Dungeon Defenders: Awakened PC Review

I spent a lot of time with the original Dungeon Defenders when it released on PC back in October 2011. There was something addictive about its tower defence Action-RPG mixture that made me want to conquer all the stages at every difficulty. I have a thing for Action-RPGs and loot, so that mixture, along with the added strategy, dug its additive claws into me. For some reason, I never spent much time with its sequel, Dungeon Defenders II, a free-to-play take on the series, also on PC. A lot has happened since the release of Dungeon Defenders, and the original developers, Trendy Entertainment, now known as Chromatic Games, are ready to unleash their new entry in the Dungeon Defenders franchise out of Early Access.

Dungeon Defenders: Awakened is set as a sequel to Dungeon Defenders II, where the heroes have been sucked into a rift in time, sending them back to the past where they began their heroic deeds against the Old Ones. This puts the game in a bizarre situation, since the game feels more of a remake than a sequel, as in its current 1.0 release, it features 10 returning maps from the 2011’s original, meaning that only 5 of the game’s total maps are new. Adding to the fact that the four heroes in this game are the same four original heroes from the original (Squire, Huntress, Apprentice, and Monk), missing out any of the eight extra heroes that were added with downloadable content, then there is a sense of déjà vu while playing this game, something that does damper on the overall experience. This is a new Dungeons Defenders, though, and so I should be stoked about it, and while I am, and still having, a blast playing Awakened, it is hard to shake away the fact that I have played quite a lot of this game before.

There was a time where a sub-genre of strategy games going by the name of tower defence had a surge in popularity in the late 2000s to early 2010s, where the once dormant genre could be found in waves on many devices, from mobile phones to consoles and PC. The developers of Dungeon Defenders saw this as an opportunity to merge genres by combining tower defence with elements of an action RPG to bring a refreshing hybrid take on a genre that had mostly been done from a isometric perspective. Dungeon Defenders: Awakened is the exactly same hybrid idea, so gameplay concepts remain the same to the initial game back in 2011.

The gist of Dungeon Defenders: Awakened is to defend the core situated on the map from incoming waves of enemies. Depending on the map, the amount of cores can range from one up to the maximum of four, and if any of those are damaged enough to break, then the stage is failed. This is the general concept across all of the game’s game modes – Campaign, Survival, Challenges, Pure Strategy and Mix Mode, each featuring all the levels across the game’s six difficulties – Easy, Normal, Hard, Insane, Nightmare and Massacre (new for this sequel) – bar Challenges, where only nine stages are available in that mode.

As the title might inform, the game is about defending, and to do this first one of four classes must be created. In actual fact, it is best to create a character for each of the four classes, since the game uses a feature known as Hero Deck, a place where four characters can be added to gain experience that the active hero earns, in essence making everyone level up the same. This is such a brilliant way to not have to grind each class, because they are different, especially when it comes to their unique towers. As the game currently only has four classes, there is no reason not to fill the Hero Deck with all of these. More classes are coming as downloadable content, some free and some to pay for, and then you will most likely have to grind them, but still, at that point, just switching out a hero or two from the Hero Deck and power level the new class by using your best hero on the harder difficulties.

Each hero uses their own type of weapon, has three skills – with one healing and another to buff that drains energy to keep it activated – and five different towers to place. The Squire is essentially a tank, using sword and shields to attack or defend against enemies. His towers focus on things that block enemies, such as a spiked blockade or pushing enemies back with something like bowling ball canon that bounces canon balls around the space, dealing physical damage. For the wizards in us, the Apprentice uses staffs and has a focus on elemental towers to either impact physical, fire or lighting damage, while also able to strip enemies of elemental immunity. The Huntress uses long range attacks, such as crossbows and focuses on traps rather than towers. These traps can either deal physical, stun, fire, lightning or strip elemental immunity. Lastly, the Monk, a fighter that uses polearms for weapons and auras as tower placements. Auras apply specific elements, such as slow, damage reduction, enraged (cause enemies to fight each other) or healing to other heroes.

Missions are focused on waves, often starting with a small amount and then gradually increasing the amount of enemies per wave. At the start of a mission, the game gives each player a small amount of mana, which is essentially the game’s money. Mana is spent on towers to either build, repair or upgrade them, with each upgrade increasing the tower’s four statistics – range, damage, health and fire rate. A wave starts with a Build Phase, in which, depending on the difficulty, can be unlimited or set to a short time limit to place defences around the map. The next is Combat Phase, where the enemies begin to come out of the doors into the map. Each build phase will state on the doors what enemies are coming and which route they will travel during that wave to help with ideas where to place defences. Any defence can be sold to be replaced somewhere else, and no matter the phase, repairing, selling, placing new towers and upgrading can all be done during it, although it takes more time to perform these actions during combat phase. A mission has a limited amount of defence points, restricting how much can be built, so some thought needs to go into making sure the defence is efficient.

Players can also use their hero to run around the level to collect mana or loot that falls from defeated enemies, and also attack enemies with their weapons to deal extra damage. This is vital on the harder difficulties, where some enemies are coming into the stage with 4 million health points and need to be given maximum pounding from players and towers to take down. Combat is simplistic, with only the special ability and one standard attack form to deal damage, making it great for people who are not good at remembering combos for maximum damage. It might seem worthless in the earlier difficulties, but on the harder ones, characters can become incredibly strong, dealing insane numbers.

Buffing characters and towers through experience and loot is the gameplay loop of Dungeon Defenders :Awakened. Easy and Normal are the recommended starting difficulties, although, both are identical it seems apart from health of enemies. Due to some of my OCD seeing ticks not on easy levels, I started on this difficulty and made my way through the game’s campaign, 15 stages across three acts, where each level has five waves to make through. This made the jump from Normal to Hard a bit easy, since I was high level, but as the difficulties increased, the challenge began to shine in the campaign and I began to understand more the importance of my hero.

Levelling up from experience enables skill points to be put in to character stats, such as health and strength, but there is also a category for towers to increase their stats, such as fire rate and range. Loot covers weapons, four different armour pieces and four accessories, and these do not just alter defence and attack stats, but also come with stats that add onto the tower stats. By the time the fifth difficulty, a requirement of level 70 has to be hit, My hero was hitting over 35k damage per hit, which goes to show an example of the high numbers the game reaches to. It is also the difficulty that begins to add grind to the game, as once level 70 hits, it takes so much experience to level up a character that replaying the campaign multiple times on that difficulty becomes sadly all too common to get the experience.

Thankfully, the other four modes do help stomach the grind somewhat, thanks to their differences. Challenge is the most fun, since this switches the standard formula with some interesting challenges. One stage denies the use of towers, another has enemies falling from the sky, and there is even one that reverses the hero’s role, in which now the player has to attack enemy crystals to beat the map. It is a shame that not all 15 levels are used in the challenges, there is only 9 at the moment, as these are the most exciting elements outside of the campaign. The other three modes – Survival, Mixed Mode and Pure Strategy – are extensions of the campaign somewhat, in which now each level has 25 waves to defend against, per difficulty – that is a lot of content to get through. Survival is basically if the campaign was extended to 25 waves, while Mixed Mode adds more special enemy types into the mix. Pure Strategy is all about towers, as the heroes cannot attack during this mode. All these extensions to the campaign are nice to have, and since there is not a limit in jumping between them, it allows the player pick what to play.

Every map, mode and difficulty can be played online with up to three other players by simply creating a game that is public. No one seems to play the easier difficulties, with players only joining my game during Insane, the game’s fourth tier. Dungeon Defenders: Awakening does a good job with solo play, thanks to the mention Hero Deck, as during the phases, heroes can be swapped to place their towers down, then switch to other heroes to use before the combat phase begins. There is a handicap for switching, though, and that is towers that are not built by the active hero lose a buff that increases their stats. Still, you can also easily jump into someone else’s game and beat stages that way.

I forgot how the original Dungeons Defenders looked, and it was only going back to check the visual differences that I found Awakened was quite more pleasing on the eyes. The old game has a flat look and a huge interface, which, thankfully, is now all spiced up and modernised here in Unreal Engine 4. Awakened is not exactly one I would class as a example of brilliant graphics, but its visuals and colourful style suits the game fine. That is until the later difficulties when the game is filled with hundreds of enemies and performance tanks to 30 frames per second when it is usually running above 100. There is also some quality of life improvements that could be added to smooth issues, such as the awkwardness of trying to upgrade auras that are on top of each other or a better explanation of stats and what they do when changed. I had a look for the latter online to gain an idea.

I was not pleased about the amount of bugs encountered during the game. Dungeon Defenders: Awakened was an Early Access title, so I would have thought that these bugs would have been discovered, but during 50+ hours of play I have had strange things happening in the game. This includes crashes to desktop, enemies getting stuck in doorways or in walls, incorrect tower stats shared between players, animation bugs, chat not appearing, certain features not working as intended (such as locked items still selling when locked) and infinite loading screens. It felt like the game needed another month or so in the oven to iron these out. The developers have kept patching the game since its release, there is usually two or three patches a week, so they are correcting issues, but it should have never released until some of these were addressed. As of the date of this review, some of the above have been solved, so I would imagine these will eventually be ironed out, but it has caused issues during gameplay, such as having to restart stages because of broken elements, spoiling what is otherwise a ton of fun as I start my way to take on the huge challenge that is Massacre difficulty.

Dungeon Defenders: Awakening makes for a fun title to play with friends or people online. While solo is not out of the question, the game is clearly made for people to get together and build impenetrable defences. If you have never played a Dungeon Defenders game then Awakened is a great place to start with. For those newcomers, this will feel fresh, since there are not many similar games that blend both tower defence and action RPG elements. Fans might have a lot of déjà vu with this initial release, due to a lot of reused content now in a new coat of paint, which can only be corrected with the future downloadable content to expand the game – this should be a lot if using the original title as a reference. Dungeon Defenders: Awakening has had a buggy start, but the foundations here show signs of greatness, and right now it still makes for a bloody good time with a lot of difficulty to get through, which should only get better as the bugs are ironed out and the content increases.

7 out of 10