April and May saw the release of major installments in three of the more popular tower defense (TD) games at Kongregate: GemCraft, Protector, and Cursed Treasure. These three games share fantasy styling, (mostly) fixed enemy paths, and hours of soul stealing gameplay in a medium trying to shake off the image of five-minute throw-away game experiences.
The original GemCraft was perhaps the first TD game I played to completion. Captivated by the subtle finesse of the user interface, the particle effects, and the learnable game system. The level mechanics build in added challenges for high level play, adding layers of replay value. Labyrinth is the third incarnation in the series, tuning the elements from the previous iterations and adding a couple of new features. Labyrinth is big, having 169 discreet stages including five boss stages that constitute the bulk of the accompanying story. Some levels incorporate maze building or optional bonus features like crypts that can be destroyed releasing a flood of high powered monsters. Twenty levels have additional challenges for devoted players that grant access to four secret stages. However, the biggest difference about Labyrinth and its predecessors, is that Labyrinth offers premium content, which limits some of the advanced play options for those who play the free version. The game can still be played to completion, but not all of the skills, bonus maps, and challenges can be attained. The game continues to be pretty, but it is also incredibly long (currently over two million plays, but only slightly more than eight thousand completions), a trait inherited from its immediate predecessor GemCraft: Chapter 0. In my opinion, the length of the original version was more ideal, but for a game that one plans on going back to time and time again, Labyrinth may well be worth the investment of soul (and possibly even $5). There is also a GemCraft version available for the iPhone. I’ve only played the demo, but it seems to hold true enough to the original experience, though with cuter graphics.
The Protector series is slow, not very pretty, and has a steep learning curve, but it creates some interesting challenges that require planning and a solid understanding of the game’s system. Protector IV added a more complex overworld system with heroes and factions and quests, which was a departure from the series’s more linear level structure. The focus of the game spreads to encompass party and inventory management reminiscent of Might & Magic. I’m not sure that it really adds too much to the experience, especially at the beginning of the game, other than another layer of complexity, but it offers the suggestion of customization later in the game to augment personal play style or to strategize for specific challenges. PIV.V is essentially an expansion using the same engine as IV, but with bug fixes. It’s a solid offering, but the introduction of the additional overworld mechanics in the vIV.x iterations did not resonate with me.
Cursed Treasure: Level Pack
For some reason, I didn’t take to the original Cursed Treasure right away. The basic system is simple; towers are divided into three different classes, with each class having an upgrade branch at mid-level into one of two options. The class I wanted to emphasize required support initially from the other classes in order to manage the levels. Not properly respecting the balance of the system (which is a bit unbalanced in favor of one of the other classes) I was making the game needlessly difficult for myself. But I came back and learned the system and found that I really enjoyed the pacing and the challenge of perfecting the levels. Also, since technically the player controls the forces of evil (protecting their gems from thieves), it is quite satisfying to max out the towers and watch them mow through the waves. Level Pack is just that, an expansion of the first game with a few minor tweaks and a good number of maps to keep one occupied for a while. Of the three games discussed, I think CT:LP has the best balance of gameplay, pacing, and duration. It’s also slightly more fun, its challenge not relying so much on endurance, though perhaps less strategic than the other offerings.