Though the much-maligned tower defence genre has been rightly criticised in the past for offering little innovation between games, the latest wave of releases has sought to shake things up a bit. A spin-off from the Majesty real-time strategy series, Defenders of Ardania offers the biggest twist on the concept yet, turning the tables and creating a more dynamic battlefield by asking you to send your own army against your foes and take down their base before they can swarm yours in simultaneous tower defence/attack action.
It’s a bit of a hybrid with traditional RTS in that regard, but just barely – control over your troops is still indirect. They’ll march on the quickest path around the grid towards their target, though you can set a single waypoint to guide them in a particular direction. Just like the enemy’s creatures, your troops come in a range of different types and classes, which certain towers are designed to take down most efficiently. It’s a game of not only building your own towers in anticipation of the types of creatures your enemies will send against you, but surveying your opponents’ build strategy and responding with your strongest troops.
There’s a lot going on at once, but it doesn’t quite feel like a real, cohesive battle – with only certain troop types having the ability to attack enemy creatures, more often than not you end up with the ludicrous scenario of two armies marching harmlessly past each other, tipping their hats at the enemy on the way to beat down their castle doors. You can place a bounty on an enemy unit to encourage your troops to take them down, but it’s a near-useless feature – most of your men will still blithely glide right past them. More useful is the ability to prioritise bases as a target, as many campaign maps have either multiple opponents or one opponent with several smaller bases. Taking out the weakest link can free up some prime real estate on the field to expand your own towers into.
At the start of a match, towers can only be built near your base, but your reach extends by a radius of four squares for each tower you place. There’s a hard limit on the number of towers you can have at once, which is an incredibly irritating arbitrary restriction – if you gain ground and destroy enemy towers, there’s no reason you should be punished by having to cede some of your own defences in order to expand. As is typical of the genre, towers can also be upgraded, though you’ll have to wade a significant way through the campaign to unlock that ability. That’s true of many of the game’s features – new concepts are doled out slowly, and the whole campaign ends up feeling like a long tutorial setting you up to tackle the other game modes.
On a first run, the single campaign seems a little on the short side, though it certainly gets challenging enough towards the end. Beyond the story, solo play is limited to replaying the same maps with limited resources, or playing Survival mode, where you hold out for as long as possible as endless waves of creatures march towards your base. Survival mode also removes the need to destroy the enemy’s base, paring the game back to tower defence basics and eradicating the one feature that distinguishes the game. Genre purists may eke some enjoyment out of the challenge, but if you’re not already a tower defence fan, it’s unlikely to win you over.
Multiplayer can take place on any of the maps from the campaign, in one of three modes – Free for All, 2v2, or Team Survival. The lack of any dedicated multiplayer maps is more than a little disappointing – how hard would it have been to inject a bit of fresh content into the mode that theoretically gives the game the most longevity? A little interest is added by the ability to play as the game’s other factions; while the campaign focuses on the humans, multiplayer also allows you to command the undead and nature armies. There are some minor stat differences between the three, but on the whole, it’s little more than window dressing – the same strategies will work just as well for any faction. While the opponents you face during the campaign are limited in power, other players have the same range of abilities available as you do – most notably spellcasting. Most spells won’t significantly change the flow of the game, but a huge exception is the ability to repair your base. It’s linked to a timer to avoid spamming, but it does heal a good chunk of your base’s health with each hit. Far from being a boon, it only serves to drag multiplayer matches out far beyond the point where they become a chore.
While the campaign is enjoyable to play through, bolstered by the light-hearted satirical writing style that has characterised the Majesty games, this game remains one to recommend only to fans of the series or the tower defence genre. Defenders of Ardania certainly deserves credit for trying a new twist on some well-worn ideas, but clunky execution and half-hearted design ultimately fail to leave a lasting impression.