Dungeon Defenders: Review

When the media bleats on about video game addiction and how it is destroying the youth of today, corrupting their impressionable minds, it is games like Dungeon Defenders that I imagine being the chief cause of this affliction. Last week, I found 15 hours evaporating before my eyes as I played this tower defence/dungeon crawler hybrid.

Given what it is, I reckon it could be a lot worse.

Dungeon Defenders manages to marry the compelling, simple-to-pick-up, hard-to-master nature of tower defence games while keeping the immediacy and compulsive nature of all good dungeon crawlers.

It’s a potent mix that’s hidden behind a delightfully colourful veneer. Don’t be fooled, though: this game will kick your arse if you let it.


I will admit to being sceptical at first; I generally hate tower defence games. The way in which you watch attackers heading towards your base (in this case a crystal) – praying that your defences are strong enough to hold them off, with a sneaking feeling that they won’t be – is something that I have always found too distressing. Dungeon Defenders manages to allay that distress by giving you direct control of an avatar in the world, allowing you to jump directly into the fray, influence the outcome and, in many cases, turn the tide against the ever encroaching hordes of Goblins, Orcs, Dark Elves and other sundry fantasy archetypes.

It starts off simple enough, you pick one of four character classes: Apprentice, Squire, Huntress or Monk. They all have their own strengths and weaknesses, and can all jump into a game of up to four players in local or online multiplayer.

This was meant to be a screenshot for 4 player layout but I didn't have enough controllers

Mixing and matching the different characters’ defences and abilities is the key for success in pushing back the hordes, and knowledge of a level’s layout is not essential, but the more you play an arena the more efficient you will get at placing your characters correctly.

For example, I started the game as an Apprentice, playing alongside a Squire and a Monk. Initial spawn points meant that the enemies would be bottlenecked up two stairwells leading to our crystal. After a few missteps where we realised that enemies in purple circles around the horde exits can’t be damaged by towers and barriers, we settled on a sturdy and stress-free set up.

The Monk placed a slow aura (causing enemies to slow down) at the bottom of the stairwell, with the Squire placing a spiked barrier directly within the slow aura’s sphere of influence. This meant that any creatures walking up to the barrier would be damaged by it but fail to do as much damage to it in return, as their movement and attacks were curtailed. The final piece of the strategy was to have the Apprentice’s magic missile tower placed a few game-feet behind the spiked barrier, so that it was out of the enemy’s reach and subsequently laying out even more damage on to them as they smashed against the defensive wall.

This tactic worked well for the us for a few waves, but like any good tower defence game, Dungeon Defenders mixes up the pot and forces you to come up with new tactics. First, it starts spawning enemies in new locations so that any tried and tested tactics have to be revised. Then, it makes that tactic no longer feasible by introducing new enemy types, such as the hulking Ogre that pushes aside defences as if they were nothing. In case that’s not enough, the game then complicates things even further by changing the map layout or limiting the available resources to build defences. Some of the later levels offer encounters where you will be staring at hundreds of enemies on-screen, all of them launching themselves at your barriers while you try to decide whether to repair them on the fly or leap into the throng and lay waste to the infidels.

So that'll be the 'run at them swinging wildly' tactic then?

This tower defence side of the game would make a great afternoon waster in itself, but it is Dungeon Defenders‘ roots in the dungeon hack and slash genre that makes it rise above a simple one day dalliance into an utterly compelling 2-3 week obsession. As enemies are defeated, either by the defences you’ve laid down around your crystal or by the hero you’re directly controlling, your character’s experience bar will fill up. As you hit new levels, new abilities will be unlocked and skill points will be acquired to be spent on class-specific stats. At the same time, chests littered around the arena, as well as enemy kills, produce collectible mana and will occasionally drop equipment.

Mana has the dual purpose of allowing the player to fund the placement of their traps, barriers and towers while also being used to upgrade their weapons, armour and pets. Anything equipped by the hero has its own buffs and abilities that improve the character or her/his deployables. Better gear is available on harder difficulties, but comes with the added risk of being stomped into the ground by the pumped up enemy units.

Nothing I have described will sound alien to the average DotA player, but the fact that Dungeon Defenders manages to make all of this so addictive and work so well on console platforms (with only Monday Night Combat as a direct comparison on Xbox LIVE) is heartening, as well as scary. It’s great to see the market for this genre expanding and making this kind of gameplay more accessible and not as threatening as some of the hate-fests that are seen to occur in League of Legends or Heroes of Newerth (probably because there is no decisive Player versus Player gameplay in Dungeon Defenders). But it’s also terrifying, because Dungeon Defenders can be just as absorbing as these other titles, with the permanent character progression and the carrot on a stick coercion still present in its mechanics.

There is always a new weapon to find, a new difficulty to beat, or a new challenge to complete – some of which are ingeniously designed. There is never a point where you’re only left with something that you wouldn’t want to do next. Even the potential for repetitive grinding is alleviated by the game’s exhaustive stat tracking. Did well in a level? Imagine how much better you will do with that new armour, which boosts your blast radius and reload time. Improving your high score and raising your ranking on the global leaderboards can, when you know that someone is out there trying to do the same thing, be enough to drag you back in for just one more go.

One of the side challenges involves protecting an Ogre instead of a Crystal and is an excellent twist on core gameplay

A special mention must also go to both the in-game achievement system and the system achievements for Xbox LIVE/PSN. The in-game trophies adorn your personalised hub, the tavern, allowing you to walk around it during the rare moments of downtime showing what you’ve accomplished and what you have yet to attempt. In comparison, the system achievements are almost all end game material, requiring you to invest time into playing in order to unlock them (my first achievement was awarded for beating the game, which should give you an indication as to how long some of the achievements can take to get) but never making you feel like the game is being stingy. It really is about making you explore the game to its fullest.

It’s a shame that I have any complaints about the game, but there are a few small problems. The first is that the HUD and some of the UI do not seem optimised for the X360. On the version that I played, a lot of the time part of the interface is displayed off-screen, even in single player. This is a minor gripe, as it can be tweaked in the pause menu, so I won’t dwell on it. However, my second qualm also feels again like I’m making a bit of a compromise in terms of the interface, with the controller suffering from some questionable design choices that probably make perfect sense on the PC version. Again, I don’t want to whine about it all that much, because PC gamers have had to suffer far worse offences in other games when the lead platform has been a console.

My final complaint might even be more minor, but I still consider it the worst of the lot. The portrayal of the only female character in the game, the Huntress, is completely off-putting. It’s like the 2D artist who painted all of the cut scenes didn’t bother talking to the 3D character renderer. The artwork has her as plucky, kind of innocent/kind of cute character, similar to her three male counterparts. The first time you highlight her in the character selection screen, though, she turns around, slaps her arse and does a ‘come hither’ wave. Maybe, maybe it is meant as a– fuck it, I don’t want to get into that in this review. I’ll simply say that it is, at best, a little offensive.

Turning this review back on track, Dungeon Defenders embarrasses a lot of disc-based games with its wealth of available content. The simple fact that it allows for a great couch co-op experience, as well as having tons of little details that clearly show a love for the game (e.g. the customisable tavern) are just the tips of the iceberg. In fact, not only did it side step every possible pratfall, it went above and beyond: it demands that your money go to it rather than Torchlight.

Dungeon Defenders has left me utterly besotted and you’ve done yourself a disservice if you even think about not picking it up. Just ignore the Huntress’ portrayal.