The Backlog: Dungeon Defenders

Ahhh, Steam sales!  I love me some Steam sales.  I occasionally find myself scanning the material on sale and picking off the most heavily discounted items because…because…because I can? Like a lot of Steam users, my inventory is cluttered with games I bought for $3.99 or less that say “0.0 hours on record” when I browse my library.  Recently, while looking for a game with local co-op to play with my son, I stumbled upon a little gem from 2011 called Dungeon Defenders.

For those of you who have never seen it, Dungeon Defenders is a combination tower defense/role-playing game where you defend your precious Eternia Crystals against waves of monsters.  I have never gotten into the tower defense genre very much, and two years ago I would have never given this title a second glance.  There is something about this genre that I have never liked.  I hate that feeling of helplessness when a wave of enemies overwhelm defenses and you can’t do anything about it because you are busy fighting fires on the other side of the level.  I want to be the guy doing the attacking.  However, that all changed when my son started to get into video games.  I am constantly on the lookout for games that are kid friendly and have local co-op.  Having put over 50 hours into Ratchet and Clank: Full Frontal Assault, I was trying to find our next time sink when Dungeon Defenders showed up in a Steam sale.  I grabbed and I haven’t looked back since.

Playing a strategy-intensive game with a six year old is an interesting experience.  Dungeon Defenders is a game that can get pretty challenging, with the huge swarms of enemies that can quickly overwhelm without a good plan in place.  In the process of playing this game, I have had to teach my son some basic defensive strategy, like concentrating as many defenses as possible at as few choke points as possible (and I had to start by defining the term “choke point” – this is not as easy as you might think).  I have also had to convey the concept of defending as small an area as possible, and placing defenses in clusters so that they can work in synergy.  It is still a tough game.

With two players who aren’t experts at tower defense, the game is a challenging one.  A few levels in, we were rolling along fine until a massive ogre with about 15,000 hit points showed up in the last wave and tore through our defenses like tissue paper.  We converged around him and tried to kill him, but after a few minutes of bashing away we could only get him to about 25% health before he destroyed our crystal.  After this happened a couple of times, we decided to put the game on Easy in order to get through it.  I would have liked to keep it on Medium, but if you fail a level, you have to play the entire thing all over again – you can’t just replay the wave that you failed.  This is a problem, because the first few waves are usually a milk run, and none of the levels get hard until the end.

ARRGH SOAPBOX ALERT:  I hate save systems that make you replay an unchallenging half hour of a game in order to get past a tough sequence at the end that only lasts a few minutes.  I think that Dungeon Defenders would have been a better game if it had checkpointed your progress after each wave so that you wouldn’t have to go all the way back to the beginning if you fail.  Crappy saving and checkpointing is a growing problem that has reared its ugly head with increasing frequency the past few years.  With that said, now that we have our characters up to level 25, we could probably tear through most of the levels on the normal difficulty level.  My only other complaint with the game is that it throws a lot of features at you without very good explanation, and the interface is a bit of a mess.

Minor issues aside, we are having quite a bit of fun playing this game.  The sheer number of enemies that show up, especially on the last wave of each level, makes for some insane battles. Swarms of goblins, trolls, and suicide bombers approach from five different directions, and chaos ensues.  The game almost fees like Serious Sam with the way that it occasionally makes you crap in your pants as you see impending doom coming in the form enemies that completely fill up the screen.  I love it when games have high enemy counts.  I love the feeling of smashing through a huge army and racking up kills by the dozen.  I wish that more games would do this.  One improvement that I have been privately hoping for out of this new generation of hardware is a return to the huge scale battles of the past.

You wouldn’t know it by looking at screenshots or seeing it in action, but the game uses the Unreal Engine.  There are colors.  Yes, colors in an Unreal game!  There is also somewhat of a low budget look to the game that you don’t typically see in a game used with this engine (crude animations, bodies don’t ragdoll, etc).  For the most part though, I like the look of the game quite a bit.

With AAA gaming becoming more and more homogenized and publishers taking fewer risks, I find myself spending more and more time with these little indie games that I happen to notice on Steam sales.  These are the types of games that are increasingly populating my backlog.  The sheer volume of games available is unlike any other era of gaming that I have seen, although you do have to sift through a lot of crap to find the peanuts.  Dungeon Defenders is one of those unheralded diamonds in the rough that I’m glad I was able to unearth.