Epic's beautiful Unreal Engine is featured in yet another new and awesome iOS game: the complex and fun Dungeon Defenders: First Wave. Dungeon Defenders takes traditional tower defense and makes it infinitely better by adding action-RPG elements that are in the same vein as Diablo and its cousins. The resulting game has a depth of play that can be easily compared to PC and console titles, and all the pretty of those platforms, besides. In fact, Dungeon Defenders is also to be released for PC, Playstation Network, and Xbox Live Arcade, and all reports show the iPad/iPhone version to be a near-direct port.
Of course, the fact that the iOS game is so close to versions that rely on gamepad and keyboard play is actually a bit of a detriment. The touchscreen controls on the iOS version are obviously based on the gamepad control scheme, and this leaves you with many (many) onscreen buttons that can get in the way of the game's action. This is a problem that is even more prevalent on the iPhone/iPod Touch, as the smaller screen size only intensifies the cluttered feel. That aside, all of the buttons do their jobs well, and after a walk through the tutorials, you should be able to navigate around just fine. For the most part.
The story of Dungeon Defenders is that of four young heroes, the proteges of their famous and absentee parents who once saved the world of Etheria from the gathered hordes. When the parents are away fighting evil in a neighbouring land, the four children -- an elf archer, a little bald monk, a burgeoning mage too small for his hat, and a grunting mini-tank of a knight -- accidentally re-release the original baddies into the world via their own castle's dungeons. These goblins, dark elves, ogres and the like are bound and determined to destroy the Eternia Crystals -- and the four must defend said crystals at all costs.
On a side note, I love the blatant He-Man references in this game! Eternia (He-Man’s homeworld) Crystals in the land of Etheria (She-Ra’s world), with one of its protectors looking a mite-bit like the sorcerer Orko, made me giggle just a little bit. I kept expecting one of my sword-finds to have the word Grayskull in its name, and was hard-pressed not to name the girl Teela. But I digress...
You only play one character at a time in Dungeon Defenders, though you can switch out characters during play, either before or during levels. Each character has specific strengths and weaknesses, can be levelled up separately, has his or her (there’s just one her) own gear to choose from and upgrade, and has his or her own towers or fortifications that can be built. Upgrades come about in the same way as most RPG games, via bashing your way through enemies to gather experience points that lead to statistics improvements, fancy new gear, gold, etc. Enemies approach in a succession of waves, each larger than the last. The waves come from several directions at once, entering via doors that are scattered throughout the dungeons. To further complicate your life, the dungeons can be sprawling and somewhat intricate in nature, allowing the enemy several possible attack vectors on your precious Eternia Crystal -- and if that Crystal hits zero, that's all she wrote.
Thankfully, each wave is preceded by a build phase that allows you to construct, repair and tweak your defenses. There is also a handy sign outside of each door that allows you to see just how many of what is about to come out and try to kill you, allowing you to plan accordingly. You can switch out characters to try direct or missile-based attack strategies, taking the attack directly to the enemy, as well as maintain the different defenses on the fly. This gives Dungeon Defenders: First Wave an authentic battle-feel that any traditional tower defense or role playing game could not hope to match.
If you want to play Dungeon Defenders on your own, you have hours of gameplay ahead of you. If you're feeling lonely, or just want to drop in for a few minutes here and there to bash things, you can also take advantage of the game's excellent multiplayer mode. You can search for and host sessions via the game's integrated platform, or you can do the same and even invite friends via Game Center. Up to four players can drop in or drop out of any multiplayer game (which now includes voice chat), and while this can make an already very busy game into a bit of a madhouse, the easy-entry, no-commitment cooperative play only increases the fun of Dungeon Defenders. The downside is that, as the game is relatively new, online sessions can be hard to find. When in doubt, host your own -- that way, anyone can drop in and give you a hand, if they want (don't worry, you can kick them if they're jerks).
The Unreal Engine works incredibly well on the iOS platform, as was already evidenced by the release of Infinity Blade. While Dungeon Defenders: First Wave is not as crisply gorgeous as Infinity Blade, nor as well designed for the iOS platform, it is several layers of insanity more complex and deep -- and still manages to be one of the best looking games on the App Store. The graphics are cartoon-ish in nature, and are a bit cutesy as a result, and the camera work is often annoying, but combined with the sound effects, the game does a great job of establishing a fun vibe, despite the attacking hordes. Leave your intensity hat at home, unless you plan to apply it to feelings of "Oh hells! Where should I try and defend next!?!" or "Ahhhh!!! Which button do I press for ____ again??"
Despite some unfortunate controls and camera work -- they really should have been redesigned just for the iOS/mobile platform -- and a mashup of the tower defense and action-RPG genres that leaves you with so much to do that your head will spin and your eyes will cross, Dungeon Defenders: First Wave is a serious amount of fun! I would recommend it to anyone who has been waiting for an iOS game that has as much depth as a PC game -- but if you're strictly into time-killing causal games, then you might want to take a deeper look before buying. For the opening price of $2.99, though, this game is hard to beat, especially considering that it's a universal game -- meaning you only buy it once and get the full experience on the iPad or the iPhone/iPod Touch.