Defenders of Ardania Review
4.8our score

Tower defence games are all the rage at the moment. It’s like zombies in mainstream pop culture, every week brings a fresh wave of them. I’m quite a fan of tower defence, have been ever since that secret Warcraft 3 level that first brought the genre to my attention. Defenders of Ardania is a game firmly on this bandwagon with me, and alongside most other games publishers around at the moment.

By Fantasy Law, all Fantasy Games must include at least one world map of this quality or above. Tolkein said so.

Here’s the protocol – you must release a game that involves defending a tower. Said tower must be defended from waves of enemies. Said enemies approach along a fixed path or paths. Said paths can be defended by the construction of automated defence towers along them, which fire a variety of missiles to deal with the enemies. The enemies get stronger over time, but you can upgrade your defence towers to be more effective. You do this by spending your currency, which is earned at a fixed rate and also supplemented by the death of your foes. So as long as you build an effective defence, it will earn enough to stay effective. Fall off this curve, and the bad guys will inevitably break through and muller your base.

Defenders of Ardania is set in the same world as Majesty 2, a game I reviewed last year. Enough people bought and enjoyed that game, an RTS with a quirky command system where you had to bribe your units to get them to do your bidding, that I suppose there’s some merit in setting this interesting Tower Defence game in the same world. It also clearly saves the designers a lot of time and hassle – the graphics, particularly the backgrounds, look to be lifted straight out of the Majesty 2 stable. No bad thing, those are good looking games. The level design wanders neatly through a good variety of jungles, mountainous regions, deserts and forests, and there’s always something pretty to look at. The sound is okay too, standard if inoffensive stirring fantasy epic overtures romping away in the background as you play. And the Sean Connery impersonator who introduces all the levels in Majesty 2 is back as well, familiar and cheering as he delivers his gentle fantasy piss-take intros.

Good old PseudoSean. Real Sean must really envy him this gig.

The other big thing a tower defence game needs these days is a twist. It needs to develop new and interesting mechanics just to stand out in the crowd. Hence we have like Orcs Must Die giving you a sort of FPS version along with cartoony violence, or Rock of Ages with its head-to-head stone rolling mechanic (a game so wildly different it’s barely even recognisable as tower defence), or that one with the aliens where you control the attacking creeps rather than the turrets, or those ones on Steam where it’s multiplayer co-op. There are literally too many for me to enumerate them all.

Defenders of Ardania has the twist that you must both attack and defend at once. So must your opponent, so the paths that your units follow is a grid system which you’re also both struggling for control of in order to build your turrets in the sweet spots. Some spots give you extra income, others extra range. Some turrets and units can attacks and destroy enemy towers, others can wipe out incoming enemy units. You have spells to heal buildings or wipe out attackers, a system of upgrades for units, towers and global abilities and a choice of three teams to pick from. And you can even tweak the paths your units take so that they follow a route of your choice rather than traipsing merrily into the nearest thicket of spear towers.

Here's the grid, a clunky overlay that doesn't add much to the look of the game. Playing without it is much harder and very frustrating.

This is an admirable and quite impressive set of ideas, one that could turn tower defence into an almost chess-like strategic battle with elements of RTS integrated. For my money, it falls way short of what it could achieve. The UI is dense and pretty unintuitive, so you need to click on your home base to open the menu from which you select attackers, for example. This isn’t as convenient as I’d like when I’m also trying to simultaneously juggle tower building and upgrades from a different set of menus. Having the ‘release wave’ controls built into an obvious menu at the bottom, like the hotkey bars in WOW and such, would make a huge difference. Against the computer, which can multitask with smooth efficiency, it’s quite a struggle to get on top of everything. You can’t see anyone’s health points without pressing certain buttons to get an overlay – fine, that reduces the info on screen, but it’s quite important info. How much health your units and your opponents have is really key to doing well in a TD game, this should be much easier info to get.

The levels also look terribly crowded. Pretty, but busy – it’s like Where’s Wally meets Kingdom Rush. Kingdom Rush, by the way, is an excellent browser-based TD game that you can play for free on sites like Kongregate. It’s an excellent example of why a good tower defence game doesn’t really need a bunch of whistles and bells to make it fun. It’s simple yet tricky, lovely to look at without being confusing and full of tactical choices which have swift and easy-to-follow effects on the game. Everything in Defenders of Ardania feels rather murky to me because it’s so hard to see what’s going on. Zoom out and you lose focus on what units are where and how well they’re doing. Zoom in and it’s hard to retain global control, it’s still hard to see how the units are doing, and you can focus instead on how robotic and dull their animations are. Flaming boulders and arrows crash and thud into these lively little sprites, and they march on with barely a spout of blood. It’s surprisingly utilitarian, given how shiny it looks from a distance.

Zoom in close and you can see your oblivious mannequins dying. Yawn. And you're not even all that close.

Playing the campaign, which slowly leads you into the game like a good story-based tutorial should, is pretty tedious. The game is quite slow paced; there may well be a way of speeding it up, but I either couldn’t find it in the tangled control panel or the campaign hadn’t introduced me to that function yet. The plot I think you could easily guess – a terrible evil from the past of the kingdom has arisen and only you can muster the blah to blah the blahblah and blah the blah of blah. There are honest to god monkeys generating this shit at a typewriter, I swear to god. Badly paid hack monkeys who are lifting it wholesale from Tolkein ripoffs.

Multiplayer might be better than the relentless tides an AI can effortlessly swamp you with. I did try, the kindly developers having sent a pack of game keys so that I could get my friends hooked. Sadly, repeated attempts to set up an online game just got the same error message, that the game lobby no longer existed. Checking the forums shows this is a major issue, and the fix involves faffing about with your Steam config files to get the right ports talking to each other. Whatever that means, IP routing is just so much gobbledegook to me. It’s sort of irrelevant, though. What both of us had already experienced of the game didn’t really make us want to persevere or sort out whatever glitch we were experiencing. We actually went and played a few rounds of Dawn of War instead, old-school Soulstorm, in which relentless waves of AI utterly crushed us repeatedly over the next two hours. I guess we didn’t really miss much.

What? Where? How can I? I don't understand what's happening! And I've stopped caring. On level 2.

Overall? A wasted opportunity, I reckon, with similar flaws to Majesty 2 in some ways. Interesting ideas well presented but ultimately lacking in solid gameplay. Pity – there’s clearly a lot of intelligence in the design team here, I like their style and their approach. But the core game on top of these ideas just doesn’t quite cut the mustard, especially when there are so many other really good tower defence games worth playing. Orks Must Die and Kingdom Rush are my current favourites, I’d pick the former if you want to spend money and the latter if you don’t. And look, Majesty 2 wasn’t without flaws either. Bluntly, I’m surprised that this equally flawed game was a good use of development time. Is it something the fans were really clamouring for, or just a convenient way to make a buck from an older game engine? I think everyone can do better, both the creators and anyone thinking of getting it.

the author

Used to be a Doctor (Dr). Now is an actor (Ar), writer (Wr) and gamer (Gr), and would like to get all these abbreviations into general usage, because GrArWr is a much more interesting title to have on your bank card.

  • Simon Kulberg

    Just wanted to post a complaint in a random location on this site regarding the conspicuous absence of certain titles in the review sections.
    Namely:
    Strategy: Homeworld and Cataclysm, Europa Universalis III, Warcraft III, Galactic Civilizations 2, Defense Grid and Freedom Force one and two.
    Adventure: Broken Sword and Stupid Invaders.
    Also, get Ghost Master and Evil Genius played and reviewed, or risk not being taken seriously!

  • http://www.shadow1980.co.uk Evil Tactician

    I can do a quick opinion on some of those titles (though bear in mind they’re 100% personal opinions)

    Homeworld: I’ve never got into the game – but I’m not a big RTS fan. At the time I wasn’t interested and later on, well. I don’t think it aged well. I did try later on but something stopped me from enjoying it and I have no idea what it was. (Probably controls/UI)

    EUIII: Guilty as charged. Though a review would be a big job, I feel like there’s so much to say about the game.

    Gal Civ 2: Now here’s an odd one. I -love- 4x sci-fi games. I’ve racked up thousands upon thousands of hours in games like Master of Orion 1/2 (even a bit of 3, though that was well.. crap…), Space Empires 4/5, etc. etc.
    But Galactic Civilizations… I own at least 2 copies, but I literally -cannot- enjoy this game. It always felt cold/distant and inaccessible to me. I completely failed to get immersed. I’m not sure why – I really want to like the game, but I just can’t :( I don’t feel it’s fair reviewing as many people love it and it’s probably just me.

    Defense Grid: Played it, one of the better TDS games out there imo :) Not sure if it’s still worth reviewing at this point.

    Adventure: Not really my genre – our resident adventure reviewer has gone awol as well unfortunately :(

    Ghost Master: Never played it. I think I bought it on Steam but never launched it yet.

    Evil Genius: Hrm. I thought it was interesting but only really kept me interested for 1 session – one saturday afternoon. Never felt like returning to it as it was a so-so game in terms of gameplay…

  • Kraken Wakes

    I too can review these venerable titles – and I’ll mostly be backing you up, Evil T: –

    I’ve only played Homeworld 2, which was excellent. Complex, challenging, gorgeous and plenty of great mods out there. I hear similar stuff about the first one, in fact many people liked it more, so that gets a somewhat unconsidered 8/10 from me.

    I don’t know EU3. And technically, I’ve currently given up computer games because I’ve just moved to another country and really need to do things like get a job and learn a new language. But the reputation it has is formidable, and I cower, mewling and eager to please, before any good strategy game. I’ve always been put off buying it by the rather grim-looking screenshots, if I’m honest, but I’m shallow that way.

    Warcraft 3 is a classic. Great romp, cheery graphics, wonderful campaigns in both original and expansion, and allows you to live the legends referred to in WoW (if that’s your thing. it’s not mine, I hate it). 9/10 – it loses one point because I’m no good at it and being beaten heavily every time I play makes me sour.

    Gal Civ 2 (and all expansions) – yes, it’s good, sort of. Again, the interface is clumsy and a bit off-putting, definitely by modern standards, but even back in the day my copies always struggled with graphics problems. I love being able to design my own ships; I hate that they always look terrible. Like any other Civ-a-like, the game can be frustratingly random sometimes, but it’s very well put together overall. If you like it, you may also enjoy newcomers to the genre like Endless Space (shiny, simple but very involving) or Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion (not truly a newcomer, but the highly evolved descendant of a good ‘un).

    Defense Grid is good. But you’d really not take Manapool seriously if we didn’t review it? Wow, I’ve underestimated the importance of tower defence greatly. As a light and entertaining game for casual play, I’d recommend it greatly, but it’s hardly the hardcore of greatness I dream of in my game-deprived slumber. Company of Heroes 2…

    I played Freedom Force vs the 3rd Reich, loved it. Original, entertaining, just hard enough to keep me going and a great nod to many of the comics I loved as a nipper. I can’t think why they didn’t do a Sandman mod. Or a Preacher one. For the kids, you know.

    I can’t handle adventure games at all. I don’t have the brain or the patience for it. even though I have the patience to play 184 hours of Shogun 2, according to Steam.

    Ghost Master I hear great things of; I played Evil Genius, and wanted to love it more than I did. I guess I was expecting it to be a lot more like Dungeon Master, the great classic of my day. It’s sort of a good game, but extremely hard and brutally unforgiving, I found. You need to be an Evil Genius to play it, basically, and even then the chaining together of traps for hilarious combos just doesn’t happen as much as you want it to. Even when you’ve got them working, the super agents come and break stuff and kill all your henchies too often and too easily. Maybe I’m too good and stupid, though.

  • Simon Kulberg

    No accounting for taste I suppose. Just noticed you had taken a much more retro approach than most sites do, which I like. I have always enjoyed tactical games like X-Com, Commandos, Desperados and hands off defensive base constructions or rpg, maybe because I`m half lazy and half addicted to driving myself up the wall with puzzles.The sad part of course is that it`s getting harder and harder to find good games when one has such preferences.
    Anyway I wasn`t serious when I said I wouldn`t take you…seriously. Just wanted to make my suggestions of some titles I`ve really enjoyed, some of which get marketed as if they`re Albanian cheese grinders compared to other, weaker ones.
    Have a nice summer from Norway.

  • http://www.shadow1980.co.uk Evil Tactician

    X-Com is one of my all-time favourite game series. I can’t wait until the new one comes out. And I’m not talking about the bioshock lookalike ;)