There has been, in the last six months or so, a glut of action/tower defense games released on PC. To varying degrees, games like Sanctum, Orcs Must Die! and Dungeon Defenders operate on the same basic premise: defend your crystal/rift/Macguffin from invading orcs/goblins/ogres using defensive traps and your own fighting ability. And as more and more games join the fray, it makes it that much harder to stand out from the crowd. Is Dungeon Defenders a unique experience, or is it just another genre clone?
First off, Dungeon Defenders does separate itself from pack in some key areas, including such features as classes, a leveling system and tons of loot. When you begin playing, you need to choose from four different character classes: the apprentice, the squire, the huntress and the monk. Each has a combat specialty (ranged combat for the huntress, melee for the squire) and a defense specialty (elemental towers for the apprentice and support auras for the monk). What this means is that to be truly effective, all four classes must work in tandem and use effective strategy, playing to everyone's strengths. But more on that later.
The leveling system is actually fairly robust, allowing you to build a character in a number of different ways. If you prefer using your defensive traps, you can choose to increase their radius, damage, firing speed, etc. If you, instead, prefer to personally hack and slash your way through the monster hordes, you can level your character as a normal RPG brawler, increasing health, attack damage and the like. Most players, though, will probably prefer a hybrid build, with an even mix of both approaches.
Supplementing your class level is a full arsenal of loot gathered from treasure chests earned between waves of enemy invasions. As in your standard Diablo-style dungeon crawler, the items are randomly generated with unlimited combinations of stats and bonuses, and it's not uncommon to find items which also boost your innate class abilities. While it is neat to find that new giant blue crystal Sword of the Ages, I was fairly disappointed that none of the armor you find ever appears on your character. This game screams "online character variation," and invisible armor was surely a missed opportunity. But to that end, you can also eventually buy a pet dragon or flying tiger, which hovers nearby and occasionally breaths fire on people. The pets serve mostly as a passive buff to your character, like any other item, but their inclusion certainly fits in with the "cute" style the game is obviously shooting for.
Despite the apparent depth of the character building and loot systems, the game still feels like a casual, budget game. This is never more evident when fighting with your hero in direct combat. The melee controls are a combination of stiff and float-y, resulting in a feeling of fighting underwater. There's no sense of weight to anything and when you swing your sword, it never feels like more than simply waving your weapon around. Likewise with ranged combat, much of the time, auto-aim is in effect and headshots aren't exciting because they don't count for anything. Aside from making sure your arrows or magic bullets hit some part of an enemy, there isn't any need for actual shooting skills. If the focus were placed more on the trap strategy and less on physical combat, none of this would be a problem, but that's not the case; sometimes direct combat is not only necessary, it's vital.
However, even the traps and towers themselves seem fairly disappointing. Similarly to the combat, and especially in comparison to a game like Orcs Must Die!, even the deadliest defenses seem kind of piddly. Oh sure, a fully upgraded ballista says it's doing thousands of points of damage, but it still looks and feels like the same peashooter you started with, forty levels ago. When it comes down to it this is not a game you play for the visceral satisfaction of killing monsters, this is a game about attrition and numbers.
The graphics and user interface are also hit and miss. While the cartoony, "Muppet Babies"-style RPG aesthetic can be charming and cute, the super-blown-out colors are jarring. Apparently, developer Trendy Entertainment realized this, as there is actually a "saturation" slider in the options menu, which certainly helps. Otherwise, this is your standard cell-shaded experience, and even though I, personally, don't prefer that style, I can't say it isn't handled competently here.
The UI, on the other hand, is a mess. Menu upon menu upon menu and none of it is particularly intuitive. The problem isn't even necessarily the amount of menus, but more the difficulty in quickly getting to the functions you need. Opening and closing menus takes way too long because each time you must wait for a "menu slide" animation to play. Furthermore, menus that should be paired together, like your equipped items and storage bank, are not only separated into different screens, but you can't even access your storage box quickly during a battle. Whereas most RPGs have a very easy drag-and-drop equipping process (which has been standard in the genre for about fifteen years now), Dungeon Defenders requires you to "send item to character" when you want to equip. Needless to say, this is a painful process that takes much of the fun out of loot-hunting.
Where Dungeon Defenders truly shines, though, is in its multiplayer component. This game was built from the ground up with multiplayer in mind so those without friends are doing it wrong. Each character class, on it’s own, is pretty meager. You only get five types of defensive towers and there's no way you can take on those monster hordes with just your dinky little spear. But with two to four people working in concert, not only can you build some pretty badass deathtraps, you won't have to frantically run back and forth from door to door (enemies come from many different angles at once). And since mana (the currency of the game) is in short supply, it takes careful planning and a good amount of communication and teamwork to overcome each level. And let me tell you, this game is hard, even on the easier settings.
Does Dungeon Defenders stand out from the crowd? If I had to judge this game based solely on the action/tower defense/RPG gameplay, I would have to say no. None of those three features really shines and the whole isn't greater than the sum of its parts. However, the multiplayer component is done so well, with fluid matchmaking, well-balanced dungeons (for a group), and even the ability to hang out in a communal tavern between missions, it does present itself well as a great party game (either LAN or headset-over-internet). And at only fifteen dollars, it won't be too difficult to convince your friends to join in.