There’s something about naming a character at the beginning of an RPG that gives a player some emotional investment. Whether that’s from years of Pavlovian grooming or because the process has an intrinsic value game creators discovered long ago, Level Up Labs clearly understands the principle and puts it to good use. To avoid diminishing its impact, suffice it to say that from the moment Defender’s Quest: Valley of the Forgotten begins, it’s clear that you’re playing an excellent game.
Playing as a royal librarian who finds herself surrounded by discarded victims of the plague, you discover early on that you have some sort of mystical power which lets you face these Revenant souls on their own plane – a plane where striking down these undead turns them into the good ol’ fashioned, just plain dead. Apparently this is enough to win the popular vote as friends begin to flock to your cause and work towards stopping the source of the creatures.
The core gameplay of Defender’s Quest is a simple but effective blend of the tower defense and roleplaying genres. The game plays out in single screens linked by moving on an overhead map between set points, where nearly every stop along the way involves fending off a set number of enemy waves. Inside battles the game plays exactly like a standard tower defense game, where enemies start from a particular point and your goal is to prevent them from reaching (and killing) your main character. Where the RPG portion of the title comes in is the preparation that occurs before entering a fight.
Stopping in towns along your path will let you purchase and equip different weapons and armor, as well as hire additional mercenaries. As you gather well armed comrades, battle victories will progress you through the story and you’ll eventually be able to hire six different unit types, each with their own strengths and weaknesses in combat. These units include archers, berserkers, knights, healers, ice mages and a little fiery surprise. The key to winning won’t just be correctly deploying units on the enemies’ path, but also whether or not you’ve gained enough experience and put your skill points to good use.
At the end of every fight, whether you win or lose, every unit in your army gains some experience (though they gain more if they actually participate and you win the battle). Once a unit levels up you can assign skill points to various abilities, bolstering existing attacks or learning new techniques that allow you to hit multiple enemies, cause status effects, or survive enemy onslaughts longer. Even your hero can increase in power, learning new spells and increasing her store of Psi, which is the magical energy used to bring allies into your ethereal plane and also to upgrade your “towers” to use purchased attacks.
Despite the fact that the majority of your time will be spent in combat, including going back to previous stages and upping the difficulty for larger rewards, in the moments where the game is telling its story you’ll find a great sense of humor there; even better are the hidden jokes, like earning a special item for finding a way to dislike Facebook. Even though characters lose a little personality when purchasing randomly generated additional units, the core original unit of each type has its own part to play in the narrative. Of course, the fact that I can even say “narrative” and “tower defense” in the same review is impressive enough, but as far as creating a compelling world that pushes you toward the next battle, Defender’s Quest easily matches other great entries like Defense Grid and Anomaly: Warzone Earth.
If there’s anything negative to say at all about Defender’s Quest it would be… well, nothing really. I was going to talk about the art style and how it is obvious that it wasn’t done with a blockbuster budget, but objectively the cutscenes in the game look good. The sprites for the characters in combat are a bit simplistic, but that is appreciated in later levels when there are hundreds of enemies marching towards your main character and all your troops’ special abilities are firing at over four times regular speed. In these instances there was a nearly imperceptible slow down, though the creators do warn of this possibility when maxing out the graphics settings. This slow down comes nowhere close to the molasses Super Grinder sessions of Defense Grid (nor does it ever result in lock ups or crashes on wave 88 out of 100). Could Level Up Labs have done more with more money? Of course. But the same could be said of all of our efforts in life, so it’s hard to fault them for that.
As if all of that wasn’t enough, even when you beat the fifteen hour game there’s a New Game + mode which lets you start over, keeping your army and experience while running your troops through greater challenges with side quests, upgradeable weapons and more. And if there’s any aspect of the game that’s not quite up to your standards – change it.
The game features a built in modification button which lets you change virtually every aspect under the sun, all DRM free. Those graphics really bothering you? If you think you can do better, within five minutes you can change it. If you really wanted, you could find pictures of kittens on the internet and replace every single enemy (or soldier) with a feline. Don’t like the dialogue? Write your own and put it into the cutscenes (which is recommended if you are using kitten soldiers, because otherwise the plot doesn’t make sense). Then when you’re done, name it the Kitten Mod and share it with the world.
Just about the only people that wouldn’t enjoy this game are those who hate tower defense games or anything involving an RPG. Defender’s Quest may have borrowed the concept of blending two popular genres together from Puzzle Quest, but the end results are every bit as engaging. The only gripe I have is that prior to its release on Steam last week, apparently this great game was originally released back in January. And I was never notified.
SCORE: 10 out of 10
A copy of Defender’s Quest: Valley of the Forgotten was provided to Pixel Related for review.