Review: Defenders of Ardania (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Defenders of Ardania
Genre: Tower Defense
Developer: Most Wanted Entertainment
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Release Date: 03/14/12

The tower defense genre basically exploded in popularity thanks to a bunch of freeware Flash games and inexpensive PC and console releases, and it’s not hard to see why. At a base level, the genre boils down to “protect your stuff, via proper resource placement, from jerks”, which is both simple and entertaining… when done right. A game like Plants vs. Zombies does a great job of managing the important mechanics of such a game while also attaching a neat concept to it, on one hand, while on the other, the tower defense mini-game in Assassin’s Creed: Revelations was absolutely horrid at the best of times. The flaw, here, is obvious: the genre itself can basically be “experienced” by playing one game in it, at a base level, and everything after that needs to have a compelling concept, a compelling gimmick, or flawless execution to merit a second look. Defenders of Ardania tries to make this work by way of the second (and, ideally, the third) methods; while the concept is simple medieval sword and sorcery, mechanically the game tries to cross-blend tower defense and real time strategy mechanics into a hybrid that’s worth the second look. This, unfortunately, is where the game is hoist with its own petard, as the mechanics end up blowing up in the game’s face and make the experience one that can, at best, be tolerated, instead of one that can be enjoyed.

The gist of the plot is that you take on the role of a nameless king who is one day assaulted by the legions of Sir Foxwalde for unspecified reasons. Upon turning them back, you end up venturing across the land to bring hell to Foxwalde’s door, only to find that Foxwalde is himself the pawn of something much, much bigger, and so you are left to assault the forces of evil itself for the safety of the land. Along the way you befriend members of the dwarven and elven races, expand your forces considerably, and murder countless scores of evil forces to secure the land and discover just what is behind everything strange going on across the land. As plots go, the plot of Defenders of Ardania is largely meant as a backdrop to explain why you’re playing tower defense, and while it works adequately, it’s very much by the numbers. The dwarves are drunken brawlers who have nothing of note but their combat prowess and intoxication, the mages are book nerds more interested in studies than anything else, the elves are masters of the forest wise beyond their years, and so on. Your assistant is vaguely entertaining in that he becomes steadily more cowardly as the game goes on and makes a few amusing observations throughout the game, but for the most part, the plot is very much as you’d expect, does nothing of note, and does nothing to offend. It simply exists, for good or ill, as a vehicle to carry the story mode along.

Visually, Defenders of Ardania looks nice, for the most part. The game environments are all reasonably diverse, and do a good job of setting the scenes of battle. The character types are all noticeably diverse at the camera range, and you can tell them apart with minimal difficulty. Enemy types can be harder if you’re not familiar with the unit types, but are still diverse enough to be interesting. The animations are also solid, though there’s mostly only running animations and the odd attacking animation here and there from characters, and the attack animations of the applicable towers. The various spells also feature some solid special effects, though they’re mostly one-and-done effects and are over fairly quickly. The music is appropriately epic, featuring solid swelling aural orchestration that fits the fantasy mood the game is attempting to convey, and while it’s not anything you’ll want to hear outside of the game, it fits the tone well. The sound effects are also perfectly fitting to the experience, and while they also aren’t anything amazing on their own, they work well in context and fit the experience just fine. The voice acting, however, is a little… odd in places. While your assistant is serviceable and most of the voice work is adequate, the elven allies you make are… boring sounding and ill-fitting to the role and their purpose in the game. In general, though, the voice work is acceptable, if nothing spectacular, and it’s only of interest in the campaign and, as such, you can mostly ignore it even if you don’t care for it.

As Defenders of Ardania is essentially a tower defense game, if you’ve played the genre before you have a rough idea how it works, though there are some real time strategy elements tossed in to mix things up. At the beginning of a round, each team (between two and four) has their tower and a replenishing supply of assets to work with. The left stick moves the cursor around the map while the right stick turns and zooms the camera, and you can summon towers to defend your castle in any available area near the castle or other towers, which can be helpfully displayed on the map for ease of placement with the Right Bumper. Pressing A brings up a menu to allow you to choose the tower type you want, from a list of available options relative to your chosen race, while B acts as a general purpose cancel button at all times. Each tower type costs resources, which replenish as time elapses, so you can’t go ballistic summoning towers and have to manage time appropriately. You can also only place so many towers on a given map, so you’ll have to make tower placement count, as while you can dismiss summoned towers, this costs time and resources you don’t want to waste. Towers come in various varieties, with different ranges, response times, and damage outputs, to deal with the different enemy types you’ll face, and there are special locations on the map where towers can be placed that can extend their range, improve the amount of resources coming in, and so on, making strategic placement a must at all times.

Where Defenders of Ardania changes things up a bit is with the addition of summonable units, which you use to attack the enemy directly. Units also cost resources, as you’d expect, but they also take up unit points, as each map limits not just the amount of towers and maximum resources you can have, but also the amount of units you can have in play at one time. Pressing Up on the D-Pad brings up the unit screen, allowing you to choose up to five units or groups of units at one time to summon with the stick and the A button. Once complete, pressing X deploys them onto the field. Some units will require to be unlocked prior to summoning them, at an additional cost, though these are often more advanced units that are worth the cost. As units are summoned and perform on the field, their overall unit level will rise up to level three; this improves their staying power and performance, but also increases their cost. Once a unit reaches maximum level, you can then summon a Hero version of that unit, for greater resources, which is more powerful than its normal brethren. Focusing on one unit type isn’t helpful, however, as a smart enemy can block pathways and make sure units are taking crazy damage on the route to their castle, so varying your unit creation is ideal. Different units have different capabilities, including high speed, flight, the ability to attack other units or towers, healing and more, meaning that you’ll want to spread the love, as different units can be more effective than others. You can also set markers with Y and bounties (targets) with X if you want to manage your units a little more effectively, though there’s often little reason to do so unless playing against particularly devious opponents.

Additionally, you have other tools at your disposal to manage battle as you see fit. Pressing right on the D-Pad brings up the magic menu, allowing you to cast spells as needed. There are spells to heal your camp, deal direct damage to enemies, add boosts to allies and more, depending on what you need at the moment, though, as you’d expect, they all cost some of your resources, and additionally, spells also come with a cool down period, meaning you can’t spam them even if you have the resources, making their use more strategic. Pressing left on the D-Pad instead brings up the upgrade menu, where, for the cost of some resources, you can reduce the cost to build new towers and recruit units, expand the maximum amount of resources you can earn or the speed at which they accrue, improve how fast units level, and more, which can be a good use of resources if you have them to spare. You can also change your target using the down direction on the D-Pad, which can be useful if there are multiple targets to attack or multiple objectives to complete The left bumper also allows you to cycle helpful information should you need it, and you can use the right trigger to run the game at double speed, if you’re at a point where your defenses are self-sufficient and you want to get the invading portion of the game going.

You can basically plow through the campaign in about ten or so hours, depending on if you have to repeat any missions or not; if you’ve had experience with the genre before you should have little trouble making it through several missions without failure, though newcomers may have some missteps early on. From the Campaign menu, however, you can also choose to go back to any missions you’ve completed to replay them normally, and you can also jump into Skirmish Mode to play them as well. Skirmish also offers up two additional modes: Survival, where you’re tasked to survive multiple waves of enemies, and Limited Resources, where you’re given a finite amount of resources with no replenishment and tasked to win with only this, and both modes are quite challenging in their own rights. The game also offers full multiplayer support across each of the maps for between two to four players, depending on the map chosen. Two player games only offer one option, Free For All, which is your normal versus mode sort of scenario. Four player games offer two additional play options, however: Two on Two team matches, which are fairly self explanatory, and Team Survival, which pits two players against two enemies with the goal being to survive their attack. You can substitute in CPU enemies in place of players if you lack the total required players for a mode, and you can also play as any of the three races in the game, so players can also play as the Nature and Undead forces in this mode should they wish. The game also has a decent amount of Achievements to unlock for those who are interested, but mostly, the game is likely to interest players through its variety of play options as much as anything else, and for the most part, offers a good selection.

Having said that, however, the game falls victim to its own mechanics, in the sense that all of the complexities that are added to the game to differentiate it from others on the market actually make it less enjoyable in turn. Whether you’re playing single or multiplayer games, unless you’re playing under timed rules, the mechanics of the game make for a slow pace, and unless you can miraculously bum rush someone and take them out quickly (which is unlikely) it becomes a war of attrition where you’ll have to spend a massive amount of time on strategy and screwing with the enemy to win. This would be fine if the end result felt like you’d won based on superior brainpower, but more often than not it comes down to throwing troops against the enemy and hoping your defenses hold out, and while strategy CAN play into that, the game mostly becomes babysitting and micromanagement as it goes on, which is less exciting by far. For multiplayer play, you can set a time limit, which is fine if you want to try and play at a faster pace, but the game is simply a more involved affair than similar games in the genre, which may put some off from the get-go. It’s also agitating that the only way to test out the Undead and Nature races is by playing the game online. Basically, while the game offers you the option to play in Skirmish Mode or set CPU AI for multiplayer play, Skirmish forces you to play as the Humans exclusively, and online play will not allow you to play unless at LEAST one other human player is present. This is annoying, as it prevents you from experimenting with the races at all unless you have a friend willing to play with you, and could have easily been alleviated by simply allowing you to play against the CPU and be done with it.

Further, the campaign basically makes life frustrating for those who would want to complete it, and while you can see where the developers had some good ideas, their execution is lacking. You’ll find a few missions with awkward conditional victory options, like “don’t kill ten of this team’s characters”, “defend the mage for three minutes” or “survive or exploit a demon attack”, which make the game more annoying given that the concepts make life needlessly difficult and don’t play into learning how the game works well. The final two missions, however, are literally so insane as to be off-putting. The game places you against three hostile enemies, all of whom want you dead, at the same time, forcing you to immediately build a defense against them and spend the rest of the time making sure none of your towers get wasted and your characters make it to the enemy castle. This would be a fine training session for multiplayer, in and of itself, except that once defeated, castles spawn a hero who is ridiculously hard to kill, and if they hit your base it’s instant Game Over. Given enough time to work with this, you can overcome the enemy forces and win, but at that point, the campaign just seems frustrating to a point where it’s undesirable to complete it. If you’re looking for serious challenge, that might be fine, but the bottom line there is that the balance when playing against the CPU is often all over the place, not because of AI issues, but because of awkward design choices.

Defenders of Ardania is a good idea wrapped up in several awkward mechanics, and while a sequel might help to iron these things out, it’s essentially trying to be both an RTS and a tower defense game without the sorts of elements fans of those genres would want. The plot is mediocre, the game looks solid and sounds good sans the only okayish voice acting, and the game is simple enough to play but offers a fairly extensive amount of complexity that melds real time strategy and tower defense in a way that, in theory, could be compelling. The campaign is certainly lengthy, there are some additionally challenging single player modes to have fun with, and there’s a solid multiplayer component that offers enough variety for up to four players to have fun if they’re into it. However, the game ultimately becomes too ponderous, as it’s overly complex for the tower defense crowd and streamlines too much for the RTS crowd, and while the multiplayer is functional, the single player options don’t allow you to play around with things as much as you might like. Also, the campaign is a bear at times, as it introduces elements that don’t add anything to the experience in some stages and adds in painful dynamics in the later goings of the game that punish the player and make the experience less than enjoyable. If you’re looking for a strong challenge or you’re interested in the multiplayer, Defenders of Ardania is worth a look, as the game has some good ideas and you might be able to appreciate where they were going. However, the game meshes things in a way that doesn’t work as well as it could or should have, and it’s hard to recommend to fans of the genres it’s targeting, making it an experience of limited appeal, albeit one that could be worthwhile should a sequel fix these issues.

The Scores:
Story: MEDIOCRE
Graphics: GOOD
Sound: ABOVE AVERAGE
Control/Gameplay: ABOVE AVERAGE
Replayability: POOR
Balance: MEDIOCRE
Originality: GOOD
Addictiveness: MEDIOCRE
Appeal: MEDIOCRE
Miscellaneous: POOR

FINAL SCORE: DECENT GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
You can see where Defenders of Ardania seems like a good idea when you play it; mixing real time strategy and tower defense elements seems like a fantastic concept, and could be, but the end result doesn’t quite make that idea match up to the reality. The plot is average and neither adds nor subtracts from the experience, the game looks pretty solid, the audio is acceptable save for the slightly spotty voice acting, and the gameplay can be learned easily through the tutorials but offers plenty of complexity for the player who is interested. The campaign is rather meaty and offers some challenge, and there are also some challenging single player gameplay options outside of that, as well as a multiplayer component that allows for added variety for up to four players to enjoy. However, the game becomes difficult to take due to its mechanics, which are overly complex and time consuming at times and don’t really feel appealing to RTS or tower defense fans, and the single player experience could use some work, especially as it lacks the option to test the other races at all. Further, the campaign can be onerous at times because of the occasional non-standard missions that come up, and by the time you reach the end it can become so frustrating that it’s almost a chore to complete this, due to design choices, not AI concerns. The bottom line is that Defenders of Ardania might be a fun time if you can forgive its inadequacies and accept it for its ideas, but it never quite manages to become what it seems to want to be, which, in the end, makes for a game full of promise… and disappointments.

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