Dungeon Defenders is a rather brutal tower-defense title with a heavy emphasis on RPG elements, belied by its kid-friendly exterior. Do not be fooled by its lighthearted nature or typical fantasy trappings. This is a game that will test both patience and will as hundreds (to thousands!) of orcs and goblins lay siege to the carefully-placed defenses along the map as the players pitifully attempt to keep them at bay, and that’s not even getting into the bosses.
The story is in a Tolkien-esque magical kingdom where there are four legendary heroes who have diddly-squat to do now that all evil has been banished. Setting off for adventure in faraway lands, they leave their children to guard the kingdom only to have them accidentally unleash evil hordes that they now have to contend with. Plot is never central to Dungeon Defenders, so skipping the few animated cutscenes throughout the game never ruins the experience.
There are four available classes that follow the typical tropes of the genre—Apprentice, Huntress, Squire, and Monk. The Apprentice is a wizard capable of raising magical barriers and offensive towers, the Huntress favors traps, the Squire prefers classic medieval battlements, and the Monk is a buffer character who boosts the party’s stats. Each starts to gain more abilities as time goes on, so overall each has their own particular value they bring to the group, though in terms of sheer offensives capabilities and practicality the Squire and Apprentice seem to have the advantage.
The central idea of the game is that armies of orcs, goblins, ogres and the like slowly trundle their way towards the central node (a large, magical crystal) while the quartet of child warriors fend them off either in person or set up various defenses at key chokepoints. While there are many different defenses to choose from, one of the central strategies is to funnel the hordes through a narrow passing, build a few defenses there, and thin their ranks while they’re clustered together. In a lot of ways it’s like an adorable, cartoon version of the Battle of Thermopylae.
As time goes on things get more complex. Advanced stages have multiple crystals to protect, bosses, and a variety of ways for enemies to make their way towards their goal. Luckily, there’s plenty of time to plan a strategy before battle commences as each wave is followed by a building phase where players can gather items, repair or upgrade defenses, and cover unprotected areas they previously overlooked. Waves become more difficult as the match goes on, culminating in the final wave where the game throws everything it has at players, and if the crystal is completely destroyed everyone has to start from the beginning which adds great frustration anytime a party loses at the very end of the match.
Speaking of parties, although it’s possible to play Dungeon Defenders solo, it’s not recommended as facing the hundreds of enemies all by yourself quickly becomes overbearing. Four players is the optimal gaming experience, preferably one of each class, because tackling large maps with multiple crystals and chokepoints is nearly impossibly to do with any measure of success by yourself. Not to mention the boss battles where players have to contend with the boss while also fending off the hordes of enemies still trying to get at the crystal.
There’s a great deal of stat-building and item management which adds some unnecessary wrinkles into the experience. Players level-up and max-out at seventy, so it’s a decent amount of time before a player can become proficient with one character, let alone all four. Weapons, armor, and even familiars can be bought and sold at the tavern (the game’s central hub) as well as services like investing in a weapon to level it up or buying extra XP. Having to invest currency to power up weapons and armor feels like a huge, money-draining chore with little payoff, especially in light of the fact it makes more sense to just save that money for something far more useful.
There are other issues that crop up during the experience. The radial menus can be difficult to navigate in the heat of battle, though this is somewhat remedied by the ability to hotkey to the directional pad, and managing the clumsy camera is a full-time job. Another is the amount of confusion with having hundreds of enemies, all elbow-to-elbow, trying to maneuver their way around a dozen different corridors while your avatar is chopping away at them on the frontlines. It’s incredibly easy to lose track of where you are and what you were supposed to be doing in the mass confusion.
Perhaps the biggest issue with the game is repetition. While the maps try to keep things varied and interesting, at the end of the day it’s still four adventurers versus the massive army of enemies, and cutting them down either in person or letting your defenses do the talking has a tendency to become stale. It’s very easy to have one’s fill of the game after the completion of one or two maps.
There’s actually quite a bit to like in Dungeon Defenders. It’s colorful, requires strategy, and there’s a lot of stat-building for those into it along with a decent variety of maps and challenges. However, there are serious drawbacks such as the repetition, difficulty curve, and less than ideal control scheme. As a hybrid of action RPG and tower-defense, Dungeon Defenders doesn’t really master either one nor does it harmoniously marry them, but it is a solid downloadable tower-defense title that can be fun when played with a quartet of like-minded strategists.