Cute, cuddly, and deadly.
It's incredibly easy to picture a very generic Flash game when you hear a name like Dungeon Defenders. Admittedly, that was my first thought when I first read about it early this year. Name aside, Dungeon Defenders is a fun take on the tower defense genre, which is quickly becoming saturated, and it manages to feel somewhat original regardless of its generic name.
The heroes have done their job, sealing away an evil spirit and saving the kingdom. They quickly grow bored with peacetime and decide to leave in order to search for adventure in distant lands. They leave their kids behind to look after the realm and you guessed it, they make a mess out of things. Suddenly, hordes of monsters are marching towards their kingdom with the goal of saving the imprisoned Old One.
Defending the kingdom is mostly based on what you've come to expect in a tower defense game. Depending on what class you pick, it's up to you and whoever you're playing with cooperatively to build defenses along the somewhat pre-determined paths that the enemy units will take to your base. Your primary mission is to defend a crystal that ends the level once it's destroyed. Your towers come in the typical variety: barricades, missile towers, and minefields. Each class brings its own taste of unique weaponry, though; for example, the Castle Crasher's knight's squire can make use of bottlenecks and place rolling boulders, which are as overpowered as they sound.
One of the twists to Dungeon Defenders is that along with your towers, you're given control of your own character, who can level up, acquire equipment, and most importantly, attack enemies directly. Unlike the Toy Soldiers games, you do not get direct control in your towers so your influence in combat is solely dependent on how you choose to control your character, who can repair, upgrade, and build new towers on the fly. This turns Dungeon Defenders into a crazy mix of what you've come to expect in a tower defense downloadable game and a dungeon crawler like Torchlight.
The connection to Torchlight also comes into play thanks to the lootdriven character progression system. Enemies drop a lot of items once they're killed and everything can be brought to a handy tavern in between stages where they can be sold, giving you the mana you need to upgrade your stats and buy new items. The shopkeeper is a mean old bastard and he always has the next best thing available for purchase every time you stop by. For a price, of course.
Everything in Dungeon Defenders is about precious mana, the game's currency, which is used to do just about anything, even building turrets during levels. Excess mana can be either shared with your co-op buddies or stored in your bank for later use but early in the game, you'll find yourself running out of it rather easily. Another connection to Runic's colorful lootfest is the addition of pets who can fight at your side. This is taken further in Defenders, with the option of buying new pets and leveling them up.
This game also rivals the aforementioned dungeon-crawler in color and character. Every level, down to what could have been a drab prison-like mess hall, is ridiculously colorful. Your choices on how your custom character looks are plentiful, and just about every piece of equippable weaponry looks unique. Granted, some of the character designs are clichés and relatively uninspired, especially on the heroes' side. The apprentice mage is pretty much a Final Fantasy black mage, which prompted me to make my character look as close as possible to Final Fantasy IX's Vivi. But the fact that the designs aren't very original doesn't take away from the overall quality of the game.
Dungeon Defenders does not pull any punches early on. I found myself failing over and over at the start due to a punishing level of difficulty right at the beginning. You're given an extensive and long-winded tutorial that dumps a lot of info before starting the game, but once it actually starts, you're on your own. A friendlier tutorial would have been one that taught things on-the-fly rather than forcing you to do the equivalent of studying for a big test ten minutes before the actual thing.
Even so, after a few multiplayer matches and gaining levels, I grasped the fundamental elements on how to play Dungeon Defenders, and it started to feel fun and rewarding. Multiple upgrades gave me a lot of options to play around with and decide where to invest my precious mana. There are a host of different attributes you can improve by just leveling up too, letting you balance your tower's power with your own.
In case you feel that your towers are doing their jobs just fine on their own, you can put your mana where your mouth is in a handful of challenge stages that take away the ability to fight enemies directly, leaving it all to your constructs. There's also a oh-so-chaotic survival mode and special quest-based missions that have you take on some twists on the tower defense formula. Safe to say, there's a lot to do in this game.
Dungeon Defenders is a tough game to play at first and a friendlier tutorial would've been a blessing, but if you're willing to give this a chance, there's a lot of charm and depth. It's a colorful, cute, and innocent title that will kick your ass if given a chance.