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Tower Defense is Weird

In defiance of Karthu’s warnings, I decided to download and play the F2P Dungeon Defenders 2. And the experience has been… weird. But not for the reasons you might expect.

Or maybe precisely the reasons you expect, based on the title.

If you never played the Dungeon Defender series, the basic premise is very similar to Orcs Must Die or Sanctum: tower defense + controlling a hero on the field. In other words, placing towers to destroy masses of enemies flooding down lanes, and getting your hands dirty in the process to support faltering lines. Dungeon Defenders also throws in Diablo-esque loot explosions and furious gear upgrading into the mix.

I am just now coming to realize the fundamental problem with Dungeon Defenders 2 though, and it has nothing to do with the game itself, but with the genre. Specifically, the better you get at tower defense, the less you get to play the game. Obvious, right? But I’m pretty sure I enjoy tower defense games, or at least did. With Dungeon Defenders 2 I just realized that once you get past a certain point, e.g. when your towers can handle the wave by themselves, you just… do nothing.

It feels counter-intuitive. It feels like a punishment, rather than a reward.

Or maybe the issue is that unlike some other tower defense games, there isn’t a way to speed up the waves being released. I can increase the difficulty – and most likely will – but the inflection point I’m trying to reach is the one where my towers kill everything but in the lane I am personally defending. Which still seems pretty weird when you think about it. You want to be just barely unable to go AFK during the match. That is the height of fun in the genre.

Right? Am I wrong?

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Impression: Kingdom Rush

So… anyone got mobile strategy(-ish) game recommendations? I’m on a bit of a kick here.

I am currently playing Kingdom Rush and finding it rather fantastic. Tower Defense is one of those genres that seems sort of shallow on the face of it – and perhaps even is in the scheme of things – but I’m liking how it’s presented here in Kingdom Rush. You have the standard lanes, tower placement, and varied enemies with their rock-paper-scissors attributes. Even the implementation of a somewhat controllable hero and magic powers seems almost standard these days.

The very attractively stylized graphics doesn't hurt either.

I could go AFK for the next two waves, honestly.

The thing that strikes me though is that the lanes in KR are wide. In other words, the enemies marching down the road and the resulting battles feel a bit more organic, as your soldiers might engage near the edge of the lane and allow a few enemies on the far end slip past. There is a granularity there, a sense that slight tweaks to troop or hero placement will result in better outcomes. Tower choice is such a huge change that there are clearly better options given the enemies you face (high magic defense vs high armor defense). Moving your troops just slightly to the left of the corner though? The result might be better just 5% of the time, but that 5% chance gives you the opportunity to demonstrate mastery over the game mechanics.

Of course, just like with most other Tower Defense games I have played, discovering OP combinations of towers usually results in me going through the motions for the rest of the game’s duration. I am definitely at that stage with Kingdom Rush right now, although it has lasted longer than other, similar games like Bloons.

So, yeah. I’m also playing Clash of Clans (near max TH7 base) at the moment. I have enjoyed the aforementioned Bloons TD 5, iBomber Defense, and the Anomaly series. I recently picked up Ironclad Tactics from the latest Humble Bundle but haven’t played it yet. Heard good things about Card Crawl too, and might actually pick it up if I can mentally prepare myself for playing on my tiny iPod Touch screen. Speaking of iPods, that reminds me of Hero Academy… another good one from back in the day. And presently perhaps? It’s been a while.

Give me your best strategy, Tower Defense, and/or card game games. Apps. Whatever.

Reviews: RAGE, Crysis, Sanctum 2

Game: RAGE
Recommended price: $0; bundle
Metacritic Score: 79
Completion Time: 13 hours
Buy If You Like: Racing games with FPS elements

What you'll be doing most of the time.

What you’ll be doing most of the time.

RAGE is a simplistic, 27gb racing game with some FPS bits tossed in.

Perhaps that is not entirely fair. If you include all the time you spend backtracking through the same exact environments, Halo-style, the game probably comes out to be 51% FPS or thereabouts.

In RAGE, you take control of a mute super-soldier who just woke up from cryo in the post-apocalypse future. After being rescued from some blood-thirsty raiders, you join the most generic-named faction in the world, the Resistance, to fight against the second-most generic-named faction, the Authority. Apparently the “Ark” containers (like the one you were on) were all supposed to be opened at the same time to usher in a new age of civilization. Turns out other Ark survivors somehow stopped that from happening, thus establishing themselves as rulers over the populace that apparently didn’t need space technology to survive the apocalypse.

Technically the above is a whole mess of spoilers, but considering there is literally no other plot, no character development, no competant writing, or really any redeeming factor for the game, it becomes necessary to work with what you got.

The set pieces can be kind of cool.

The set pieces can be kind of cool.

I take that back. There is precisely one thing RAGE got amazingly correct: melee enemies that are legitimately scary. The typical FPS that features melee enemies usually has to rely on them being bullet sponges or incredibly fast to compensate for their lack of cover-usage. In RAGE, melee enemies dodge back and forth, run up the walls, swing from ceiling fixtures, and otherwise make you reevaluate your damn-near-futile attempts at shooting them in the head. While I’m sure a lot of their acrobatics came down to heavy environmental scripting, it’s still something I’d like to see in games going forward.

What I would not like to see ever again is such a piss-poor implementation of damn near everything else. Little things start to grate on your nerves, like how pressing Esc brings up the main menu instead of canceling out of the Tab menu. Or like how you can hit Esc, choose Quit Game, and then it takes you to the Title screen where you have to hit Enter and then Quit Game again just to leave. Or how you have the ability to jump in the game, but not enough height to actually jump over anything 99% of the time.

I can appreciate the devs rebelling against the “only carry two weapons” FPS headwinds, but out of the nine weapons, eight of them have at least one extra type of special ammo. The crossbow carries normal arrows, explosive arrows, electric arrows, and mind-control arrows. Cool… except there is exactly one stage that allows electric arrows to do anything special (the stage they’re introduced in), and the vast majority of the enemies you fight after getting mind-control arrows are either immune to the effects or infeasible to use against.

In the end, RAGE doesn’t know what it wants to be or to do, and neither do I. Well, other than wishing I was playing something else. If you can grab it as part of a bundle, it’s worth checking out the legitimately scary melee enemies. But I wouldn’t necessarily give up a box of Girl Scout cookies for the privilege.

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Game: Crysis
Recommended price: $0; bundle
Metacritic Score: 91
Completion Time: ~15 hours
Buy If You Like: Benchmarking your PC, Sandbox-ish FPS games

Seriously, 2007, folks.

Seriously, 2007, folks.

Crysis came out in 2007, nearly seven years ago, and was the long-reigning benchmark of PC gaming everywhere. Not necessarily in terms of gameplay, but literal benchmarking – if your rig could play Crysis on High, you were hot shit back in the day. Crysis 3 was out for months before I acquired the original in some Steam sale or another, but I wanted to give the original its due, especially considering I finally had a computer (in 2012) that could run this beast.

Unfortunately, Crysis on Steam caused me considerable issues. I honestly cannot begin to recount exactly what steps were required, but I know some modding and 3rd-party downloads had to be done before the game would even boot up. Even when it deigned to boot, I experienced a C2D event roughly every hour or two on top of game-stopping bugs like missions not ending correctly.

Outside of those issues though? Damn, people weren’t kidding about the graphics thing. I mean, the game basically looks kinda like Skyrim, but Skyrim was released in 2013.

What I was really surprised by was the general gameplay though. Crysis is a FPS game where you control an elite soldier equipped with a nanosuit that has a handful of alternate abilities like cloaking, super-strength, super-speed, etc. Unlike perhaps every other game in existence though, you get all of those abilities right at the start. Indeed, most of the game consists of you getting a primary and secondary objective on a large map and being told to hop to it; the pseudo-nonlinearity really reminded me of the original Far Cry. This leads to the game feeling rather easy though, as for the most part you can abuse Cloaking and jungle-hiding to take out basically every enemy in the game, especially considering the suit provides regenerating health.

Overall, Crysis is FPS in which what you do in the first 30 minutes of gameplay is the same thing you’ll be doing in the last 30 minutes of gameplay. The graphics and environments are phenomenally well-done, but I’m not entirely convinced it would be worth the headache of installation unless you want revenge on its at-the-time insane PC requirements.

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Game: Sanctum 2
Recommended price: $0
Metacritic Score: 77
Completion Time: 10 hours
Buy If You Like: Console ports of a dumbed-down sequel

That 15-tower limit is fun in multiplayer, let me tell you.

That 15-tower limit is fun in multiplayer, let me tell you.

The original Sanctum, along with Orcs Must Die that was released around the same time, really sparked my interest in Tower Defense as a genre. Prior to that, Tower Defense was just associated with those annoying missions in RTS games that always seemed too hard or too easy. But Sanctum? Here is Tower Defense where you can not only build the maze yourself, but actually get down and dirty with shooting the bad guys. And multiplayer! So fun.

It’s just rather unfortunate that Sanctum 2 ended up being the sequel.

I have not even bothered to investigate it, but Sanctum 2 <i>feels</i> like everything that goes wrong with console ports of otherwise great PC games. There are four characters to choose from, each with various innate abilities and a main weapon that cannot be swapped out. Want to use the Sniper Rifle and Missile Launcher? Nope, that’d be too complicated. Instead of getting a pile of resources and having to carefully consider their application – do I build an extra-long maze, or upgrade all my towers? – you specifically get X number of wall units and Y amount of resources to apply to 15 deployed towers maximum. Oh, and everything is a tower now; there aren’t any floor traps (unless you count landmines).

Four walls and 400 resources? Gee, thanks, I'll get right on this maze.

Four walls and 400 resources? Gee, thanks, I’ll get right on this maze.

I can understand the logic behind most of these changes, as it pretty much universally speeds up the matches. “You can build 8 walls and drop maybe 2 towers this round, good luck.” I can wrap my head around breaking characters into distinct classes, as perhaps a way to foster more teamwork. The designers even took the time to introduce a Perk system to allow a bit more customization with characters. And hell, the ability to voluntarily buff enemies (sorta like in Bastion) to gain more XP is a pretty clever difficulty switch.

But at the end of the day? The game still felt like a truncated console port. I found a rather ridiculous combo of perks and weapons early on and sailed through the game with the exception of a few maps that had surprise bosses in them (most of which can simply destroy your maze walls). The tension between adding more walls or more towers afforded a surprising amount of strategic depth to the original game, and it’s simply absent here. In short: a lot of the things that were fun in Sanctum are replaced with either not-fun things or simply missing altogether.

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Review: Prime World: Defenders

Game: Prime World: Defenders
Recommended price: $5
Metacritic Score: Unrated (likely ~58)
Completion Time: 28 hours
Buy If You Like: Tower Defense, Grinding, TCG

Like most things, it's fun at first.

Like most things, it’s fun at first.

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.

text

Yes, I got to Wave 18 with just two towers.

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.

Tower costs the same, now deals +55 more damage.

Tower costs the same, now deals +55 more damage.

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.

Reviews: Torchlight, Orcs Must Die!

Game: Torchlight
Recommended price: $0
Metacritic Score: 83
Completion Time: ~17 hours
Buy If You Like: Bad, bad dungeon crawlers

Four enemy types, 20 different skins. *Yawn*

According to Wikipedia, the Uncanny Valley is a hypothesis in robotics and 3D animation which holds that when human replicas look and act almost, but not perfectly, like actual human beings, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers. In other words, humans respond positively to human-like robots up to a point, after which our reaction to its failings is far more negative than would be towards a clearly non-human machine. Based on my overall experience with Torchlight, I firmly believe there is an Uncanny Valley of Game Design, which Torchlight cratered into face-first.

To call Torchlight a Diablo-clone is misleading; I would term it more a Diablo-mockery, although that implies Torchlight was intentional in its failings rather than simply being a cheap knockoff, like Chinese powdered milk laced with industrial solvents.

At first, everything is classical Diablo in a Warcraft 3 skin: isometric, dungeon-delving gameplay, hordes of monsters, loads of loot. There even appears to be a lot of improvements to the formula. The dog/cat companion makes the delving feel more homely. The three classes are actually modular archetypes, such as being able to make the “archer” into a rogue, the “mage” into a tank, and even the “barbarian” into a ranged magic-user. Four generic spell slots for your character and two for the pet let you do some interesting things to complement your own class abilities. I thought the Fame mechanic (Fame is like a second XP bar that only gives you extra talent points) was a clever way of making the killing of named mobs important without necessarily making you overpowered.

It was around hour six though, that I realized that Torchlight had not yet blinked its glassy, vacuous eyes.

There is no real gear progression in Torchlight. Let that sink in for a moment. I received an orange-text Unique neck item around level 4 that I was unable to replace for the duration of the entire game. Random stats are random, but when a random level 10 green is as powerful as a random level 30 green, the entire loot-centric nature of this particular genre collapses. The consolation prize mechanic is Enchanting, where you put an item in a box and have about even-odds that you paid someone 10% of your wealth to destroy said item. No, seriously. Find a decent weapon, put it in a box, pay ~1200 gold for a chance to add a random stat upgrade on it, a chance that nothing happens other than your gold evaporating, or an increasing chance your item gets disenchanted, completely wiping all its stats. The first item I tested this on got disenchanted on a 4% chance, and the second was an Unique-quality bow that was disenchanted on the first, 2% attempt.

I got an achievement for it. No, seriously.

Bum Luck: You installed this game.

Now it did occur to me that perhaps they were attempting something novel, a kind of re-imagining of the transitory nature of loot in Diablo-esque games. An upgrade isn’t an upgrade off the ground, but only after you “win it” from the Enchanter, or something. The problem is that whoever balanced this garbage was a goddamn moron. Enchanting costs gold. A lot of gold. The items you pick up off the ground never really increase in value the deeper you dungeon delve, such that each time you unload your haul in town you get the same ~2500g at level 10 that you do at level 30. Even Epic or Unique items sell for complete peanuts; the highest price I got for a sale was 1,809g for the level 4 Unique necklace I mentioned earlier, which the vendor turned around and was trying to sell for 82,432g. That’s right, instead of the typical 1/3rd or 1/5th cut you see in normal games, Torchlight is operating on GameStop levels of Fuck You resale value. If something could be worse than selling at 1/45th value, it would have to be the necessity of Transmuting four pieces of magic gear to turn into a random crappy gem, which needs to be transmuted with ~12 more crappy gems to get a mildly useful gem, to have something to put into the sockets of the level 8 shoulders you are otherwise never going to replace.

I am spending all this time talking about loot because loot matters in these games. Once you cease expecting any upgrades, the endless, nondescript corridors are filled not with opportunity or excitement, but are instead arteries clogged with the fatty plaque deposits of meaningless mobs. The original Diablo did not have much of a plot beyond “save us from evil” that I can recall, but the setting of gritty evil provided its own sense of gravitas. Conversely, Torchlight does not even bother. “Sidequests” are perversions of the term, and amount to simply killing mobs you were going to kill anyway slogging towards the stairs. Even worse, the “quest rewards” for these things are randomized green items. Look at this shit:

Equipped item on right, "Quest Reward" on left. Note the Required Levels.

The thing I kept hearing regarding Torchlight was that former Diablo 1 & Diablo 2 designers worked on it. If their contribution to that series is at all representative of what I experienced in Torchlight, then all I can say is good goddamn riddance.

Well, that, and I have never looked forward to Diablo 3 more than I have now.

Game: Orcs Must Die! + DLC
Recommended price: $10 (DLC included)
Metacritic Score: 84
Completion Time: ~11 hours
Buy If You Like: More trap-based Sanctum tower defense

Few things feel better than killing orcs. Maybe Nazis. Or maybe Nazi zombie orcs.

Orcs Must Die (hereafter OMD) is one of the best, purest non-Tower Defense… Tower Defense games I have played. The premise is simple: the orcs are at the gates, and you must stop them. The rest of the game follows a simple elegance undermined only by the limitations of genre conventions.

To be honest, OMD felt like it had more in common with the brilliant PS1 Deception series than it does with Tower Defense. You start off each level by choosing a limited number of traps from your collection, in addition to personal weapons/spells that you will be using to kill the orcs. Traps range from spikes that impale from the the floor, to arrows that shoot from the wall, to mechanized swinging maces from the ceiling, to archer guardians; weapons include Fire/Ice/Lightning/Wind rings, to melee battlemage staves, to your trusty magic repeating crossbow. Later on, you can further select from 1 of 3 “Weavers” for that level, whom act as mini-talent trees that boost your effectiveness in different ways. Once your arsenal is selected, setting up traps costs a set amount of currency from a limited pool that grows between waves and from your merciless slaughter of orcish hordes.

And yet OMD deviates from the standard Tower Defense genre in many key, innovative ways. The most obvious is the fact that your Ash-from-Evil-Dead character can (and must!) get down and dirty in the fighting himself. While certain trap setups essentially make victory guaranteed, you typically won’t have enough currency to set them up in the early waves, and certain levels contain too many chokepoints to trust to traps alone. The standard orcs will actually chase you around if you are nearby, which can buy you some time for allow for traps to reset. Moreover, there are some enemy types like the ogres (fire, ice, and armored varieties) whom are too tough for typical traps to kill outright, and the downright scary Gnoll Hunters who leap over your orc-stopping waist-high barriers and hunt specifically for you.

Ain't no one going home tonight.

The other area in which OMD forges ahead is in its rather brilliant, non-standard level design. In typical Tower Defense, everything is gridded out in neat, orderly squares. While traps require certain precise placement, I never got the impression from any of the levels that they were build specifically to place your traps “just so.” Fluted columns and flying buttresses foil wall and ceiling traps respectively, while floor traps cannot be placed on stairs. Any time I actually saw a 2-3 “square-trap-wide” corridor, I would get excited, like I won the goddamn architectural lottery rather than feeling this was exactly where the designers wanted my traps to go.

While there are some additional innovations like permanently upgrading traps by spending the orc skulls you earn based on level performance, OMD is unfortunately limited by genre conventions. I applaud OMD for not falling into the Tower Defense trap (har har) of simply increasing the HP of the enemies as a crutch for increased difficulty among waves, but after a while you will come up with trap setups that are essentially unbeatable. Much like in every Tower Defense game I have ever played, the slow traps (e.g. Sticky Tar Trap) are fairly overpowered; similarly, some traps and weapons feel too good, especially compared to others that don’t seem to have a place. I almost feel as though the game would have been improved if there was a mode or option to where you get a randomized list of traps, rather than entirely relying on level design to inform your decision. Or if there was some kind of incentive to utilize the “bad traps” in unique ways – since the Leaderboards are based entirely on points, I could imagine some kind of score multiplier for trying to use the Steam Trap or Push Wall Trap effectively.

Ultimately, OMD provides for some very enjoyable orc-killing and trap-setting Tower Defense gameplay. There is a Nightmare mode available for the masochists out there that hate more than 3 seconds inbetween waves, or you can try and top the Leaderboards on the traditional levels; the latter is actually fairly addicting when you have Steam friends who have the game, since their scores are highlighted in comparison to your own. Even if you are not interesting in replay value, the general play value of OMD is exceptionally high for what amounts to an inexpensive indie game.

DLC – Artifacts of Power

This pack comes with two weapons and two traps. The Alchemist Satchel lets you toss down a sort of glass caltrop which you can detonate at any time with a right-click, by shooting it, or letting a trap trigger it for you; the explosion is huge and will one-shot every orc in range, making this a fairly overpowered weapon for the early game (before the later rings). The Vampiric Gauntlets essentially lets you drain health from whomever you are aiming at, while the right-click turns your own health into mana; overall, the effect is pretty weak compared to your other options. The Shock Zapper ceiling trap is ostensively for killing flying enemies, but considering it only triggers from enemies flying directly beneath it and the fact that flyers usually path nowhere near ceilings (nevermind that even if they did, there would be better traps for that) makes this damn near the most useless trap in the game. Finally, the Floor Scorcher is a combination mini-springboard/flamethrower that has made itself a staple of all of my setups. If you set a Floor Scorcher near a ledge but facing away, it will burn everyone in a horizontal line while launching whoever is standing on top off the edge. More importantly though, it is a floor trap with a ~3-square range, which allows you to layer on the pain.

I would never buy this DLC for the $2.49 normal price, but on a deep discount the Floor Scorcher alone might make it worth a purchase.

DLC – Lost Adventures

This pack gives you 5 new levels, at least one of which is a remake of a prior level (just in reverse), and the Mana Well. The Mana Well is a fairly expensive “trap” that essentially recharges your own mana bar when you get close to it. The extra levels allows you to get additional skulls if you want to upgrade more of your traps, but overall I was not entirely impressed with them. There is no additional story behind the levels or extra dialog, which kind of makes them feel extraneous. With a default price of $3.99, or over 25% of the cost of the entire game, you would have to be crazy to purchase this DLC outside of a 75% off Steam sale.

Review: Sanctum + DLC

Game: Sanctum + DLC
Recommended price: $10 (as in $10 for game + DLC)
Metacritic Score: 70
Completion Time: 12-20 hours
Buy If You Like: A little FPS in your Tower Defense

Sanctum is a Tower Defense game combined with FPS elements that starts blurring the definition of an “indie” title. The gameplay mechanics are tight, the background environments are amazing, and there is an overall degree of polish not necessarily seen in $10 games. About the only thing missing is something in the way of a narrative, which would arguably be out of place in a Tower Defense game anyway.

Not the most efficient maze by any means, but I was a noob.

That is not to say that Sanctum gets everything right. The base game goes for $9.99 on Steam, but includes includes only 6 maps. While you may spend 1-2 hours per map depending on whether you beat the 25-30 waves of aliens on your first try or not, the maps themselves correspond closer to archetypes than maps per se. For example, there is one completely open map, one map with aliens spawning on opposite sides, one ultra-huge map, one map with a maze pre-built, and so on. If you particularly enjoyed ultra-huge maps, well, you get just the one. Theorhetically Coffee Stain Studios can simply add more, but given the fact that four maps have been added as $2 DLC, it may soon start getting too expensive for the entertainment generated.

The one thing Sanctum has going for it is that each map supports a lot of customization options in terms of building mazes and placing towers. Indeed, the building of the maze to begin with feels like its own distinct game (which it arguably is). So if your favorite map is Arc, as long as you don’t build the same maze with the same towers while equipped with the same guns, it will be subtly different. Combine that with up to 4-player co-op and 4 different Survival Modes and 4 different difficulties, and the limited map options feel less oppressive.

That being said, keep in mind that Sanctum is a Tower Defense game at heart with FPS thrown in as well. Each wave is stronger than the last not through numbers or strategy, but simply an increase in alien HP. While upgrading your weapons and towers with resources generated via completed waves generally keeps pace (at least on Normal), the “difficulty” of the game really comes down to shooting the same thing more times. And since there is no randomness in alien behavior, the waves or types (you can see what’s coming 5 waves down the line), playing for long periods of time can quickly burn you out. Which probably could be summed up with “it’s Tower Defense, stupid.”

There is something very satisfying about getting your hands dirty.

Sanctum DLC Review:

Killing Floor ($0.99) – Floor tile that acts as a rechargeable land mine. The one big plus of this tile is that it consistently will damage Hoverers (i.e. the floaty aliens immune to damage from the front). That being said, I have found these fairly weak in comparison to standard Slow Fields or Amp Fields which come with the base game.

Penetrator ($0.99) – Tower block that shoots a beam that damages all enemies in a line. Sounds amazing at first, but its slow rate of fire and tracking issues means it will shoot diagonally most of the time and otherwise completely waste its multi-damage capability. Not recommended.

Violator ($0.99) – Tower block that creates a floating sniper rifle with a monsterous range that can hit ground or air targets with a single, powerful shot every few seconds. Personally, this is about as close as you can get to Pay To Win in a non-competitive game. The Violator can be a liability if you get both a bunch of fast ground AND air aliens since it may waste its shots on the little ones, but otherwise… god damn. This is typically my go-to Tower once the early Towers are out of the way.

Map: Aftermath ($1.99) – I am not a huge fan on this map for three reasons. The first is that the sloped middle section makes it much more difficult to traverse the tops of blocks. Second, there are frequently small gaps between blocks that can lead you to falling inbetween them in a heated moment. And finally, the overall layout prevents much Tower overlap, even with Violators. That aside, it has three decently-sized rectangle areas for maze placement and good Line of Sight to enemy spawn locations.

Map: Aftershock ($1.99) – Much like with Aftermath, this map features three main areas, has some angled terrain, and the possibility of falling inbetween some blocks. However, the map itself is more compact (good Violator/Morter coverage) and the maze itself is practically pre-built for you. That can either be good or bad depending on your tastes.

Map: Cavern ($1.99) – This is a heavily multi-tierred, practically pre-built non-air gauntlet. Cavern also introduces the concept of teleports for the first time, along with a sort of jump pad that will quickly send you flying up to higher levels. On Normal difficulty, I found this pretty ridiculously easy.

Map: Slums ($1.99) – Once again, a heavily-tiered map that essentially consists of two squares and two small rectangles to build mazes in. One of the complicating factors is that there are multiple teleports on each level, which can make planning even a simply maze feel like three-dimensional Chess. Since ground units emerge from a single location though, I found this map overall ridiculously easy on Normal difficulty – most foes died before they could make it off the first “island.” Combined with a default of only 13 waves, this felt like the shortest map in the game.

DLC Summation:

I received the three weapons for free as part of a bundle, and picked up the four maps on a Steam sale for $5. Given that I got everything for essentially $10, I am satisfied. Picking these up at non-sale prices… I would probably skip everything but the Violator. The four maps are fine, but since Aftershock, Cavern, and Slums come essentially pre-built, I don’t see much in the way of replay value.