Dungeon Defenders is a game that manages to blend two genres in a most interesting and effective way; not only is it a well-done and unique tower defense game, but it's also an action RPG in the same vein of Diablo and a stunning example of co-op play done right in both genres. I think the part that impresses me the most is that it's basically two complete games in one package for only 15 dollars (1200 MSP), and the amount of time you could put into it would be worth the price of a full retail game!
The story is pretty basic fantasy fare: The adults of the kingdom of Eternia have went on a quest to vanquish evil, leaving their children behind to care for the castle. Children, being children, enjoy dreams of grandeur and in their attempts to recreate the heroism of their parents they accidentally unleash an evil upon their kingdom; this forces them to embody the heroism they were emulating to defend their castle until their parents return. While the plot is basically only there to set up a framework for the game, I found the nuances of it to be endearing, most notably the fact that you play the children of the heroes, offering you an understandable explanation as to why you start off weak and with no real skills. The plot also elaborates on why you have to defend your crystals, so that was a nice treat, especially considering most tower defense games are happy to ignore plot entirely!
The four heroes in question are four different classes, each with vastly different abilities, play styles, and inherent difficulties. The Apprentice is the black mage, who erects elemental towers and uses his staff for ranged combat; he is inherently the easiest to play due to the variety and power of his abilities. The Squire is the knight in training; he focuses mostly on physical attacks but also builds constructs that push back or halt the enemies' progress. He is the second easiest to play due to his immense close quarters combat skills and effective defense towers. The Huntress is just that, the archer who specializes in ranged combat and setting traps. She is the second most difficult to use since her ranged combat requires occasional reloading and her traps don't last as long, but are immensely effective. The Monk is the last and most challenging of the classes to use. He has both ranged and close quarters attacks, and his towers are spherical auras that affect enemies and teammates with damage or status effects rather than straight up offense or defense. He's the hardest because his lack of direct skills makes him pretty useless at the beginning, but once you've taken the time to learn how to use and abuse his abilities, he's remarkably useful and is my personal favorite.
Each class has their own strengths and weaknesses that compliment and accentuate each other, making the game one of the best examples of cooperative play this side of Team Fortress 2. Any one class on its own is almost entirely useless due to their weaknesses (Apprentice has no physical power, Monk has no towers that stop the enemies from progressing, Squire has no range, Huntress has limited ammunition), but with a teammate that has a strength to cover your weakness, you can in turn set up an impenetrable defense that no enemies can hope to bypass. Even a team of only two allies is a force to be reckoned with, but the game unlocks its true potential with a group of 4 separate classes of equal skill. Once your team is properly assembled, you have all strengths and no weaknesses, which is really the only way to play the game on medium or any difficulty above that. Even the easy mode is likely to be too challenging when going solo. In fact, my first attempt at level 2 on easy was thwarted more than a dozen times before giving up and enlisting the aid of my brother to help finish it.
After setting up your defenses, the wave of enemies approaches, and the game shifts from being a tower defense game to an action RPG by allowing you to whip out your weapons to assist your towers and save your crystal. By the end of the game you'll be defending yourself against waves of up to and over 1000 enemies at once, which can get really challenging once you factor in the different enemy types and how they progress. As you defeat enemies you will get gems and loot for your troubles. The gems give you the mana used to do various tasks such as create/upgrade/heal your defenses as well as doubling as your overall currency when buying or upgrading weapons and pets. The loot you get is usually just useless weapons and armor that you can sell for more mana, but sometimes it'll be something remarkable, which is part of the fun in a game that randomizes its loot.
As expected for an action RPG/tower defense hybrid, the game is actually very deep. Not only do you have the four classes to chose from, but the sheer volume of items, upgrades, stats, and abilities to acquire and master is overwhelming at first. In fact, it took me hours to even begin to understand what was going on. Green numbers, red numbers, dozens of unique symbols with no words to explain what they mean, randomized weapons with their own stat sheets and upgrades, pets, etc. It all gets so very confusing until you spend a few hours tinkering with the menus and learning more about what's going on. It's not that it's poorly done, it's just that there's so many nuances to learn in the game that a proper tutorial would last longer than most download titles would ever take. In fact, I didn't even know you could assign abilities to hot-keys until after I'd beaten the game, even though I recall being told as much early on.
But don't worry, most of the features and options expose themselves to you through trial and error, and the campaign is long enough that you'll have more than enough time to learn everything you need to know. There are 12 main campaign levels in total, with a thirteenth bonus level; even on easy this ended up being a bit more than an hour a level on average. This means that, not even including the many retries that I had to do, the main campaign lasted me over 13 hours, which is more than most full retail games offer you anymore, but Dungeon Defenders sells for 1/4th the price! If you're the kind who is into replay value, you can repeat the story mode on the higher difficulties or play as a different class to lengthen the experience even further, and there's also a challenge mode in which each of the 13 levels also have their own unique challenge to complete. Each of these challenges alters the gameplay in a significant way; some levels force you to complete various waves of enemies without building a single tower, or flipping it around by forcing you to only build towers and not defend the crystals personally. Some of these challenges actually get really creative, such as the level where YOU have to storm THEIR stronghold to get THEIR crystal, or you have an ogre as an ally that you have to defend. It's a great way to mix it up and is much more challenging than I would have expected.
Honestly, the singleplayer campaign would have been more than enough for me, but the challenge mode really mixes things up in such a way that it practically doubles the game's value. I don't want to repeat myself, but one of the most impressive qualities about the game is that I'd have happily paid 60 dollars for it due to how much content there is, and it seems to be designed around replay value so you can keep playing even after you're done. Once you've tried your hand at each of the 4 classes, 13 levels, challenge mode, and PvP combat, you could easily be looking at a game that could last you 100 hours or more. Hell, I spent 30 hours on the game on only one character, not even beating all the challenges...on easy. I didn't even have time to try any other classes or bumping up to medium or hard difficulty, as much as I would have liked to!
Truth be told, the game also tends to succeed in visuals and sound, since the game could have easily passed for a full PS2 or Xbox game. It may have simple cellshaded graphics, but it looks good (especially the water effects later in the game) and even when there's literally hundreds of enemies, gems, and loot moving on screen, the game never even slows down or has framerate issues, even when you're playing splitscreen. In fact, the only performance issues I ever encountered were when I got stuck behind one of the defense towers I erected. Maneuvring around and over them when you're in the middle of a battle can be a pain, but other than that I encountered no issues. The game's art direction also looks good. Its toony graphics fit the setting and humor perfectly.
When in the menus or your tavern, the soundtrack and sound effects help to give the world a special charm, but during the battles I had a hard time concentrating on the background music; not because it was poor (it wasn't), but because I was too busy listening to see if my lightning towers were still active, or if there was a large beast advancing from the other direction.
I'd honestly be willing to say that Dungeon Defenders is not only one of my personal favorite games this year. It's not trying to do everything like some games, but it does what it does remarkably well and the combination of quality and quantity it offers is unrivalled. The fact that it sells for a mere 15 dollars is practically a steal, and I recommend it to anyone who is looking for a perfect co op game. It's not often I want to continue playing a game once I'm done reviewing it, but I've already set aside some time in my schedule to return to this at the end of November, it's just that good. I'd have gladly paid full retail price for this and still felt it was a good deal.