Review: Block Fortress

By Phil Scuderi 04 Apr 2013 0
That's a nice.. everything you have. Creeper! No, wait. My mistake.

Little green army men; Lego bricks; action figures of all kinds: you play with them all in the same way. First, divide them into two forces. One side occupies a base or a fortress, and the other side attacks. It’s a story as old as Troy. That’s how I played with my toys, anyway. Indoors, a pile of books could represent an impromptu building, and an upturned cup an industrial smokestack. When urban environments grew stale, I took my toys to the backyard, which was far richer with possibilities. Here every weed was a tree, every pebble a boulder, and the small drainage gullies surrounding my mom’s flowerbeds formed huge canyons and flooded ravines. I liked to crouch low to the ground to view the terrain from the toy soldiers’ perspective. What would it be like to take part in their battles?

Block Fortress promises to answer that question. It’s a tower-defense game, in which you build defensive ramparts and attempt to stave off an aggressive hoard. It’s also played from first-person perspective. Instead of directing the defense omnisciently from above, you move about inside your base and fight individual foes up close.

On the PC, recent-ish games like Sanctum and Orcs Must Die have elevated this more interactive take on defense games to the level of established subgenre. However, that subgenre faces a root problem. The logic of the first-person shooter suggests that guns should be powerful (“meaty” is often the word), and that enemies should die fairly quickly when you shoot them. Tower-defense games, though, want their enemies to die slowly by a thousand cuts as they lumber their way toward the interior of your base. It isn’t easy to strike a compromise between those opposing emphases.

Block Fortress tries to do so, and if it were controlled by mouse and keyboard maybe it would succeed. But the touchpad interface is just not suited to fast-paced games in first-person perspective. Here a rectangle in the lower left corner of the screen controls your movement in the world, and by dragging a second finger elsewhere on the screen you can look all about. But you’ll need to press a red button on the right to shoot, and it’s nigh impossible to use three fingers at once. So pick any two: move, aim, or shoot. You’ll need a third hand if you want to do all three dependably. Thus the combat feels like an archaic ‘90s console FPS. And it isn’t an option just to sit back and let your turrets do the work; some enemies are immune to all turrets, so you’re forced to engage them in cumbersome combat.

Works in Godzilla movies. Who says howitzers can't be front-line defense?

This is about as good an interface as I can imagine given the limitations of the touch format, but I’d still rather play the game on a different device. The developers seem to have realized their strictures: the battles play out slowly so as to give you a chance to react to tactical developments. But this just leads me to wonder how much better the game would be if it could be played with more urgency. Instead, the enemy plods about with unconvincing malice while your towers whittle them down, and if you shoot at them yourself you can whittle them down just a little bit faster. You can equip your character with more powerful guns, but the combat never becomes visceral or thrilling. It’s warfare by management. Fire your weapon to increase the enemy’s rate of death by a fixed percentage. “Oh, oh! Did you see that shot? He was already dying, but I sped up goblin’s death by at least thirty percent!” Such is not the stuff of heroes. We don't still talk about Achilles because he was a brilliant project manager.

You can play Block Fortress in three different modes: Survival, Quickstart, and Sandbox. In Survival, you begin with few resources and need to harvest minerals to support your base as it grows. In Quickstart, you’re afforded a substantial war chest, and you can build dozens of defensive structures in advance of the enemy’s arrival. And in Sandbox mode you can build, build, build without restriction. Of these, I prefer Quickstart mode because it places less emphasis on white-knuckle combat than Survival (remember, this game is not good at combat), while still posing a healthy challenge. Quickstart also involves a lot of base-building, which is the best part of the game.

Each mission before your goblin-like foes peek over the horizon, you get to build a base. First, you should review the landscape for high ground and useful chokepoints. Build your barracks in a defensible spot—if it’s destroyed, you lose. Then, block by block, build a long wall, or better yet a series of them, to protect your chosen site. Populate the top of the wall with machine guns, plasma turrets, spotlights, and dozens of other kinds of stationary weapon. Within your perimeter you’ll need to build energy cubes and resource-gathering mineshafts, which together provide the infrastructure and economy to see you through the battle to come. The enemies attack in waves and will try to destroy any walls they see before they attack other structures, so use their simple-mindedness to your advantage.

Is this a school for ants? The enemy may be dumb, but they know their advantage lies in numbers.

If you like your base, you can save and reload it to try out different strategies. Between levels you can upgrade your blocks to make them more durable or more destructive. Block Fortress does as much to trip your brain’s reward circuitry as any game in the tower-defense genre. I almost didn’t notice the unobtrusive in-app purchases, there to speed along your progress if you so choose, and I certainly didn’t feel a need for them.

The game’s terrain and indeed its overall aesthetic are, shall we say, indebted to Minecraft. Well, no, that’s too kind: Block Fortress shamelessly rips off Minecraft, so much so that I could mistake a screenshot of one for the other. I’m willing to forgive, though, since like Minecraft, this game has a good reason to compose its world of destructible cubes. The regular geometry makes it easy to plan elaborate and original defensive structures. My bases seem crude and utilitarian next to the clever, even lovely designs that others have posted online. With sufficient motivation you can build a medieval castle, or the starship Enterprise, or giant turret-adorned genitalia. [Hey, stay off my Minecraft server! -- ed.]

Building bases in Block Fortress feels like being outside in the backyard again, setting up dioramas. Each element I place on the battlefield comes complete with its own imagined story. That cannon placed high on the wall? Imagine the havoc it’ll wreak when I turn on my spotlight and catch the enemy in the open! This wall at the bottom of the hill? It’s designed to fail; it’s just there to occupy the horde’s attention while my long-range howitzers blast them to bits. Each little bit plays its part in my plan. As I build I imagine intricate battle narratives, and when I play the game I’m really just hoping to see those narratives brought to fruition.

And just like in the backyard, the setup is more fun than the battle itself.

Review: Block Fortress

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