The tower defense genre has seen many slight variations in gameplay over its storied career, and many tweaks to its humble origin formula. Coming to this game style as a bona fide greenhorn, I took the new entry in the genre by Paradox Interactive – or rather, it took me – for a whirl, and came out of the other side a better and more well-rounded man for it, though slightly the worse for wear due to some questionable tactical choices forced on me during my time playing Defenders of Ardania.
The realm of Majesty is seeing strange happenings: the dead rising from their graves, once-friendly neighbors turning on each other without cause, powerful magic casters corrupted by malevolent forces and running loose against their countrymen. As king of your people, you travel to a neighboring kingdom to investigate a mysterious attack upon your peaceful lands, and thus quickly become embroiled in a continent-spanning conflict against evil forces and dark powers. Thus are set up the game’s single-player campaign, as well as the factions and various units used in Ardania‘s extensive multiplayer component.
Throw ‘Em in a Blender
Ardania takes most of the variants introduced in various tower defense games that came before it, and rolls them into one fantasy-themed bundle. At its heart, of course, are the towers that must be placed strategically around the battlefield to keep your base safe from oncoming harm. Various towers have different attributes; some work well against ground tank units, while others will efficiently take down airborne enemies. Tower placement is further dictated by how far your influence extends into a given map; some spaces cannot be built upon (you can’t, for example, wall in the opposing base with your towers), and some spaces will offer attack bonuses or spikes in resource gathering to their controlling player.
Players are also given free rein in the troops they send out to do battle for them. Troop types each come with their own unique statistics: Clerics are able to heal and have an incredible amount of armor, while rogues are easily felled but run fast enough that large numbers can survive most traps by virtue of their speed alone. As the game progresses, you’ll unlock further unit types, and can put together squads consisting of as varied an assortment of troops as you like, provided you have the necessary resources to pay their costs. The more you use each type of unit per battle, the more it gathers experience, ultimately leveling up to grow stronger and eventually give you access to a hero unit of the corresponding class. Unfortunately, all experience collected, resources gathered, and hero classes unlocked resets at the end of battle, forcing you to “go through certain motions” each time a battle begins just to regain a militaristic upper hand over your opponent.
Finally, Defenders of Ardania incorporates magic spells into its gameplay, gradually giving players access to both defensive and offensive casting types. Spells must be used sparingly, though; not only do they consume large quantities of your gathered resource pool, but also work on a cooldown timer (the “Repair Base” spell comes with quite a hefty cooldown price tag, taking several minutes to be available again after casting, and costing a cool 500 resource points). It is clear that magic, while a welcome addition especially in multiplayer matches, is of less pressing import than tower placement and unit types, as it is economically unfeasible to wage war based primarily on the arcane arts.
Two’s Company, Three’s a Crowd…and Too Much to Ask For
The developer has also placed a lot of emphasis on the game’s extensive multiplayer component. In addition to the seventeen single-player maps, one can choose to battle it out via server, with or against other like-minded battlefield quarterbacks. Offering a standard free-for-all mode, as well as team-based 2-on-2 and team survival, and three different armies from which to choose (each with its own aesthetic, towers, and units), some frantic online wars can be waged here.
However, some words of caution must be heeded: I found it exceedingly difficult to get an online match going; other players were few and far between. The matches themselves take place on a random map pulled straight from the single-player campaign. All unit and tower types, as well as magic spells, are automatically unlocked in multiplayer match-ups, eliminating any edge one player might have had. In fact, apart from their visuals, all three of the armies have virtually identical units and towers; they may look different, but each side has one aerial unit, one swarmer, one anti-tank tower, etc. Since both sides also have control over the same healing spell – on the same-length timer, restoring the same amount of health -, multiplayer matches can become quite long and tedious affairs in which it is ultimately quite frustrating to gain a clear foothold. Every move you make can essentially be copied verbatim by your opponent.
The Age-Old Question: Moore or Connery?
The game’s presentation was a bit of a mixed bag. I wish I could say I was more in love with the visuals, which are colorful, clean, and incorporate all the projectiles, forked lightning strikes, and glittery healing clouds you could want. But I found myself wanting for more visual detail to marvel at during battles; sadly, as general, you’re tasked with keeping an eye on the big picture, oftentimes making it impossible to even glance at the mini-map to see troop movement, much less follow your miniscule troops in real-time. The game does take you to some rich locales: washing up on the beaches of the “New World” and standing against the animals attacking from Incan-inspired temples evoked a suitably Conquistadorian-type feeling, and exploring a mysterious uncharted island with a giant lighthouse overrun by minotaur behemoths recalled all the grandiose splendor one associates with the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
The audio, too, was touch-and-go. It’s possible to become used to the game’s disparaging voice acting – hell, in the case of the Sean Connery sound-alike who doubles as your main advisor and much of the game’s tutorial, as well as providing the flavor text before each mission, the over-the-top performance even became endearing and just “sounded right” after a while -, but the mindless clanging and blasting coming from twenty defensive towers and thirty to forty troops running around the stage becomes very droning and monotonous after a solid fifteen minutes of continuous battle.
The Final Verdict
Defenders of Ardania is a competent yet imperfect tower defense title. A pretty presentation, a plethora of gameplay concepts, and a fantastical presentation are marred somewhat by a redundant online experience that wants to deliver but lacks the cooperation of fellow gamers, some spotty decision-making (the Waypoint system to redirect my troops didn’t make a fan out of me, and I hated the introduction of a game-changing super-villain at the last second of a bout I had spent twenty minutes on, that one-hit decimated my base after I had clearly already destroyed the enemy camp), and the deafening clang of battle-hardened steel that can safely be muted. Still, Defenders of Ardania does feature some challenging gameplay – early levels had me believe it was all just about waging a war of attrition, and he who sent out the most rogue runners would emerge victorious; I soon learned better… – and a campaign mode that gradually introduces new skills and concepts and thus acts as a good way to learn the ropes of the genre. If you’re all about the online strategizing, Defenders of Ardania may leave you staring at the game lobby for longer than you like, but those interested in the single-player haul will find a solid game waiting in store.