Early Access Showcase: Dungeon Defenders II

Genre blending is nothing new in video games.  In 2011, Trendy Entertainment offered up their own little interesting and unique hybrid – the tower defense, loot-heavy RPG Dungeon Defenders.  Four years later, they have released an alpha version of the sequel, Dungeon Defenders II.   Dungeon Defenders II is out on Steam’s Early Access, giving you a chance to see what direction it is taking and offer feedback to the developers.

Dungeon Defenders had its moments, but it also had its flaws too.  Its interface, on the PC at least, was poorly optimized for the mouse and keyboard and layered with unintuitive menus.  The game was cute and colorful, but the low quality animations and physics gave it an amateurish feel.  It had no checkpoints in its levels, which meant that you had to replay an entire one if you failed on the final wave (which was always the hardest one).  Despite these flaws, however, its simple, addictive combination of strategy and RPG was executed very well.  In particular, the number of enemies that it could pack into a level was insane, making the final wave of every level chaotic fun.  The questions with Dungeon Defenders II, as with all sequels, are “what problems from the first game are they going to fix, and what strengths are they going to keep the same”?  If the handful of levels that I played of the Early Access build are any indication, Trendy Entertainment has done a great job of addressing some of the issues from the first game, while offering a host of graphical and gameplay improvements.

The basic gameplay of Dungeon Defenders II is about the same.  You defend one or more points from an assortment of evil monsters.  These enemies spawn at points on the edges of the map and gradually make their way to your crystal.  You place defenses like barriers, mines, and turrets at choke points or near your base to protect it.  In the meantime, you are free to roam about the map, attacking enemies directly with your character and collecting the loot that they drop.  The game's strategy element comes from how you choose to place your defenses, given your limited resources.  The action/RPG element of the game comes from combat against enemies, choosing which loot to wear and upgrade, and visiting the shops in between each level.

The basic gameplay experience appears to be intact, but Dungeon Defenders II is making some tweaks to it.  The tavern, where you go in between levels to buy and sell loot, has been expanded and now has a few merchants selling different items.  The item upgrade system has been augmented so that you upgrade items by consuming other items (instead of by using gold).  In addition, the levels have some pre-placed, stationary defenses such as fire cannons or rocket turrets that the hero has to manually activate.  There is more variety to the enemies and the tactics that they use to attack you.  Since the game is in Early Access, it lacks a lot of features that the first game had, like controller support and local co-op.  The game's Steam store page promises these features and a host of others in the finished product.

When you boot up the Early Access version of the game, then one huge improvement is immediately evident.  Dungeon Defenders II is getting a major makeover with its presentation.  The graphics are noticeably sharper, and the animations are much smoother and more realistic.  Everything in the game appears to have more of a sense of weight than it did in the first game.  The interface flows a little quicker, as if more thought was put into optimizing the game for the mouse and keyboard.  It is much better than it was in the first game, with more helpful tooltips and a mini-map on the main screen.  Thankfully, the game makes all of these upgrades without sacrificing any of the charming style of the first game.  The first impression that this game makes with both its gameplay and visuals is very promising.

In a rather strange decision though, the Early Access version of the game is $24.99, but Trendy claims that the game will ultimately be Free-to-Play.  Rather than rewarding the early adopters of the game, the move to Free-to-Play seems to penalize them (although Trendy has promised extra benefits for Early Access supporters).  Furthermore, abundant microtransactions were an annoyance in the first game, so it is extra disappointing that they will be even more significant in the sequel (I had hoped that it would go in the opposite direction).

With Dungeon Defenders II, the gameplay and graphical improvements are immediately obvious.  What I played of this game indicates that it will be an upgrade over its predecessor in just about every imaginable way.  My doubts about the game have more to do with its business model, and whether it will provide you with a satisfactory experience that doesn’t involve bleeding you out 99 cents at a time or forcing you to grind slowly for gold and experience.  I am not a fan of the Free-to-Play model, but this might be an example of a game where I will give it a try.