If only someone had reminded Paradox Interactive of the simple old saying when they were developing Defenders of Ardania, a tower defence game with a twist.
You certainly can't blame the company to try and innovate within the genre. Tower defence games have exploded in popularity in recent years; what was mainly a flash-based online genre has now become a main-stay across all platforms. Even popular franchises such as South Park and Assassin's Creed have ventured into the game type.
Defenders of Ardania tries bravely to stand out amongst the ever-growing crowd by offering a unique gimmick: Instead of simply defending against waves of enemies, two players are pitted against each other, both having to defend their castle from being destroyed whilst sending out waves of units to defeat the opponent.
It is this core idea that whilst ambitious, ultimately proves to be the game's biggest flaw. Only a few missions into the main story (a level which the game declares as 'easy') the problem will hit you with full force, turning what could be a unique strategy game into a chore.
The problem? The game can very quickly become a stale-mate. Those familiar with tower defence games will pick up the defending side with ease and will quickly make sure their base is protected.
Unfortunately, however, the AI is also very competent at doing the same.
When trying to get units through to the enemy castle and win a level, you have a variety to choose from - including cheap warriors, fast rogues, slow tank units and more. With the game in a stale-mate however, any form of planning goes out the window and is replaced by a Zap Brannigan school of war tactics: simply spamming units in the hope that some will make it through the killing fields and into the enemy base. It can be impossible to tell what is going on when the game gets hectic, with team's towers not clearly marked and units merging into one vast horde.
The game doesn't exactly help itself when trying to teach you the mechanics either. Tutorials are explained mainly through a very-Sean Connery sounding voiceover, which also provides narrative for a lot of the game's story. Whilst this is adequate, not all of the game's mechanics are explained - forcing the user to seek some aid through the 'how to play' menus. This does provide all the information needed for the game but it's presented in an entirely un-user friendly wall of text, with a medieval font that whilst keeping with the games theme, can be difficult to read.
To add even more confusion to the mix some game elements, such as attacking enemy units and towers, are explained before the units needed to do so are unlocked in the campaign. This resulted in a lot of head-scratching and menu-flicking to try and figure out how to actually do certain things in the game.
Defenders of Ardania also boasts light RTS elements to mix up the game play and further innovate from generic tower defence. These include economy options, which can either make units and towers cheaper or increase your resource pool size, as well as spells that can either heal your base or destroy enemy units. Certain tiles can also be built upon to increase the regeneration of your recourses, allowing you to built towers and units quicker.
Considering the effort taken to revolutionise the game play, Defenders of Ardania has quite the generic theme and storyline. Set in the medieval fantasy land of Majesty, expect lots of castles, wizards and dwarves as you battle your way through the campaign against an emerging army of undead. The music is your functional Lord of the Rings-esque fantasy composition that does keep the feel of the game nicely.
Graphically the game is decent and looks a lot like RTS games such as Age of Mythology. The backgrounds and units are well designed but the frame rate can really start to slow down when the action ramps up.
The game does however have some redeeming qualities. There is a good mix of maps, with some being 2 vs 2. You are also able to place towers in the middle of pathways, blocking certain areas of the map and forcing the enemy down a certain route.
The game boasts a healthy amount of game modes, with you being able to replay already beaten campaign missions in different ways. Normal is just a simple replay, Survival plays as a straight up tower defence game with limited resources. Perhaps the biggest irony about the game is for all that Defenders of Ardania does to bring new ideas to the table, playing it as a pure tower defence game in the Survival mode was probably the most fun I had during my time.
I was eager to try out the online modes of the game as reading online it is regarded as the best feature it has to offer. Unfortunately, despite being less than a week since arriving on XBLA, the online seems dead. I tried a fair few times to get in a match but not once was there another poor soul out there willing to play with me.
Defenders of Arcadia should be a good game. Deep below the surface of game play flaws and frustration lies some great ideas that are just not well executed. For die-hard tower defence fans that can overlook the down side to the game it may be worth a sniff but at 1200 points, most people are advised to stick clear.
Note: the version reviewed was the XBLA release.