by Sergio Brinkhuis
reviewed on PC
Reading the name Excubitor, you’d be forgiven thinking that you are looking at someone mangling some forgotten word in the English language. As the title for a game, it sounds a little fiddly, perhaps even a bit forced. A little research learns that it’s actually a particularly apt name for the role you play in the game. Excubitors were a group of elite soldiers who functioned as the imperial guard of the Byzantine emperors. The name literally translates into sentinels, and guard is exactly what you will be doing in Kasedo’s Excubitor.
The premise of Excubitor is simple: a wormhole appears in our solar system, heralding the dawn of a new golden age of mankind. On the other side of the wormhole lies Baphomet, a system rich in planets and rife with something called voidshards that contain near limitless energy. You are in command of the Hammerhead. A small but powerful vessel designed to guard the Antares, your mothership slash science vessel as it roams from planet to planet to study and collect these voidshards.
In essence, Excubitor is a carefully repackaged tower defense game. The Antares positions itself on the map at the start of each game and your primary role is to ensure its survival throughout each of the missions. Your enemies, of course, are hell-bent on destroying your mobile safe haven and they will do so with waves upon waves of destructive hardware. Some of that hardware has some brains to it, others are mindless drones that have only one objective: get close to the target and explode on impact. There is some verticality here as well - enemies come with wheels, tracks or wings.
The Hammerhead is both fast and capable. Quick hands can have it dodge incoming attacks for a fair length of time but while that is useful when you are the target, it doesn’t do to have your enemies turn on the Antares instead. The ship can be upgraded with a good variety of weapons, armor and other improvements such the ability to stun nearby enemy vessels. Most of the available gadgets make short work of the more common enemies but later waves generally consist of either ridiculous amounts of small-fry targets, or a handful of beefier stuff. Tackling those waves can be a handful, especially when there are multiple coming towards the mothership at the same time.
Most of the missions play out on lifeless planets, mining stations, forgotten colonies or outer space. Both the Antares and the Hammerhead feel at home in any environment and the game’s missions play out pretty much the same, regardless of where you are. Some maps have a special feature that jolts things up a bit. An early mission sports giant fans that can be switched on for a short period of time to stop incoming attacks, another mission featured roadside explosives that would go off when targeted by the Hammerhead.
While those map-specific features add a bit of variety, it is the boss fights that offer the greatest variety and where things really get spicy. Every planet appears to have one big badass enemy that will have you pull your hair out trying to defeat it. Looking at the mirror, I must have played this game before. Whether on land, in the air or in space, bosses are universally hard to take down. A giant tank coming after your mothership, a grotesque spaceship seeking to snuff out the life of your little exploratory party, it’s scary stuff and hairy to say the least. The game will instruct you that you have to take out the individual parts of these behemoths one by one, but what it doesn’t tell you is that these parts are repaired and that you will be defending the Antares simultaneously. Leaving it alone while you deal with biggy is a sure path to oblivion, making these fights feel a little unfair at times.
Equipping your ship for the boss fights is paramount, but you can’t spend all of your credits on upgrades. A good tower defense game will let you place defenses along the routes that enemies take to get to their target and Excubitor is no different. Fixed emplacements on the map can be outfitted with defensive turrets like lasers and missile launchers, which then can be upgraded so that they do more damage or fire at a speedier rate. It’s tried and true gameplay that works but doesn’t offer anything new beyond the requirement for the Hammerhead to be present to initiate the building and upgrading.
Excubitor is a fairly simple game and I don’t think its developers set out to make it complicated. Tower defense mechanics aren’t that deep to begin with and the game doesn’t stray too far from those mechanics. Frantic gameplay keeps you on the edge of your seat though, and the storyline is engaging enough to give you the motivation to start another mission. The true heroes of the game, however, are the comprehensive boss fights which add flavor where it is needed most.
Novel approach to tower defense.
Boss fights can be too hard, feeling unfair.