building strategies to the limit. As the onslaught continues heroes can dive in sword first or take a less physical approach, running around repairing, upgrading and building towers to bolster defence, though when in battle construction takes place at a slower pace than in the build phase. These phases alternate until all waves of enemies for that level are banished from the area — well, until they're slaughtered. Each area contains a boss stage that plays out as usual until the final wave, before descending into chaos as a humongous beast is fought off at the same time as crowds of standard critters.
So far, so tower defence. The RPG elements come tied to the heroes of the piece, firstly through their participation in the straightforward, satisfying hack ‘n’ slash combat, but also prominently through an in-depth upgrade system and a huge variety of loot drops. As enemies are defeated the heroes gain experience and eventually level up during build phases. The reward for reaching each new level is the opportunity to increase statistics in a number of areas, from characters’ physical qualities to the strength of their special attacks and tower powers such as area of attack and strike rate.
Mashed monsters spill mana across the floor, which can be gathered and used to augment the properties of equipment through the forge. Infusing a sufficient amount of mana to a weapon or piece of armour will level it up, and just as with heroes you can then choose a statistic to boost. On top of this, pets can be purchased and developed in a similar way. Depending on which you pick, they’ll help out by attacking opponents, repairing towers or simply hoovering up mana for you. Despite the ridiculous amount of customisation, items and strategies available, Dungeon Defenders is thankfully rather accessible. A quick click brings up a simple wheel interface to access everything you might need, such as hero information, and all facilities to create and maintain towers.
The beauty of Dungeon Defenders lies in its unrestricted approach. There’s no right or wrong way to do things; it’s up to the player to discover what works best for them, whether they want to rely on traps or pour all stat upgrades into the hero’s physique to take on all comers themselves. Building up a hulk of a hero and slicing through ten enemies at a time like butter is enormously gratifying, but there's also fun to be had in standing back and watching as your carefully placed towers decimate all. The squire can be levelled to play up his core benefits — his durability and attack strength — or go in a completely opposite direction and bump up his range of shield and projectile towers to beastly heights.
Don’t want to build any towers? Don’t, then; but you’d better hope your hero is well on the way to the maximum level cap (70) before attempting it on later levels, as even with towers Dungeon Defenders quickly becomes a tough cookie. Fill out all eight character slots with different variations of just a couple of classes and rotate them to suit each scenario; a speedy monk for early waves and a buffed up HP hog later on, for example. Try whatever you like. This extends to just how many people want to take part, too. Dungeon Defenders is designed for up to four player co-op, but it works perfectly well as a single player experience, and some excellent hours were spent with two players during the writing of this review.
Don’t expect to conquer the campaign and then have nothing more to play. Trendy Entertainment has packed in plenty of content, such as survival modes to test just how good you really are, and challenge maps that flip the standard "defend the crystal" idea on its head. Here players might find themselves working to protect ogres or another player instead, or work out how best to look after a crystal that is warping all over the map. Heroes might even be tasked with launching their own assault on demon headquarters. Then there’s a pure strategy mode that removes combat from the heroes’ repertoire, forcing them to become glorified mechanics to the towers instead.
If there’s one negative thing to be mentioned about Dungeon Defenders, however, it is the implementation of camera controls with PlayStation Move. It feels great to use Move to point out selections, place towers and aim the direction of attacks with the aid of a cursor, but adjusting the viewpoint can be cumbersome. Holding down L1 enables gesture-controlled camera movement, but it's not quite speedy enough to cope with the constant turns needed in the combat phases of later stages. In addition the lowest camera angle — an over-the-shoulder viewpoint that works well during hands-on battle — appears to be removed in this mode. Unless a patch can tighten up Move’s camera control in the future, DualShock 3 is the preferable control choice.
Dungeon Defenders is everything you could want from a downloadable title. The amount of content and number of possible play styles is astounding and, when combined with its addictive nature, makes for superb value for money. Whether you choose to go it solo or gather up a party of loot-hungry friends, Dungeon Defenders definitely isn’t a game that should be kept locked away.