Sometimes, video games can be a bit like cooking; Mixing two ingredients together can be a surefire way of concocting a gourmet dish sent straight from the celestial heavens above, or conversely, a foolproof method of inventing a repugnant repast that’s unfit for the taste buds of a hungry house-fly (broccoli ice-cream anyone?). Genre mash-ups are always a roll of the dice. Every now and then, the experimentation pays off; Rhythm/roguelike/dungeon-crawler indie darling Crypt Of The Necrodancer is a car-crash of genres and ideas, but they work incredibly in unison together. Much of the time, however, the roll of the dice leads to Frankenstein-esque abominations like Tales Of Teteris – a Telltale style adventure game set in the world of Tetris… seriously, it’s a real thing.
So, that brings us to Aegis Defenders, a plucky amalgam of retro-flavored Metroidvania platforming blended together with a healthy dollop of tower defence strategy. On paper, it sounds like a disaster waiting to happen, but luckily it works. Despite a few minor quibbles, this is a worthy addition to the pantheons of the ol’ genre mashup. It’s definitely more of a spaghetti pizza pie (mmm) than a strawberry and banana hot dog (ugh).
Aegis Defenders takes place in a fantasy land where gods and humans vie for power, while insect-like monsters constantly threaten to disturb the peace. The gods, referred to in-game as the Ancients, keep a watchful eye over civilization, though a rebellious empire of angry warriors, known as the Indra, are hellbent on displacing the balance of power and quashing the Ancients’ political and social hold over society. As the granddaughter of a veteran engineer called Bart, it’s your job to obtain a powerful ancient weapon, dubbed the Aegis, in your bid to bring peace to the chaotic world around you.
There’s a deep wealth of fantasy lore that is alluded to as you make your way through the campaign. At its core, the narrative is an adept fusion of warring politics in a steampunk-esque land à la Final Fantasy, along with overtones of a meditative spiritual journey akin to an experience like Pyre. Dialogue is mostly text-based, but it is well written, and fleshes out the handful of intriguing characters you meet as you travel through this colorful land brimming with towering metallic dragons, overgrown adamantine cockroaches and peppy robotic companions.
Undoubtedly the most unique aspect of Aegis Defenders is its double pronged gameplay, which roughly constitutes one part action-platformer and one part tower defence. Each level begins with a Metroidvania-style platforming section, which is punctuated by a mixture of environmental puzzles with a few nasty beasties thrown in to spice things up. The puzzles begin easy enough, though their challenge ramps up as you progress through the main campaign. Rest assured, if you’re anything like me, there’ll be a few moments where you’ll be scratching your noggin as you figure out how to progress to the next checkpoint.
Bookending the action-platforming is a tower defence segment that pits you and your allies against five waves of increasingly difficult critters. You can switch between characters on the fly, and each hero has their own different weapon, special ability and towers, which are upgradeable, too. For example, the main protagonist Clu comes packing a burst rifle, a speedy dash and the potential to place bombs (these bombs can be further augmented into more powerful towers as you progress).
If you’ve played a tower defence game before, you’ll probably be familiar with how these sections work. These tower defence segments are split up into a Build Phase and an Enemy Phase. The first Build Phase gives players one minute to gather resources and place the towers strategically before the monsters begin their assault. The Enemy Phase is – you guessed it! – when the critters pour through entrances on the right and left side of the map and begin their invasion. Each attack wave constitutes one Build Phase and one Enemy Phase.
Obviously, during the Enemy Phase, you must protect an important objective (which differs from level to level) and these are usually stationed in the center of the map. Towers attack autonomously, however, the twist is, you can also control one character during the incursion, though, only one teammate can be controlled at a time.
Thankfully, idle allies attack enemies and repair damaged defenses automatically but they must be placed close to the monsters and defenses before they do their job effectively. Thus, it’s wise to place them in strategic positions to make it through the waves of beasties in one piece. Characters can be switched to on the fly, but controlling your teammates and placing them can feel a touch clunky. I just wish your allies moved a little bit independently in 1P mode, as it really can be a chore re-positioning your team when you’re in a pinch as the waves of enemies strike your base like a massive monstrous tsunami of misery.
Now, some of these team AI and controller quibbles are alleviated with the 2P coop mode that is included in the package. It’s a lot of fun working strategically together with a fellow compadre and laying waste to the hordes of pesky brutes who’re determined to rain on your parade. It’s a welcome addition, and one of the most fun parts of the game’s overall package.
The other issue that takes some of the wind out of Aegis Defenders’ sails, is the fact that the tower defence sections are clearly way more enjoyable than the fairly passable Metroidvania segments. I get the feeling that the developer GUTS Department was cognizant of this, as for the most part, the emphasis is heavily placed on the more entertaining tower defence segments. However, as you progress, the borderline tiresome puzzle-platforming action sections begin to noticeably overstay their welcome, which is a shame.
In regards to how Aegis Defenders looks and sounds, well, it’s beautifully presented with some terrific old-school 16-bit pixel-art akin to last month’s wonderful Celeste. The overgrown, dilapidated environments are vivid and imaginative, while the character models are charming and detailed. Audio-wise, the game comes sporting a lovely meditative pop-instrumental score, with a zingy pounding march hook complementing the tower defence segments with oomph. Overall, the presentation is definitely up to snuff.
When two genres collide like they do in Aegis Defenders, it’s always a roll of the dice as to whether it’ll be a fun time or not. Thankfully, this tower defence/Metroidvania hybrid sticks the landing, and though it comes with a few control quirks and team AI quibbles, it’s still an engaging experience that marries two unlikely genres together in smart and clever ways.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game, which was provided to us by Humble Bundle.
Though it comes with a few control quirks and team AI quibbles, Aegis Defenders is still an engaging experience that marries two unlikely genres together in smart and clever ways.