Any successfully funded Kickstarter campaign, particularly one as popular as Aegis Defenders, places the developer under a vast amount of pressure. With thousands of passionate fans having already parted with their money to bring the project to life, can the perceived potential and promise ever be able to match the eventual reality? Thankfully, for Aegis Defenders, the answer is resolutely yes, as GUTS Department have crafted something that is utterly brilliant.
With its delightful retro visual aesthetic, Aegis Defenders certainly has an attention-grabbing appearance. Clu and her grandfather, Bart, are brought to life by 16-bit inspired sprites and pixel art. In fact, what struck me the most in my time with the game, was how GUTS have managed to bring so much personality to their protagonists with so few pixels. Bart launches into a belly shaking laugh if left unattended by the player for a few moments, Clu teeters precariously on ledges, and the pair of them have so much charm that it puts many other videogame characters that have a lot more pixels or polygons at their disposal to shame.
Clu and Bart are Relic Hunters spending their time trying to make a living from sifting through the forgotten possessions and remnants of a highly advanced, but now extinct, society. The world they inhabit is Mad Max meets Nintendo, a land filled with beasts, bandits and an evil empire intent on ruling all. The story is brought to life by talking heads and motion comic inspired cutscenes that fill in the backstory. The script is lively and laugh out loud funny in places, filled with interesting and quirky characters. The unashamedly honest robot, called Kobo, is a definite standout. There’s genuine depth to the plotting and world building here, and I became utterly captivated in seeing the story through to its conclusion.
The gameplay is a cross between two distinctive but complimentary gameplay mechanics. There are 18 levels in total and the first half of any stage falls into the Metroidvania camp as Clu and Bart navigate the enemy filled environment using their varied abilities. The player can switch between either character at any time, or there’s split screen co-op with each player taking control of a single character instead. The drop in, drop out co-op play is a stand out feature thanks to its flexibility and shows other games (I’m looking at you Nine Parchments) how it should be done.
The setting and themes of the levels are based around the usual stock videogame locations of forests, caves, mountains and deserts. While the locations are tired, the methods used to keep the gameplay fresh are superb. Intricate environmental puzzles are crafted through traversing crumbling platforms, finding a variety of imaginative uses for giant boulders, and floating in bubbles big enough to stand in. It’s a credit to the developer that no two levels feel the same; each has its own requirements of the player and challenges to overcome. There’s no filler here to boost the playtime, just a lot of killer instead.
The introduction of new playable characters – a fire ball hurling monk and a shruiken wielding bandit princess – add further dynamism to the 2D platforming and combat. Once all four characters are under the player’s control, it’s certainly a test of anyone’s abilities to navigate the team safely to the next aspect of the game: tower defence.
Each level ends in a tower defence battle. Tunnels at either end of the map spew out an array of enemies, from giant pincer snapping crabs to evil blobs that devour anything in their path. It’s up to the player to put up a defence with each character harvesting a different, and very limited, resource that can be used to build guns, traps, mines and fireball spitting dragon heads. There’s limited time to prepare your defences before another wave of enemies attack.
The key to any good tower defence game is achieving the balance between control and chaos. There are moments when the player should feel calm and in control and then there are others where the unexpected happens, defences crumble, and a heroic and improvised last stand must be undertaken. Get the balance right and completing the level becomes a fist punching moment of success, get it wrong, and it’s pure frustration for the player. Aegis Defence absolutely gets it right and this is some of the most satisfying fun I’ve had whilst playing a video game in years.
There’s multiple layers of strategy here to uncover. Different resources can be fused together to make a host of different weapons, each with different elemental properties that will prove more potent against certain enemies. This aspect of the game could have served with being better explained during the tutorials, as it’s very much left up to the player to figure it out. If you don’t mind a lack of hand holding, then there’s a great variety of tactics available to defend your base.
Things can get incredibly chaotic during a this section. Switching between four different characters on the fly and managing resources and defensive positions is a genuine challenge. There are some issues here as well, if I’m being a bit pernickety. During co-op play, switching characters can feel a little messy as a tap of the shoulder buttons can lead to the players controlling an avatar that they were not anticipating. This issue is avoided in single player thanks to a slight pause in the gameplay when changing characters or building items. There’s also a few misjudged levels, a section defending a moving base dips a little too far into being confusing and a bit frustrating. Also, a bonus level that sees you piloting a hovering mech that shoots out mewing cats (yes, you read that right) suffers from some extremely dodgy collision detection.
It’s been quite a start to the year with the sheer videogame quality on show in 2018. Aegis Defenders is a title that totally delivers on its initial concept. It’s a game that built on the obvious passion of the developers, resulting in something that’s vibrant, fresh, enthralling and addictive. And when you’ve reached the end, you’ll be heading back to the start for more.
Version Tested: PlayStation 4