Tower defense games are not currently in short supply. The rise of digital distribution has seen this genre thrive especially on the PC and iOS devices. While at first, you may think Defenders of Ardania is yet another tower defense game, you should know that it is actually in the subgenre called tower war game. You not only have to build towers to defend against your opponents troops, you will also have to send out your own troops in real time to take down your enemy.
Defenders of Ardania is set in a fantasy world where you command an army of humans to fight the undead, gaining dwarf and elven allies along the way. Each level involves creating an effective defense using towers (what else?) while simultaneously attacking the enemy base with ground and air units. The story, as it were, is delivered to you through the fully voiced pre and post-battle dialog. The main narrator sounds like a person trying to impersonate Sean Connery who has only studied for the role by listening to other Sean Connery impersonators, which is oddly hilarious. By and large the voiceover work is serviceable and definitely better than having to read silent text boxes.
You might need to be eagle (king) eyed to read this text on your TV screen
Specifically, that's because said text boxes are right on the edge of what you could consider a readable size. See, Defenders of Ardania started life as an iOS title which was ported onto the PC and Xbox Live Arcade. As is typically the case with these tablet to TV ports there is something a little off with the HUD. You will usually be within a couple of feet of your tablet (or your computer monitor), but at least ten feet from your TV. This scaling problem can lead to frustration especially in a game like this that requires careful selecting of which units you are wishing to spend your resources on. It is not game breaking by any means, but could be a barrier to entry for some.
Speaking of barriers to entry, there will also be those who are turned off by the steep learning curve present in the game. Even though a very clear and helpful tutorial plays out as you go through your campaign, there is more trial and error than there should be for a strategic game. Again, not game breaking, but I know a few gamers will be turned off by the experience of losing without understanding why. Those that stick it out will eventually figure out the proper balance of defending and attacking. In about the middle of the campaign everything clicks and you can see and appreciate the subtleties of the system… but then 'it' happens. The game becomes too easy. You realize you can overwhelm the opponent AI by spamming your quickest, cheapest troops and repeatedly casting protective spells on them turning them into speedy tanks. Suddenly you are the guy who brought a gun to a knife fight.
Fighting fire with the awesome power of purple
This, of course, is corrected by going online, which becomes Defenders of Ardania’s saving grace. You have the choice of a free for all, 2 vs computer, or 2 vs 2 on any of the campaign mode’s 18 levels with up to three other players. Playing against real human opponents lets the game stretch its legs and really show you what it's capable of. A good battle can last anywhere from ten minutes to beyond an hour depending on the skill level of your opponents. There is a lack of local multiplayer, which is a shame, but par for the course in the current industry.
The package seems a little pricey at 1200 MS points (or $15 in real money), especially given that the iPad version is a third of the price. This is one of those odd cases where the value is not hindered by the strength of replay but on the strength of how the game gets you to that point. The campaign basically acts like a boot camp to see if you're prepared to handle the challenges you'll find in multiplayer. If you can be patient and play the game long enough for it to all fall into place in your head, then you will probably get your money’s worth.
As far as presentation goes the whole package feels just above average. The music sets the mood without being annoying but it is also not engaging or memorable. While the graphics are nice and the art style pleasing, it suffers in the lack of focus it gives the player. There will be so much happening on screen, with towers attacking troops, the troops themselves working their way through the grid maze, and magical powers that it all starts to blur at some point. It doesn't help that you and your enemies' forces use the exact same path and just sort of walk through each other (I would have loved to have seen ground battles taking place). While the different troops and towers do all look different, they don’t truly look different enough. You can zoom in but your two choices are far away or 'not-quite-as-far-away-but-not-all-that-close'. It can be difficult to pick out your troops from the opponent's; even the towers start to look alike in the heat of battle. Since part of the strategy is deciding which troops to send out, it is frustrating to not easily be able to tell which troops are failing to reach the goal. The only way to do it is to completely keep your eye on the specific unit and follow them, seeing how they do. Not an easy (or pleasant) task when you're supposed to be a powerful eye-in-the-sky commander.
The right lane is for minions exploding with purple only.
The main concern fans of the genre will have is how the game feels using a controller. I am happy to say that everything is fluid and easy to use. Sure, there can be the occasional fraction of a second delay with button presses, but the cursor moves swiftly and selecting units and towers always feels accurate. It is one of those rare tower games where you don’t feel handicapped by not having a mouse or touch screen.
In a rather meta way, Defenders of Ardania requires that the player gets past the game's own defenses. It puts up barriers like a steep learning curve and visually chaotic gameplay that players must destroy by sending wave after wave of their free time and patience to fight past. Once you break through you can enjoy the spoils of the deep and satisfying multiplayer mode with other like-minded players. If you want a quick and casual tower defense game, stick to playing Plants Vs Zombies. If you're willing to stick it out for the long-haul, give Defenders of Ardania a try.
This review is based on an Xbox Live Arcade copy of Defenders of Ardania, provided by the publisher.