Review: Kingdom Rush Frontiers11 Jun 2013 0
Tower defense. It's a thing. More specifically, it's a genre of game that asks you to defend road after countless road from single-minded, simply-pathed rapscallions who aim to cause you all kinds of harm once they escape the boundaries of your screen (they... well, they can't do it while you're watching).
All prejudices and preconceptions about the genre left behind, you also know that tower defense has been done well, and done cleverly, before. Sanctum, Orcs Must Die, Iron Brigade/Trenched, Anomaly: Warzone Earth--all quality by dint of fiddling with our expectations. Anomaly inverts the offense-defense, Trenched and Sanctum drop you down to ground level, etc. Kingdom Rush Frontiers is the sequel to a popular tower defense game with a name exactly nine letters shorter. Is it an improvement, or is it- SON OF A DANG ANOTHER FLYING WAVE.
Obvious things out of the way first. In terms of basic towers, Kingdom Rush Frontiers has what you need, TD-wise, if what you need TD-wise are the same four towers you always get in these games. Arrow towers are high-speed, low-damage, and good for clearing out those massive waves of weak enemies. (Honestly, this tower defense is at its best. D-Day from the bad guy's side, minus that... Nazi stuff.) Wizard towers and their attendant mages are your slow-firing, armor-piercing snipers. Dwarven artillery are your, um, artillery, and barracks are- well, those are a bit unique.
Each barracks you construct gives you a trio of soldiers to place between the enemy legions and their objective. Breaking from the standard playbook, instead of just passively letting enemies walk past your deadly emplacements, you're moving troops around (within a certain range of their home-barracks), blocking key routes, and adjusting formations based on your knowledge of the next enemy wave. In theory, this is the grand army to supplement your brilliant, lightning-fast, possibly invisible corps of tower-building engineers. In practice, barracks really only function as distractions. Even fully leveled, soldiers are never as good at killing monsters as they are at engaging them long enough for a tower to blow 'em up, though admittedly, Kingdom Rush Frontiers' barracks are more adaptive and thematic than the genre staple "slow" towers.
After all, every general needs an army. And you do have a general: a super-powered unit you can order around the screen to engage in the carnage himself. Bit more hands-on than most generals, really. Only three hero units are unlocked over the course of the game, with the rest being pay-for-play.
One of my main gripes with tower defense is that it's inherently impersonal. Not even in the sense of something like an RTS, where you're coolly sending millions off to die in order to secure some backwater crystal refinery. Tower defense doesn't even have that. It wants you to get worked up over a series of identical buildings, strung out suburban-like.
But with an actual avatar in the mix, these improbable fantasy battles are that much more engaging. Your contribution is limited to moving your champion around in an attempt to guide their auto-attacks, but it's something. A few days of play with one hero, Alric, had him leveled up with damage boosts and a summon which brought forth sand warriors to bolster the line. Placing him behind the main bulk of my soldiers, but still close enough to the action to activate his special, felt very much like a Magic General Dude move. It's a nice, simple twist to layer on top of the tower blastin' action.
Same story for leveling your buildings. Bitter indifference towards the game's ho-hum starters aside, in truth I was impressed with the options Kingdom Rush Frontiers offers when it comes to upgrades. The permanent, pre-battle stat-boosts bought with stars earned from missions (one to three, depending on how well you do) are basic as they come--increased firing speed, cheaper build costs, snooze. But, in-battle upgrades you purchase with coins from slain foes always branch down two wholly different paths. That's two per tower. And these options are great because, yes, they subvert the roles traditionally seen in tower defense titles.
For example: an arrow tower can be made into a crossbow fort which has a rapid-fire attack and can boost adjacent turrets' range. Neat. Or it can be a tribal axe-thrower tower (staffed by Rastafarian-accented tribesmen--unfortunate) with high damage and totem attacks which debuff and slow enemies. Neater. Barracks turn into thieves' dens full of assassins or castles staffed by Knights Templar. My personal favorite, the mage tower, starts off kind of crap, but with enough gold becomes either a Saruman-atop-Orthanc-aping AOE beast or a necromantic crypt which can raise slain enemies as loyal skeleton warriors.
This stuff is just cool to look at. Thing is, Kingdom Rush Frontier doesn't give you enough chances to appreciate these quirks. Much of the early game is spent with the basic towers, and then with the less interesting possible upgrades. By the time you get a chance to see how necromancy meshes with totemic spirit-worship (hint: awesomely), you've already spent some time just... watching the same ol' tower defense shuffle.
And it's difficult to say if, even in the late game, wise tower placement can trump that classic TD strategy of just putting down a bunch of arrow emplacements and hoping for the best. Ditto for spamming the special abilities and items--meteor blasts, ice bombs, mercenary deployments--the game throws your way. Kingdom Rush Frontier often floods you with waves of enemies with different abilities which you barely have time to read the tooltips for, let alone react to. Worse still, maps where enemies can open up new paths to victory--paths you've had no chance to bolster with defenses--seem designed specifically to make players replay levels they'd already gotten halfway through. It smacks of a cheap, artificial padding of the game's length.
Kingdom Rush Frontiers does make an honest stab at setting itself apart from the half-assed bulk of tower defense titles. And it succeeds. Partially. But, in the end, you're still largely sitting back, doing nothing more often than something, with the feeling that the game is playing itself and your towers are doing (or not doing) all the work. Which is actually the point. But you knew that already.