Review: Defenders of Ardania (XBLA)

DefendersOfArdania

We’re all familiar with the popular cliché held by certain NFL teams—think Chicago and the New York Giants—that the best offense is a good defense. Lately, tower defense games have been flipping that equation around, letting defensive-minded players go on the offensive as well. In games like Anomaly Warzone Earth, Orcs Must Die! and Dungeon Defenders this plays out as an exciting and clever twist that changes the strategy and experience completely.

In Defenders of Ardania, it’s nothing short of a raging catastrophe.

Ardania is set in the Majesty universe, but somehow manages to jettison most of that excellent RTS series’ various charms. The problems start with the inexplicably muddy and cluttered graphics, from the unreadable cream-colored pop-up warnings (with yellow text, no less) to the washed-out look of your units, even when you zoom in on them. Unless you’re playing different factions, the towers you’ll build are completely indistinguishable from your opponent’s, and they’re also obscured by the terrain and landscape. Seconds after a battle starts, it’s often nigh impossible to discern what the hell’s going on, including one of the most critical pieces of information—the health of your opponent’s base.

As you’ve probably guessed, erecting towers to protect your own castles and bases is only half of the equation in Defenders of Ardania; you’re also expected to create waves of your own troops to march forth and decimate the enemy dojo as well. So, great, you’re playing both sides of the ball; how the action plays out is where everything goes south. Gotta love, for instance, the unbelievable scenario in which your mindless troops literally pass through similarly mindless enemy forces on the road to their respective targets. Nobody stops to battle or even exchange pleasantries, secret handshakes and high-fives; they just zip right through each other like ghosts. Realistic.

The number of towers you can construct on each level is limited, as is the number of units you can assign per wave. You’d think this would introduce a thread of careful strategy and resource management. Instead, every level devolves into a monotonous war of attrition. Crank units, wait ‘til they die or reach their target, crank more units. Repeat ad nausem for up to an hour per level—yes, you read that correctly—until you or the AI finally topples. That’s not epic. It’s ennui-inducing, and the ability to speed up game flow with the right trigger doesn’t mitigate it.

Even after spending on upgrades, at least half the units are completely useless, since they saunter at a pace only slightly slower than a Nyquil-doped turtle, ensuring they’re reduced to charred ash by the opposition spears and fireballs long before they ever reach striking range. In a ridiculously ironic twist of strategy, the cleric, which in any other game would be a health-pumping support unit, functions as a tank. It’s one of the few units with a health and armor meter high enough to survive the enemy’s tower gauntlet; of course, it’s also molasses-slow and has the attack rate of an anemic flea, so you can look forward to enjoying that half-hour wait while your army of cleric-fleas flicks the enemy to death.

Most games feature tutorials that ease you into the action at a reasonable pace, building gameplay concepts like bricks in a castle wall. Ardania features a verbose Scotsman who sounds like he just graduated from Sean Connery impersonation class. He also likes to withhold information and distract you while the AI gets a head start, which is especially helpful given that you’re already wrestling with the game’s visual cacophony.

You’re not told, for instance, that you can deploy a rally flag to command your units to attack towers, not just castles and mission targets, until several missions into the campaign. Nor are you told that only certain types of units can attack towers–as in, units you won’t gain access to until a few missions later. While your bloviating advisor is busily explaining the next key gameplay concept, the AI has already grabbed the few high-ground tiles and has its first wave of troops halfway to your castle. Dude, whose side are you on?

The iOS version of Defenders of Ardania (released late last year) has its fans, but the XBLA version is a mess of concepts that either don’t work or are, like your units, poorly deployed. It’s only the second quarter, but this one already has a spot locked up on my year-end worst-of list. Seriously, stay far, far away from this kludgy kingdom.

SkipIt

Pros:
+ Are there any? If so, I missed them

Cons:
– Muddy graphics obscure the action
– Terrible tutorials distract/don’t teach
– Every battle devolves into an endless stalemate

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade (also available on iOS and PC)
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Developer: Most Wanted Entertainment
Release Date: 3/14/2012
Genre: Tower Defense Strategy
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1-4 (1-2 offline, 2-4 online)
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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About the Author

Aaron R. Conklin has been writing about games and games culture for more than 15 years. A former contributor to Computer Games Magazine and Massive Magazine, his writing has appeared on IGN.com and in newspapers and alt-weeklies across the country. Conklin's an unapologetic Minnesota sports fan living in Madison, Wisconsin, home of the Midwest's most underrated gaming vibe.