The best defence...
For many gamers, 'tower defence' means little more than Plants vs. Zombies, Gears of War 3's Horde 2,0 and a dim memory of a Final Fantasy VII mini-game. For others (let's call these 'PC gamers') it's a staple strategy game subgenre that found its feet with internet-browser flash games and mods of existing RTS game mods. The genre recently enjoyed a renaissance in downloadable games for consoles and handhelds, but while titles like Defense Grid set a new standard, the genre's reputation has suffered under countless hastily produced, poorly balanced knock-offs.
With Defenders of Ardania, Paradox Interactive hopes to win over both sides with an accessible tower defense game that partners a light-hearted style with satisfyingly deep strategy. The 'Ardania' of its generic Tales-like title is the world of the real-time strategy series Majesty and so it should come as no surprise that the proudly boasted 'twist' of Defenders is RTS elements.
Paradox have made it clear that this will not the kind of tower defence game that will stand idly by while waves of enemies batter down the doors. With an opposing tower to topple and the units and spells to do it with, Defenders attempts to bring the battle to the enemy. It’s a brave attempt; the only question that remains is: should it have stayed indoors?
...is a good offence
At first glance, Defenders is a familiar offering. A top-down, grid-based tower defence with lines of enemies slowly but tirelessly marching across a range of grass/fire/snow environments, turrets cutting them down as they navigate the maze of obstructions set out in wait for them.
It's only on closer inspection you see that there are two lines of combatants marching across that screen. They take pot shots at each other as they pass but they are clearly more interested in the towers than each other. The inclusion of units means unit management, which means resource management - and while there is no harvesting in Defenders there is a steady stream of resources in to your account which you must use judiciously.
Not content to double your workload, developers Most Wanted Entertainment have thrown in spells that can be used to directly harm enemy troops or help yours. These can be researched to unlock more effects and using them involves some satisfying screen tapping on the iPad. Use too many though, and it begins to lower your score, threatening your victory.
Death from above
Defenders is high fantasy with a colourful style that stays on the right side of caricature. The animations are simple yet engaging, and appear to run smoothly even on the iPad during particularly demanding heights of battle.
There are three factions to play as; with the humans, elves and dwarves of the Majesty series uniting under the banner of the 'Civilised' faction in order to fight the 'Underworld' (undead, werewolves, wraiths) and the 'Monstrous' (dragons, minotaurs etc.). Each has 8 towers and 8 units unique to them -with potential upgrades for each unit type during battle- and they all have their home turf, featuring interactive elements to be taken advantage of by either side.
Good walls make good neighbours
Defenders offers a full single-player campaign but multiplayer is where its worth will truly be tested. Allowing two to four players to battle co-operatively or free-for-all, with AI opponents to fill in the gaps, the game allows the player to assume the role of defender, attacker or both. Despite apparently identical releases on PC, XBLA, PSN and iPad there is currently no cross-functionality between platforms, so the danger of an empty iPad lobby could deter potential players.
Strategy games (especially tower defence) are often slow-paced offerings where tactical decisions rely on pattern recognition that might seem like uneventful repetition to an outsider. For all its experimentation, this hybrid RTS appears to do little to confound that perception and so it’s not clear what success it is likely to find with a wider audience.
For initiates, the demand is simple: balance and reliability. Tower defence is crying out for an injection of new life, and it could very well come this year –either from Defenders of Ardania or its (similarly titled) competitor Dungeon Defenders. What is clear is that for Defenders of Ardania to be successful it needs to separate itself from the onslaught of disappointing offerings that have come before it, else it will find its players have already built up walls against it.