Game: Prime World: Defenders
Recommended price: $5
Metacritic Score: Unrated (likely ~58)
Completion Time: 28 hours
Buy If You Like: Tower Defense, Grinding, TCG
Prime World: Defenders is a Tower Defense game I bought in its Beta (what we used to call pre-purchasing) almost entirely based on a relatively glowing Penny Arcade review. I would not necessarily say I am a tower defense-er – I do not specifically seek the genre out – but I am pretty open to this gameplay in a general sense. Indeed, the only real problem I have with Tower Defense games is how binary things end up being: you are either murdering the enemy masses or you are overwhelmed. Well, there is that problem and the other intrinsically related problem in that there is always an optimal configuration of towers/abilities that usually renders entire levels moot.
But, hey, Prime World is Tower Defense plus TCG elements plus you can use magic spells; surely it could not fall into that same trap. As it turns out though, the things that make Prime World: Defender unique are the very things that make the game worse.
The central game conceit is that the player’s tower arsenal is represented by TCG-esque cards that can also individually level up to gain in power. The player also can gain levels, which only really affects the unlocking of tiers in the “talent tree” – something that ends up being more of an unlock menu since choices aren’t mutually exclusive. Winning battles will result in five cards being shown and then shuffled together, with the player choosing one effectively at random; up to two additional cards can be selected by paying in Silver. There is also an in-game “store” in which to purchase booster packs of cards, although it is entirely contained within the game – there is no RMT going on here.
As an aside, isn’t it sort of sad that we have to put in disclaimers like that?
Beyond the leveling mechanic, there are a few other interesting things going on. You can use Magic spells (which also level-up) during combat, for example. I also appreciated the ability to trigger the next wave early, which not only ramps up the difficulty but also gives you bonus resources, making it an interesting strategic decision. At first, anyway.
When it comes to Tower Defense games, I always use Sanctum as my high-water mark for the sub-genre (I count Orcs Must Die! in a different category). Under that sort of rubric, Prime World… is no Sanctum. For each story mission that you unlock, there are three satellite maps attached to it that correspond with Easy/Medium/Hard. These satellites are basically random battles in a typical RPG, allowing you to farm in-game currency and get additional cards/towers. The overall map structure in these random battles varies very little (there are less than 10 unique maps), but the empty squares available to place your towers might be filled in with rocks, enemy towers, or power-ups that boost the efficacy of any towers placed there. Enemy composition is variable as well, along standard genre lines such as mass of weaklings, tough tanks, flying enemies, and so on.
The overall effect of this random battle setup makes completing said random battles fun… at least for a while. The problem that arises, and my core complaint about the game, seems inevitable in retrospect: grinding/farming is required. The story missions increase in difficulty pretty linearly, although you will likely experience huge leaps every 4-5 missions. Sometimes the leaps will be in the form of Boss encounters, which feature an ultra-tough mob that standard towers are unlikely to defeat; other times mob HP just scales out of control.
Simply put, it does not matter how awesome your tower strategy ends up being when the game is balanced around you leveling-up your towers. And, indeed, if you dedicate enough of your time to power-leveling at the beginning, certain towers will basically allow you to coast to victory with no thought required. A level 1 tower costs the same the place on a map as a level 25 tower, despite the latter dealing +800 more damage and having a greater area of effect.
I do not necessarily want to give the impression that the game is broken or anything. It’s just that, well, I was stuck on one of the story missions for the longest time, trying all sorts of different strategies and tower setups. I even looked up how other people were completing the mission. Nothing I did worked… until I dedicated 5 hours to farming random missions and got enough currency to upgrade my towers five or six levels apiece. The whole time I was farming, I was winning those missions using, literally, three of the same tower.
The whole game isn’t like that, but this particular story mission was a badly tuned break in the progression curve. And the sad fact is: this is technically a viable solution to every mission. Will you still feel clever replaying a tricky mission over and over knowing that you could technically just out-level it? And sometimes have to? Those questions are something you will have to answer for yourself.
If you are a fan of Tower Defense games, I would say that Prime World: Defenders is a solid entry in the sub-genre. If you care less about the sub-genre and more about compelling games themselves, well, you will probably still have fun for a while. As an on-and-off-again MMO player, I experienced considerable pull towards playing “just one more map” and farming money/XP fodder for my towers. As long as you know what you are getting yourself into, you will probably be fine with Prime World: Defenders. Just to be safe though, I would wait for a Steam/bundle deal.