Defender Story – Review

Defender Story

developed by Labour of Love Studio

As a first commercial endeavor from a fledgling indie studio, Defender Story is an extremely charming, and only slightly flawed, gem of a Tower Defense / RPG hybrid.  The one man indie team, Labour of Love Studio, has obviously tried to create a game that is both unique but also somewhat familiar to TD players.  Where other TD games have tried introducing a story and dialogue to add more meaning and depth to the strategy, Defender Story is also about hard choices and the consequences surrounding them.  The story itself is interesting, and the decisions you make alter the way you’ll play through the game, especially in the early stages.  There are a few curious design choices regarding the user interface, but persistent players will find themselves rewarded with challenging gameplay and a different kind of TD experience.

The story starts off in a dark medieval fantasy world.  You play the role of Arlong Strongheart, a weathered and battle-worn knight who has retired from the Brotherhood of the Shield.  It is your desire to spend your final days as an errand knight, defending the weak and punishing the unjust.  Unfortunately for you, making the right decisions along the way isn’t always easy, and consequently, someone usually has to suffer for it.

The story itself is quite strong actually, however it is also hindered in a few places by broken English and a handful of grammatical errors.  It’s not difficult to make out where the writing is going however, or the developer’s intended direction for the fantasy, but it does become a little bit distracting at times.  What’s unique though is that the story is shaped by the player and their decisions between levels.  While progressing the story before and after each level, players are allowed to make “Choose Your Own Adventure” style decisions in between stages that will ultimately have an affect on which types of units will become available on in the following stages.  Do you help a group of poor farmers defend their land, or will you allow the weak to die so that the strong might continue surviving?  There are numerous decisions to make such as this, throughout the 24 level campaign.

Defender Story is a somewhat challenging game to begin with.  The Tower Defense mechanics follow a common formula, the enemy enters a stage from one area and proceeds in waves along a predetermined route in order to reach their objective and the area which you are trying to protect.  It’s up to the player to place units along the route these enemies are taking, in such a way as to prevent the enemy from reaching their goal for that stage.  Early stages have very straightforward paths that the enemy must follow, but shortly into the game, stages start to become elaborate mazes with multiple branching pathways for the enemy to traverse.  The later levels become particularly challenging due to these branching paths.

Distributing units across each battlefield requires careful placement and planning, and the fact that resources are limited, particularly in the beginning, means that your units are very weak at the start.  It’s not explained in great detail via the in-game help, but in order to gain levels and strengthen your units, you’re going to have to kill a lot of enemies, and even fail your first few stages.

There is a great deal of trial and error involved, and even a little bit of head scratching, because a few of the games nuances lack detailed information.  If you have the patience to stick with the gameplay though you soon realize that defeating enemies reaps the reward of gaining XP (experience points) and gold, which can be used to level up your main character and your other units.  The XP gained from defeating your enemies is compounded.  Even when you are defeated and lose a level, you still get to keep any experience points that you haven’t spent.  This means that you can play a stage over and over in order to level up your characters so that they are strong enough to handle the enemy in subsequent stages.  You don’t usually find level grinding in a Tower Defense game, but in Defender Story it almost becomes a necessity.

As mentioned above, the types of units you may use are based on the decisions you make throughout the story sections, which unfold between each stage of the campaign.  The units available for placement around each stage are your main character, Arlong Strongheart, and  basic farmer units.  Farmers are very weak, have a limited short range attack, and they require a certain amount of gold before they can be placed within a stage.  Destroying enemies adds more gold to your purse, however, gold is not compounded.  This means that you start each stage with a predetermined amount for spending on your initial defenses.

Finally, one of the other important resources you have are colored gems.  These gems are another form of resource which the player can use to upgrade their farmer units and turn them into one of the other various and more powerful units that become available.  The type of units which you may transform your farmer units into are available based on the choices you’ve made throughout the story in-between stages.  You create one of these powerful characters by placing a combination of colored gems on top of your farmers.  The only way to gain more gems is by killing enemies.  These gems are dropped randomly and can only be picked up by pointing and clicking on them whenever they’re dropped by a defeated enemy.

Once you have enough gems, you’ll be able to turn your farmer units into archers, witches, paladins, wizards, and a handful of other units.  Each unit has it’s own abilities, attack range, and usefulness.  It all sounds a bit confusing at first, and things are made more complex due to the lack of explanation regarding some game mechanics, but once you get the gist of it the mechanics, things start to click and slowly fall into place.  The gameplay is purposefully challenging but considering that levels are meant to be played over and over, you’ll eventually be able to level up and have strong enough units to progress.

The controls in Defender Story are simple.  It’s a basic point and click interface without the need for hotkey memorization.  Unfortunately one of the things that I found a little lacking was the user interface or UI.  The layout isn’t bad but some of the icons around the game screen aren’t entirely explained.  In the beginning the enemies seem quite strong so you’ll want to familiarize yourself with the UI as early as possible.  Thankfully you can pause the action and place your units, even while an enemy wave is actively on the screen. The action also pauses when you level up your main character and defensive units.

Oddly enough, whenever you do level up your units, you need to bring up the in-game menu which also acts as the options menu.  This isn’t a major issue, but considering that all of the other main game features are in this menu, you’ll want to be careful not to press the restart or quit game buttons by accident.  The mouse interface works well but the funny thing is, given the casual controls and interface, Defender Story seems like it might be even better suited for play on an iPad or Android Tablet using touchscreen controls.  Don’t mistake the simple design for an easy TD experience though, because Defender Story does come with an added layer of complexity within its mechanics.

Graphically, Defender Story is almost entirely comprised of hand drawn art.  The visual design is quite good though units might seem a little small if left at the default setting.  This will be different from player to player depending on your monitor size, but you can always up the resolution in order to see the play field and units better. The static cutscenes between levels are particularly good as they look hand painted and are nicely detailed.  The music is very good as well though it does become a bit repetitive when playing a stage over and over.  Still, the graphics and sound work well to create a nice visual style and unique aesthetic.

Defender Story does feel like it could use a bit more polish, but the fundamental gameplay mechanics, strategy, role-playing, and decision making are all there.  It’s a unique Tower Defense game that should provide quite a decent challenge, even for veteran TD players.  Be prepared to spend a little bit of time learning some of the mechanics on your own though.  If you can overlook some of the minor flaws and aren’t deterred by it’s slightly more complex unit upgrading system, then you’ll find yourself hooked by Defender Story’s particular charm and uniqueness.

Defender Story is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux.  You can pick up the full game right now for the low-low price of $3.99 over at Desura.  You can also purchase Defender Story through the Labour of Love Studio website where you’ll also find a playable demo, giving players access to the first 6 stages of the game.

[   7   /   10   ]