Hell Warders should come with a warning: this game will give you sweaty palms. This isn’t because the game comes packaged with a novelty heated controller, which would be both ridiculous and fantastic, rather it’s because its tower defence mechanics will push your sweat glands to their limit.
When I first approached Hell Warders I did not come with high expectations. The visuals are an uninspiring and generic composition of Ninja Gaiden and Devil May Cry, with most of your demonic opponents looking like they didn’t quite make the cut for either of those games. Meanwhile animation is basic at best, the repeated use of the same piece of music irritates, and there are glitches and bugs aplenty. That being said, once Hell Warders kicks in it does so with a wallop. I found the experience and core gameplay loop both addictive and compulsive, to the point I was warding hell as often as I could.
Ignore the plot – the developers did – and let’s get straight to the action. Your task it to prevent an army of demons from reaching your big magic crystal and smashing it up into tiny fragments. The horde of bad guys enter the environment from one of several portals and follow prescriptive paths to their destination. It’s then up to the player to arrange their mostly static defences to destroy the enemy armada before it’s too late.
The game highlights the exact path the denizens of hell will travel along through the level, as well as detailing which of the many different enemy types will emerge from each portal prior to the start of the round. This transparency not only ramps up the tension as you fret about how the hell you’re going to defeat the approaching army, but also ensures the player has all the information they need to construct a well thought out strategy.
And a solid strategy is vital to being victorious. Though preferable locations are highlighted by the game, they are not always the most effective choice. You can actually place units anywhere in the level, considering their sight lines and abilities for the coming fight. The 3D nature of the game also means that the height and shape of the environment play a part in strategy. Some units like the cannonballer can launch attacks that are affected by gravity and so work best when there’s a handy hill to build up more momentum.
Certain units are more effective against specific enemy types and vulnerable to others, so it’s not enough to construct one ultimate definite defence and then rest on your laurels between rounds. The type and quantity of demons that will soon be emerging from each portal vary significantly from round to round, forcing the player to quickly change up their defences on the fly, making the most of the strict but fair time limit. It’s thrilling stuff, hastily rearranging your catapults, priests and archers before seeing off an epic ensemble of evil abominations had me fist pumping the air more times than I’d like to admit.
There’s a light RPG element tying proceedings together, allowing you to level up your units and also your player character. That’s right, instead of passively watching the demons invade your defences, you get to leap into the thick of the action with some third person combat shenanigans. Choosing from one of three characters, a sword wielding Knight, a chunky hammer carrying mustachioed man (no, not Mario) or a dual gun shooting cowboy type, the player can help turn the tide against seemingly insurmountable odds. I opted to play as the cowboy because he has guns and these blasting beauties saw off many a demon.
The combat is nothing to get too excited about. Weapons lack any sense of impact and enemies don’t react to being struck, they just stand there and absorb the pain like a terrifying pustulating blood soaked sponge. That said, in conjunction with the tower defence aspect of the game, the overall gameplay feels refreshingly different to the standard fare.
There’s some curious bugs to put up with, however. One saw my avatar randomly and unexpectedly side step to the left, usually resulting in an inconveniently timed death, and there were also several cases of special attacks not making contact with the enemy despite clearly hitting them.
Whilst these bugs frustrate, it is the sudden difficulty spikes that truly give cause for explosive expletives. I found it impossible to proceed past certain levels in the single player campaign on my own, usually due to a massive boss arriving to annihilate my carefully planned defences and not my ineptitude. When this failure usually came after half an hour, resulting in instant defeat and forcing a restart, it was particularly frustrating. Fortunately, you can opt to play any level with up to three pals or team up with complete strangers online, making proceedings rather more achievable. This is especially true when other players may have access to powerful units you haven’t unlocked yet.
During multiplayer, as in single player, each player has their own pool of souls to buy units with, which you gain through destroying demons. Players can also unsummon any other player’s units, which is often necessary to do as there is a strict unit cap which prevents spamming snipers all over a level. There is also no communication supported between players, so the only way to demonstrate an intent is with a large ‘Metal Gear Solid’ exclamation mark that pops up above your avatar’s head.
To my great surprise, however, players worked well together, improvising strategies and offering timely support. On one occasion another player created a stream of ballista in an entirely ineffective position. I had no idea what they were doing until it dawned on me: they wanted me to unsummon all of their units to gain their souls as they were about to leave the game. I was always able to find one or two other players to team up with and the network was stable. In short, playing Hell Warders online was an absolute joy.