Some games just sneak up on you. I’ve owned Defender’s Quest for almost a year now, never bothered to install it. It never seemed a bad game, but it was a game that always sat on the edges of my interest. It was a Tower Defence game. I didn’t really like Tower Defence games. Why should I play this one? It’s an indie game, it’ll keep. Nobody wants me to rush it.
Then I read an article in which the games’ developers talked about the ways they deliberately gamed the system of Steam sales to distribute their game widely. They talked about the moddability of the game, and using Steam Workshop to promote it. They talked about pitching the price as low as possible during sales periods. And there, on the cover of the game, was a woman, who the game copy informed me was the protagonist.
Fine, I thought. I’ll see if this game’s any good.
Well, Is It Good?
Around the point a character threatened to slit my throat in the aftermath of using her ice missiles to slow down heavily armoured skeletons that my berserker friends winkled out of their armour and then out of their bones, I was laughing too hard to complain about the game. I was having fun. Damnit, I was having a lot of fun.
For the uninitiated, Tower Defence games are games where you have a thing to protect, a stream of things – usually monsters or aliens or robots – coming to smash it, and you can plant an array of turrets and towers in their path to wipe out monsters, aliens, or robots.
It’s a simple enough little structure. While the earliest examples of the game flow from the RTS genre, with even some gameplay modes in the great first sire of the genre Herzog Zwei showing the early signs of these death-course problems, it evolved as a game type unto itself from that genre’s more recent defining veteran Warcraft III. There’s something worth noticing there – that a single game is more or less responsible for the common conception of two whole genres of modern gameplay.
Still, Tower Defence is a genre of gameplay deep enough to be explored all of its own, and it’s the spine for this charming little not-quite-RPG, not-quite adventure game. The game, as a game, is a pleasant little surprise, approachable and easy with a difficulty curve that ramps up if you want it to. The framing device of the game is that your forces aren’t towers, they’re characters, individual warriors that make up your army and fight, tangibly, against those waves of monsters coming for your life. As your units grow over the course of the game, they level up, spend talent points in trees, even buy equipment!
Hey, here’s a clever little thing the balancing in the game does. When you start a level, you choose straight up the difficulty you want to play it on – from ‘casual’ to ‘extreme.’ The size of your army, and their equipment determine what you can handle; skill is a factor, but there are some fights where you need a healer in each lane or need a knight in two major choke points or you are hosed. If you turn the difficulty down, you can’t afford to recruit many people or equip them very well; the game is faster, but you don’t get to enjoy the full range of tools and toys the game puts before you. It’s one thing to have a dragon, it’s another thing to have five dragons. Rangers are cool, but rangers equipped with badass bows are different entirely.
Cute little game, really. I don’t like Tower Defence games, usually, and I liked this. There’s your simplest assessment of Defender’s Quest. If what you’re seeking is a super-dense, intricate, fantasy-themed Tower Defence game, you should try this one out.
And if you’re not looking for that kind of game, you should try this one out too, because it has some fantastic ideas.
Long On Charm
The biggest problem indie games tend to have, certainly ones that walk into well-worn genres is a lack of personality. There’s a lot of incentive to cut corners with videogames when you have a budget that can be compared to a catering fee at McDonalds, and that’s why you can find dozens of indie games that are, more or less, Minecraft With Something. There is a lot of incentive to slim your game down and spare yourself the effort of developing things.
Still, a game that tries and fails has one kind of charm, but Defender’s Quest isn’t one of those games. Defender’s Quest doesn’t push to try and look like a game it’s not. First of all, the in-game art is absolutely great, with clear and distinct character sprites, nice, fluid animations – which are even customisable in colour! Cutscenes have a certain RenPy-like simplicity with sliding characters and jump-frame animations, speech-bubbles, and a click-to-continue sequence of stills. With that limited animation, though, the game leans on the dialogue, characterisation, and the direction of the art.
You want to try that route, you have to be good with direction. You have to know how to make a scene matter if it’s held for a few seconds or held for two minutes. You have to be able to right dialogue that feels snappy and fun, and doesn’t rely on things like interruptions, or homonyms. You do get to offer expressions alongside your text, which means you step into the realm of stage-like scripting.
Someone in Defender’s Quest‘s development team knows their stuff, though.
Look, Defender’s Quest looks a bit like a Deviantart-made Visual Novel. It reads however, like a really charming Deviantart-made Visual Novel. Characters have distinct voices, act in clear and meaningful ways, and there are moments that made me laugh out loud. Hell, the plot is coherent, follows through on things like themes and arcs. The plot’s not revolutionary, but it doesn’t have to be.
It’s also a game that plucks a string deep in my mind of the word witch.
The Way of the Witch
There’s a certain convention in modern pop-fantasy narratives that the word witch has a parallel term warlock. The idea is that witches and warlocks are related things, one representing women, one representing men. Now, I’ve written – quite extensively – about how this is a load of guff, but here’s the short version: The word witch derives from the same Latin root as our word victim. Its oldest meaning is the person who plays with fire.
The central character of Defender’s Quest is Azra, a woman who starts the game dead, but not quite. Marked by the plague, she’s thrown in a cart, tossed over a cliff, and left to die in the pit. And there, hovering between alive and dead, she comes to learn a single, strange piece of information, information that she then turns to save herself. Then she uses it to save others. Then she uses that knowledge to save everyone.
Very literally, Azra starts the game a victim, a victim of systems and of disease. She ends the game a savior, a person who sacrifices of herself, who grows in power, and who leads an army. Along the way, she rallies slaves, she teaches people the value of life, and she learns ancient secrets humans are not meant to know.
Azra plays with fire, and she wins.
Buy it if:
- You want an intro-level tower defence game.
- You want something that shows how you can make a small, specialised set of assets work.
- You want to play around with an easily-modded Tower Defence game.
Avoid it if:
- You want a game with a varied colour palette.
- Jokes about pantlessness don’t amuse you.
- You have a more elaborate standard for tower defence games.