Sometimes, genre-gene splicing produces messy monstrosities, and sometimes it produces something unexpectedly interesting. In the case of Hell Warders, we’re looking at the progeny of the action-RPG genre infused with the DNA of tower defense. Toss in the visual aesthetic of Dark Souls, and you have a game salad that works pretty well.
Many recent tower defense games have included a hero that helps supplement the various units deployed on the battlefield, and in Hell Warders this player character takes one of three archetypal forms, with additional characters unlocked later. All three character types — the magic user, the ranged weapon wielder and the sword and board hero — are viable but the gun-toting hero that can do some long-distance crowd control seems the most effective. Since points at the end of matches can be spent on either enhancing the hero or adding/upgrading units, there is a bit of interesting strategy to consider. Do you want to focus on crafting a powerful RPG-type character or create a more flexible array of units?
Most tower defense games are not known for deep and compelling stories, and although Hell Warders does a better job at giving context to the action than many, it’s still a pretty simplistic tale of evil forces unleashed by accident. You are a Hell Warder, tasked with driving back all manner of grotesque and demonic creatures over a series of interior and exterior levels and environments.
To do this, you use an energy source to spawn, place and direct melee, magic and ranged units. Because the levels feature at least some measure of verticality, careful unit management is important and you can’t simply pile a number of one unit type in a single location and hope to succeed. As expected, enemies vary in their weakness to different type of attackers. All units can be upgraded up to five times, making them more powerful or adding special attacks to them but they are not terribly smart and since many of them are mobile, they tend to break position and move to attack and enemy, leaving spaces open for the demonic forces to advance. That’s where you come in. You can either be aggressive, wading into the fray with your front lines, or hold back and pick off or weaken enemies from a distance. Or, split the difference and mop up the hell spawn that manage to break through. Die during an attack and you respawn, but meanwhile the horde of baddies has continued to advance.
The action is fast and frenetic and on the handheld Switch, at least, a little chaotic and often hard to read, with piles of friendly and enemy units merging into a mass of colorful movement. Although screen shots make Hell Warders look pretty fantastic, the reality is that on the Switch, textures and shadows and overall detail are lacking and while zoomed in, character models look pretty rudimentary. Good art direction and fast action mean that you don’t really have a lot of time to contemplate the visual nuances, which is to the game’s benefit. Writ large on a monitor, Hell Warders really suffers from comparison to more recent games.
Still, the unique blend of genres works pretty well both in single player and multiplayer modes, and Hell Warders offers a decent campaign and a deeper strategy experience than some generic tower defense games. Some of the controls are awkward and placement of units have some restrictions (like degrees of facing), but there aren’t a lot of tower defense games rooted in that dark fantasy aesthetic, and the addition of action-RPG elements deepens the gameplay.