Tower Defense games are a bit of a forgotten genre. Once prevalent among services that offer browser-based flash games, they have slowly faded into obscurity. You still occasionally see a tower defense title show up on mobile, but a console release is almost unheard of. Nonetheless, the basic loop of “set up towers > march bad guys through a maze > towers shoot the bad guys” is still completely viable. Tower defense games, despite their fall from mainstream gaming visibility, are still capable of delivering a satisfying burst of strategy. Much like chess, the simpler layout of a tower defense game can be deceptive, hiding amazing tactical depth beneath a modest interface.
About ten years ago, I worked at a job that had me seated at a desk in front of a computer for hours on end with little actual work to do, so I would sit and play browser-based tower defense games all day. The strategy involved could be grasped instantly, and defeating a difficult wave of baddies was immediately gratifying. In particular, I enjoyed games that allowed me to level up my towers, granting them new abilities, allowing new strategies to be developed.
Defender’s Quest: Valley of the Forgotten DX takes everything that I have always loved about tower defense games, and expands the concepts involved, rolling out new mechanics and creating one of the most engaging strategy games that I have played in years. That is not hyperbole. This game is crack.
Defender’s Quest takes the simple tower defense concept and progressively adds wrinkle after wrinkle until the original “simple concept” has become a cascade of chaotic battles and interlocking systems. By applying RPG character and progression elements to tower defense design, strategic possibilities are expanded exponentially, until the tactical options open to the player are virtually limitless.
Let me back up. There is a bit of story to fill in before we get to the mechanics. Defender’s Quest starts with the player taking the role of Azra, “The Librarian”. Infected with the plague, she wanders out of her home city to die, but instead finds herself resurrected and imbued with unexplained magical powers. Before long, Azra comes across Slak, a shirtless warrior who befriends the confused librarian and helps defend her when strange creatures attack. This starts a chain of events that sets the duo off on adventure across the Ash Kingdom. Along the way, they meet new allies with interesting abilities, and slowly build up an army of allies to help them in their quest to discover why the plague is resurrecting victims as revenants (read: zombies).
The story in Defender’s Quest is told with brevity and wit, playing out between battle sequences through comic book-style conversations. There is also a story journal embedded in the game, which is absolutely worth exploring on its own. I ignored the journal for too long, thinking that it would simply offer a brief overview of the story so far. When I finally decided to check it out, I was delighted to find that it was full of the writings of Azra, musing about the other characters and plot points. The journal oscillates between serious observations about the state of the world to wild assessments of the smells and grotesque characteristics of her travelling companions. The journal is well worth keeping up with as you progress through the game, adding to the flavor of the story and adding color to the goings-on.
Of course, the story is just the mechanism that propels the player forward from battle to battle, and it is within those tower defense battles that the heart of the game beats. The battle system is the deepest tower defense structure I have encountered, while still maintaining a level of accessibility that allows players to easily grasp new concepts as they are rolled out. The key to this depth is the fact that instead of towers, you are bringing characters to the battlefield. Each character you meet (or hire for your army) has their own individual stats and skill tree. As you conquer battles, the characters level up, gaining skill points to plop into a basic skill tree (containing both active and passive skills). Each skill brings a large boost to a character’s function when initially activated, with subsequent points placed into that skill offering incremental improvements. For example, I took one ranged archer and used my skill points to create a long distance sharp-shooter. With another archer, I sunk a ton of points into the “poison” skill, giving her less range, but making each hit far more deadly. Each character class has a variety of skills to focus on, allowing you to take various characters and mold them to allow for a wider range of strategies. Characters can also be armed with weapons and supplied with armor, allowing for further customization.
You arrange these characters on the battlefield as your “towers”, allowing the bad guys to march in a train through the gauntlet. Your characters attack anything that comes into range in an attempt to keep the relentless bad guys from reaching Azra, who is always nestled at the end of the path. Learning how the different character architypes interact together is part of the fun. For example, after a few levels you encounter bad guys that have armor. Your regular warrior-types do little to no damage against the armored enemies, but you do have knights at your disposal that have armor-breaking abilities. Placing these knights close to where the armored enemies spawn is wise, as the knights can break the armor, breaking them down enough for the warriors to clean up afterwards. However, the armored enemies sometimes move past the knights too quickly for the knights to do enough damage to the armor. So, placing an ice-mage next to the knights to slow down the armored guys enough for the knights to break through their armor is wise. But the ice-mages are vulnerable to physical attacks, so placing a healer next to them to keep their health up is a good idea. And on and on and on.
Azra always starts each battle with a pool of “Psi”, the points that you use to place good guys around the map. Killing bad guys slowly rebuilds this pool as the battle progresses which allows for mid-battle adjustments. In addition to initial character placement, Psi can also be used to boost characters during battles, allowing them to use their higher-end skills. Psi is also used to cast spells from Azra’s spell book, powerful effects that can swing the tide of a battle dramatically. If you go nuts with spells or boosts, you can quickly burn through your Psi, leaving you defenseless if things go wrong. This makes resource management critical to success.
There are a ton of fun and smart design decisions that make all of this manageable. You can pause the action at any time to survey the battlefield and move your characters around (though you had better have the Psi points to do so). If, halfway through a battle, you find that the guy you had carefully placed to clean up stragglers is not really needed where he is, you can recall him and place him elsewhere so he is more useful to the cause. Or, if you failed to protect a character properly and they are killed in the midst of battle, you can burn some Psi points to respawn them. Pausing the battle can also allow you to clean up any areas congested with bad guys by casting one of Azra’s spells, saving your bacon in a crisis.
Another great design choice is the ability to speed up the flow of battle, up to 8x the regular speed. This allows you to quickly run through a battle that you know you are going to win. If you find that you are struggling to progress in the story, going back and grinding through an earlier battles is a great way to strengthen your team.
Every battle in the game has four levels of difficulty to choose from, ranging from “Casual” to “Extreme”. Attempting to defeat a battle on Extreme the first time you encounter it can be humbling, so I typically started each battle on “Normal”. It is not necessary to beat battles on the hardest difficulty to advance, so cheesing your way through the story by winning on “Casual” is totally an option. However, great rewards like strong weapons and unique armors are often tied to winning battles on the higher difficulty levels. Not satisfied with being “Normal”, I found myself going back and obsessively cleaning up the higher difficulties behind myself, until I had defeated each battle on “Extreme”.
There are a ton of battles to beat. The story is not exactly brief, and playing through it will occupy players for hours on end. When you complete the story, you can always go on to try the new game +, which offers new skills, weapons and rewards. This special edition is extremely beefy, encompassing the original release and every bit of content that has been added in the six years since the game appeared on Steam.
The visuals and sound effects in the game are strictly of the retro variety, but once you have a battle or two under your belt, you won’t be thinking about the graphics at all. Frankly, this game could be running on a Commodore 64 and it would still be ridiculously engaging and fun. I started my playthrough on the PlayStation 4, but through the magic of cross-save, I flipped my game over to the Vita and never looked back. Playing a game that was shrunk down to portable size, I was thankful for the clean lines that the pixel-art graphics provide. This is a game that needs to convey a ton on information in an tiny space, so the simpler the graphics, the better.
Tower defense games are typically limited in their scope, due to the handicap of being far more confined in their genre parameters than other game categories. There is a maze, there are towers, and there are trains of bad guys to defeat. Defender’s Quest is a game that plays along with these standard gameplay elements, but cleverly subverts the restrictions of the genre by continually offering players something to strive for. There is always a new weapon to try to win, a new skill to strive for, a new spell that is right around the corner. By adding in character mechanics and story, Defender’s Quest’s tower defense gameplay is enriched to the point where it completely transcends its genre, becoming something fresh and new. Good gameplay is good gameplay, regardless of the genre or graphical style, and Defender’s Quest has some of the best gameplay I’ve experienced this year.
Defender’s Quest represents something new and unique. By dipping the tower defense “chocolate” into some RPG “peanut butter”, Level Up Labs has created a Reese’s Cup-level classic. Defender’s Quest: Valley of the Forgotten DX’ gameplay is rock solid, reflecting the six years of refinements that the small development team has made to the core title. If you have any interest at all in the tower defense genre, you owe it to yourself to check this one out.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
Howdy. My name is Eric Hauter, and I am a dad with a ton of kids. During my non-existent spare time, I like to play a wide variety of games, including JRPGs, strategy and action games (with the occasional trip into the black hole of MMOs). I am intrigued by the prospect of cloud gaming, and am often found poking around the cloud various platforms looking for fun and interesting stories. I was an early adopter of PSVR (I had one delivered on release day), and I’ve enjoyed trying out the variety of games that have released since day one. I've since added an Oculus Quest 2 to my headset collection. I’m intrigued by the possibilities presented by VR multi-player, and I try almost every multi-player game that gets released.
My first system was a Commodore 64, and I’ve owned countless systems since then. I was a manager at a toy store for the release of PS1, PS2, N64 and Dreamcast, so my nostalgia that era of gaming runs pretty deep. Currently, I play on Xbox Series X, PS5, PS4, PSVR, Quest 2, Switch, Luna, GeForce Now, (RIP Stadia) and a super sweet gaming PC built by John Yan. While I lean towards Sony products, I don’t have any brand loyalty, and am perfectly willing to play game on other systems.
When I’m not playing games or wrangling my gaggle of children, I enjoy watching horror movies and doing all the other geeky activities one might expect. I also co-host Spielberg Chronologically, where we review every Spielberg film in order, which you can find wherever you get your podcasts.
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