Review: Tower Dwellers

By Dave Lane 03 Dec 2013 0
Dali would be proud. Why did the chicken fall from the sky? To slaughter the invader where he stood.

There is a moment in every tower defence game where several creeps just slip past the range of your towers with a sliver of health. If the towers could extend themselves a little bit, or the projectile-lobbing jobsworths within actually come out and fight, you think, it would be no problem. But no, they sit there idly contemplating your defeat. Here is a parallel there with the genre as well, itself too stuck within a fixed range of previously successful ideas to deal with its problems. Tower Dwellers is a game where your loyal soldiers show more mettle, being willing to come out and fight.  Is the game itself similarly daring, or is it another timid imitator?

Initially, it’s hard to ignore the extent that Tower Dwellers liberally cribs from reigning genre king Kingdom Rush. In addition to both being fixed-path affairs, Tower Dwellers apes a lot of Kingdom Rush’s self-consciously wacky aesthetic. Units all sport off-beat names like 'Shiny Sword Fella' to go with the attractive chibi sprites. The exposition is delivered in a wheedling pantomime wizard voice which manages to be endearing during the opening narration and infuriating after it. The attack spell drops chickens instead of meteors. It all comes to feel a bit desperate, like a weird uncle trying too hard to prove that he's still hip. Thankfully, even when it is derivative, Tower Dwellers is a game much more assured in its mechanics than its style.

Tower Dwellers uses some of the same tricks Kingdom Rush uses to alleviate the inherent passivity of the genre: players are given special powers on a rapid cooldown to influence matters directly. Calling in the next wave of enemies is encouraged with a tempting cash bonus for a nice risk-reward element.  It works, more or less: despite some occasionally iffy pacing which sees levels drag both near the start and just before the boss shows up, Tower Dwellers never made me feel like a passive spectator. This impression is further helped by the fact that, in an extension of another Kingdom Rush feature, your units are a fairly active bunch too.

Ironically, the units in Tower Dwellers are not content just to dwell, huddling in their fortifications as the enemy saunters by. Towers are barracks rather than projectile launchers, spitting out soldiers that can be moved around within a radius their home tower and will fight monsters hand to hand. The design of the levels and waves are nicely focused on bringing this light micromanagement to the fore.

Towers are often placed to allow units to move to cover two different pathways, and the waves often contain nasty surprises for the lazy player: having your melee guys up front while your archers hug the tower is fine until a kamikaze barrel turns your knights into gibs or a ghost goes at the fore of a wave to tank your arrows.

There would be more of them, but so many are busy doing emergency aid in KFC outlets. See those guys with feathers on their heads? They are monster healers. You will hate them with the fire of a thousand suns.

One of Tower Dwellers' more interesting ideas is a twist on the towers themselves. Towers themselves are cheap and identical, producing crappy infantry. Around the towers though, you have a selection of three support structures to build, with each combination producing a different unit from the tower they surround. Not revolutionary, but it is oddly pleasing. A structure can be shared by two or three towers, creating a tension between wanting the most cost-effective daisy chain of death and the fear of being spread too thin when a big wave arrives. The support structure system makes the micro a bit easier as well, as substituting one structure can change several units.

To be sure, the greater demands on the player from that micro put more strain on the touchscreen interface relative to more genteel tower defence games. Spells are infuriatingly easy to use by accident, and targeting a specific unit is a hit and miss affair. The micromanagement focus, though, does help keep things engaging more often than not and contributes to the feeling that, like Sanctum or the Anomaly games, Tower Dwellers is aimed at the core gamer end of the tower defence fanbase.

Such gamers in particular will be very pleased to note that Tower Dwellers features not a speck of IAP at time of writing – just as well, as if the game did allow you to buy your way to victory, I would probably accuse it of being a little too keen to reach into my wallet. Tower Dwellers is hard. The levels are long and the waves become quite large hordes fairly early on. The normal difficulty seems balanced with the expectation that the player is not only choosing their towers judiciously, but effectively microing in response to threats and using their spells both wisely and often. Generally, the game's difficulty is a source of satisfaction rather than frustration.

Tower Dwellers is generally forthcoming with the numbers. Tower Dwellers is generally forthcoming with the numbers.

However, a cynic might argue that with a grand total of 13 levels (three of them extended training exercises) Tower Dwellers needs to be hard to compensate for its brevity. The developer has promised the addition of a survival mode, but all the same experienced base builders will have seen everything disappointingly quickly.  There is no shame in a game finishing while its fresh, but Tower Dwellers feels like it ends before it gets to push its ideas far enough.

Another area where it feels like Tower Dwellers has unexplored potential is in the unit selection. The first time you build a third support structure for a tower and see a gold-helmed Paladin come out, healing the units around him, you wonder what other surprises you can coax out of your towers. But the Paladin turns out to be the exception rather than the rule. For the most part, more blacksmiths make units tougher, more archery ranges give greater range and alchemists trade fragility for damage. When the player looks at the monstrous regiments arrayed against him, with their flyers and exploding barrels and hulking tanks, it does feel like the computer is the one getting to play with all the cool toys.  The conservative design is part of the reason Tower Dwellers feels more like a game of  efficient tweaking than trying creative new approaches, an exercise in in optimisation rather than inspiration.

It feels a bit mean, though, to pick on Tower Dwellers for not reinventing the wheel. It's a well-crafted game with good production values, careful level design and engaging mechanics. Like its units, though, keeping within a radius around their towers, Tower Dwellers show a willingness to come out to play but never goes as far as you want it to. It's a game that's well worth playing for tower defence fans, despite its brevity. But you'll find yourself wishing it really knew how to cut loose.

Review: Tower Dwellers

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