Defender’s Quest – Guest review

The simply-named Defender’s Quest is a tower defense game with RPG elements. Your “towers” are party members that level up and can get upgraded equipment and all the standard RPG stuff. Typical for the RPG genre, there is also a strong story element, even moreso than in Immortal Defense. Before and after every battle, you’re treated to an extensive cutscene where multiple characters interact.
Unfortunately, however, though the early game is excellent, the whole experience falls apart around the halfway mark and never really gets better.

We’ll start with the gameplay. As I stated in my Immortal Defense review, I’m not normally interested in tower defense, though the RPG elements and story focus captured my interest.

How foolish I was.

Quite frankly, the gameplay is a repetitive and tedious mess filled with level grinding. I quickly realized why people haven’t tried to merge RPG and tower defense gameplay before: they intersect terribly. Every single level has three “stages” of increasing difficulty. It’s virtually impossible to complete them when you first make it to the level, so you’re encouraged to come back later to do them. However, they are not optional. If you try to go through the game without ever returning to previous stages, you’ll quickly hit a brick wall due to being underleveled. The game is designed to enforce level grinding like this if you want to progress – even if you try to play on easy mode, you’ll have a difficult time (since it actually reduces the bonus experience you get, which doesn’t address the level grinding problem at all). Effectively, all this means is that you have to play every level three times, with no additional story reward. For a game whose developer posted a mammoth blog post about integrating story and gameplay, this seems like a heinous oversight. It makes no sense for characters to run back and fight inexplicably-stronger enemies that they’ve already fought before. One sidequest even has a tongue-in-cheek mockery of similar backtracking, which only draws more attention to the issue.

Okay, so that’s the overview: what about the specifics? Well, as I said, it’s basically a tower defense game where your towers are party members. The thing you’re trying to defend is the protagonist, who has a health bar of her own that increases when she levels up (the game uses enemies with variable damage instead of the reducing lives system). Each party member has a skill tree, based on their class, of abilities they can use in combat. (You can choose to put points into these skills to improve them on level up.) However, they can’t actually use all of their most powerful skills from the get-go. Every character can be “boosted” for a certain amount of currency, which improves their stats across the board and grants them access to use their more powerful techniques. It’s analogous to upgrading towers in other tower defense games. I find this mechanic somewhat questionable, since it makes higher-level skills much less worthwhile by default, as you won’t be seeing them nearly as often. It also means that most characters have to be boosted a few times from the start in order to be of any use. However, I can see its use as a sort of buffer to prevent people from just annihilating the opposition with high-level skills early on. It also becomes much less of a problem in the late game, where you have so many magic points you can afford to boost multiple characters to max right out of the gate.

 photo Defenders-Quest-Trailer_1.jpg

Your available party members are divided into six classes, each of which corresponds to one of the six major characters. You have berserkers, which are fast attackers (often using multi-hit or area-of-effect abilities) who refuse to wear armor and therefore die at the drop of a hat; rangers, who are well-rounded ranged attackers good in almost every situation; healers, exactly what they sound like (although they do have a weak area-of-effect attack spell); ice mages, who use magic abilities to slow down fast enemies; knights, melee attackers who focus a lot of power into slow, singular attacks instead of multi-hit flurries like berserkers; and dragons, which are awesome but cost a ton of magic power to summon and upgrade. I believe that the balance of these six classes is a point where the game does well. Each class generally has a sort of “tutorial” stage shortly after their representative character is introduced where they’re well-equipped to deal with the level. As a result, I very quickly gained an intuitive sense of how to use each class and where to place them in levels.

However, like so many things in this game, this good idea trips over its own feet. You see, at every town, in addition to buying equipment, you can also recruit characters to fight with you in the levels. You will need them – late-game levels flood you with enemies from many different paths, and the six story characters aren’t nearly enough to deal with them without utilizing some very clever tactics. However, all of them start at level 1 (more level grinding, yay), and quickly cause levels to become quite cluttered. Some levels, you really need every character at your disposal to defend yourself, but in others, you can just throw them wherever to take up space. The most annoying part, though, is that they’re a very obvious gameplay and story disconnect. Your random recruits are never mentioned or acknowledged in cutscenes, they’re just suddenly there when you get attacked. I think it actually would have been fairly clever to avoid the genre staple of being able to place multiple towers of the same type, and design all levels around the idea that you can only ever place one character of each class. Oh well.

I did like the gameplay in the beginning of the game. You spend most of the early game with just two character classes, and have to use every resource at your disposal to use them to their fullest. It’s simpler, but also quite focused, which is nice. Once you get to the midpoint of the game, though, the game starts handing out new character classes like party favors, and things get complex fast. There’s also a bit of the thing I mentioned in Immortal Defense: after you get the final character class, there really aren’t any new gameplay mechanics for you to utilize, and so things quickly get rather repetitive.

There’s a New Game+ feature as well. What’s interesting, though, is that it’s not a straight reboot – it starts a completely separate file in a new game world where enemies are buffed up to be on par with your endgame levels. It’s not just a straight increase in numbers, though – all enemies are given special traits that makes fighting them a more strategic experience. Resistance to certain damage types, regeneration, immunity to certain status effects, etc. I’m glad the developers went this route, instead of just extending the generic tedium of the original game.

Something that I am a bit more leery of is that New Game+ unlocks new story content that’s not available in a regular game: sidequests and a journal kept by the main character. I suppose it’s good that there’s story content to keep players interested in a New Game+, but it still kinda rubs me the wrong way, like a New Game+ isn’t really optional – you have to play the game twice to see all the content. It just feels a bit…pointless? There’s no good reason why those things couldn’t be available in a regular game.

With that in mind, that’s a good segueway to begin talking about the plot. The beginning is very interesting, but I was pretty disappointed by the end. The basic premise is that there’s a virulent plague sweeping the kingdom of Ash. The main character, Azra, is the royal librarian, but she is infected by the plague as well. She is tossed into an inescapable plague colony known as “the Pit”, when she notices the infected around her suddenly start acting weird and babbling nonsense. Then they turn into ravening zombies. She herself suddenly sees a vision of a golden man on a throne who speaks in weird arcane symbols. However, she is able to resist whatever is going on, and when she awakens again she has magic powers that she can use to destroy the zombies – something that, apparently, is previously unheard of. She then travels across the Pit, picking up a ragtag bunch of misfits to aid her in her quest, as she tries to find a way out (and also figure out what’s up with the whole magic powers business). Along the way, she is shadowed by a mysterious evil guy in a mysterious evil cloak who appears to have the power to create the zombies.

I actually found this to be a rather interesting premise. There are a variety of characters with different ideals and personalities, and the ways that people eke out a living in a desolate plague colony is explored. However, this is only the first part of the game. The characters do, eventually, become focused on concrete goals in finding answers to everything, which is nice for the plot, but there’s very little room for worldbuilding and character growth in the meantime. (The sidequests in New Game+ actually fulfill both of those roles rather well, which makes me even more confused why they’re not included in the regular game.) Though the necromancer villain guy does get some very interesting character development and plot twists, I was rather disappointed by the endgame, which introduces a new villain practically out of nowhere who isn’t nearly as interesting a character as everyone else. It’s a bit like the “political intrigue that turns supernatural in a hurry” business, only substitute “interesting and believable character motivations” for “political intrigue” in this case.

Speaking of political intrigue, though, the game does have that! It’s in some blink-and-you’ll-miss-it background details, but it’s there. Apparently, the plague and the Pit itself were started in the aftermath of a terrible war between the Ash kingdom and another empire, the Quaid. Azra, as an Ash citzen, was taught from birth to demonize the Quaid, and has to come to terms with that when she encounters a city of Quaid survivors within the Pit. There’s some interesting commentary about the pointlessness of war and how we should all just get along and all that, which I think is a nice message (though it seems so obvious that it’s sad people still need to be told it).

There’s also interactivity! Sort of. At the very end of the game, the up-until-then linear stage path branches in two, and you can choose to escape the Pit and leave everything behind you or pursue the villain in a suicide charge to try and stop his plan. It’s very obvious that the latter is the “real” ending – there are multiple levels and it ties up plot threads that are left hanging in the alternative ending – but it’s nice that the game does give you a choice instead of forcing you to do the altruistic thing like most RPGs would. There are more than two endings, though, and they actually depend on how well you do in the final battle, which is a neat bit of gameplay and story integration. There’s even a bad ending if you lose to the final boss, which I think does give a good sense of risk by showing that losing there really is a worse outcome than taking the easy way out earlier.

Unfortunately, despite all that, the writing itself is a schizophrenic mess. Scenes oscillate wildly between madcap comedy and plotty serious business, often with no transition in between. “Mood whiplash” doesn’t even begin to describe it. Some stories can use both moods to make each one stronger, but just as often, they can undermine one another, which is exactly what happens here. About half the cast is obvious comic relief, with the other half dealing with the serious stuff, and the disparity really clashes in cutscenes. Even some of the serious characters will occasionally jump into the comedy fray with little to no reason. It feels incredibly awkward and, at the worst of times, makes the story difficult to take seriously. I believe I can showcase the problem by quoting a scene from one of the sidequests. This sidequest centers around Wrenna, a Quaid princess who is the last survivor of a massacre during the war that killed her entire family. The stress finally gets to her and gives her a nervous breakdown, resulting in this:

Wrenna: Look at me! A captive since childhood, a prisoner, a… you don’t undestand… the things they did to us. No… the things YOU did to us! And always in my mind I can hear the screams and I know that they are my screams and I close my eyes and I see my sisters standing in the blood…

Yeah, heavy stuff. After a while of this…

Azra: …You want a hug?

Aw. It’s a bit heavy-handed and sappy, but it works, especially if you read Azra’s journal entries and learn that she’s been extremely distrustful and hateful towards Wrenna until now. But then, the very next line is…

Wrenna: What’s a hug?

And then the cutscene ends.

It’s just…agh, game, it doesn’t work that way! You can’t just drop heavy serious stuff like that and then turn it into a punchline five seconds later. Just suddenly ending that cutscene on a joke like that undermines everything that came prior. Though that’s definitely the worst example, the game is full of stuff like that. It just doesn’t know how to keep a consistent tone.

So, overall, would I recommend it? Eh…I don’t think it’s worth fifteen dollars, no. But there is a rather extensive demo on their site that you can look at. If you like tower defense games and don’t mind the problems I pointed out above, you’ll probably enjoy it. If you’re just interested in the story, though, you should probably just look at a plot synopsis or something.

One Comment

  1. Anthony Pecorella says:
    Hey, thanks for the review! I’m Anthony, lead designer of Defender’s Quest. While we certainly prefer seeing positive reviews, the negative reviews are often the most helpful, especially as we’re looking to start a sequel very soon. :)

    Many of your criticisms are quite fair. The writing does bounce back and forth between madcap and serious, and while I think we want to keep a fair amount of comedy in the next game we can probably work to transition a little cleaner. I’m not the writer so I won’t respond in detail to plot critique, though I actually didn’t think the “what’s a hug?” line was supposed to be a joke as much as a sad, pitiful response from someone who grew up without such emotional support.

    On the design side I’m definitely interested, and concerned, that you felt that the game was grindy, as that was a particular thing we tried to avoid. The intent was for someone to be able to play through on Normal, or at least Casual, pretty much straight through with little to no grinding at all. Perhaps some of the balance shifted at some point and I should give it another play through to see what happened. This isn’t a jab at your skill or anything, it’s a failing on our side if that was your experience.

    Speaking of experience, perhaps we should do a better job letting players know that there is an XP multiplier option in the options menu for players who feel that progress is too slow. As I said, it was our goal to avoid any feelings of grinding for those who don’t want it (while others love that stuff!), but we may not have surfaced that ability well at all. Sorry!

    For the New Game+ story elements, we were of two minds. The first thing is that, honestly, the game was released without New Game+ at all when we were completely un-funded and bootstrapped. New Game+ was added months later after we had enough sales to keep going. It’s not an excuse, just an explanation. In any case, we had to figure out what the best experience was for people who wanted to keep playing. We’ve heard criticisms from a few people that they were sad that there was extra story locked behind New Game+. But at the same time, those who wanted to play more were delighted to have more than just the same maps and no new story. So it’s sort of a lose-lose situation, and we opted to add some extra content for people who really loved the game so much that they wanted to keep going. Gotta be good to your die-hard fans!

    Anyway, thanks again for playing and taking the time to write a detailed review. It’s quite helpful to get this perspective and we’ll do our best to learn from our mistakes and shortcomings in our first project. I can say at least that you won’t have the problem with mystery hired characters in the next game – we’re having each character be unique, along with some clearly “throw away” extras that shouldn’t feel at all weird to not be included with the plot. :)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to toolbar