Dungeon Defenders II is a cooperative, action-packed tower defense game with some pretty heavy RPG and loot-collecting mechanics present throughout. Having played over 200 hours of Trendy's 2010 original Dungeon Defenders (2011), I was excited and apprehensive about diving into the current “pre-alpha” build of the sequel. Despite my skepticism of unfinished games, playing through the first few hours of the Early Access version has left me refreshingly optimistic about what Dungeon Defenders II has in store for players.
Much like it's predecessor, after a brief character creation screen, Dungeon Defenders II launches you immediately in the world of Etheria. The lack of menu upfront puts focus on the tavern hub world, which replaces a classic menu interface. All user-interface tasks, such as: checking your inventory and equipment, visiting shops, purchasing upgrades, and starting or finding matches are handled by tavern workers — it’s an interesting decision.
Once I loaded the first map, it was clear that the lack of a home menu was not the only big change to be found. Simply put, the game looks great. The original game’s cartoony look has been replaced with a more cohesive pastel look. Seconds into building somewhat-familiar towers and auras in this new pastel-rich environment, I discovered that in addition to the defences that Raph and I were painstakingly laying down, there were environmental traps already strewn about for us to fiddle with. To my right, Raph triggered a hazardous barbecue that proceeded to spew fire down on one of the lanes as I used my ice cube machine to freeze the left lane solid. Smashing the goblin-sickles with my quarterstaff was my introduction to Dungeon Defenders II’s new combo system.
I was happy to discover numerous improvements over the next few maps. The old all-encompassing “mana” currency from the previous game has been split up into three distinct currencies. The first is a gold coin currency that is used in the shops to buy and upgrade weapons and armour. The second is ability mana, which used to perform direct combat skills — each of the game’s four characters have three of these to choose between. The final currency is building mana that is used to place, upgrade, and repair defences. Furthermore, all of these and the loot drops seem to be client-side, which puts an end to one person running around collecting chests and putting up all of the defences — which was very common in the first game. It also ensures that no teammate will be stingy with building mana as it is no longer used as the game's only currency. By simply interacting with the new ghost chests found around the map, each player can be allocated an amount of building mana to use for the turn no matter where they are when the previous wave ends.
The Castle Couch duo quickly reached level 10 or so and decided — in our ignorant foolishness — that we were excellent at this new game and should continue to try bigger and more complex maps. Things started to go sour fast, and we lost a lot of good ‘whatever-we-were-supposed-to-be-defending’ all at once.
The level design in Dungeon Defenders II brings a lot of creative difficulty that is not terribly common in the tower defense genre. A lot of the levels have sense of verticality that allows players to watch from a distance if they'd rather not stand behind their towers repairing and upgrading as the waves of colourful orcs and boar monsters crash into the barricades. This is especially important because instead of having lanes laid out symmetrically, the game’s paths are often crossed over and under each other. Lanes are also riddles with integrated traps and shortcuts so that you can quickly support another lane if your defences falter.
In short, Dungeon Defenders II is looking like an excellent evolution that can fix many of the issues I had with the first instalment. Right now, there are still a lot of unknowns in the game: the cosmetic micro-transaction store has yet to be implemented, ability and stat descriptions are missing, pets seemed to have not made a return, and of course balance changes have to be made. But so long as the characters are balanced, the micro-transactions don’t seem greedy, and Trendy brings down the ban hammer on hackers (a big personal gripe with the first game), things are off to a great start. The “pre-alpha” build is an incredibly functional and entertaining cooperative experience that I will continue to follow closely in development.
Dungeon Defenders II launches in Early Access on December 5, 2014 through Stream