In Dark Frontier, you and the empire you roll with have decided that the best offense is a good defense: you establish a settlement in a disputed territory and set up an innocent militia to make sure nobody comes by and knocks it down. At first, you’re only clearing zombies out of a swamp that nobody was using anyway, but before you know it, you’re going full Little House on the Prairie deep in goblin territory while the game guides you like some kind of Manifest Destiny angel, albeit one that thinks that “hidden” is spelled “hiden” and that “Fisher Villager” is an acceptable way to conjugate “Fishing Village.” But if you don’t mind a couple spelling errors, pleasant-but-generic music and sound effects, and a plot that mostly consists of onscreen messages like “Goblins! Goblins!” or “Here comes the next wave,” then you’ll find that Dark Frontier is a solid tower defense game that intends to draw you into a prolonged occupation.
As the player, you recruit soldiers and unique heroes, who appear outside your base as units that you control with your fingers, RTS-style. While you have unlockable traps and powers at your disposal, the units are mostly what you’ll be fighting the hordes with. With every wave of natives you kill, you earn experience, money, and gems that let you unlock character upgrades, advanced units, and additional resources. Also, rather than fending off endless waves like some tower defense games, Dark Frontier breaks the action up into three-wave encounters, of which there are 90 total. It’s a lot of content, and the game isn’t afraid to overload you right off the bat, so be ready to chew.
The game gives you a tight budget limit for each encounter, so you’ll likely hit several points where you feel severely undermanned. The difference between success and failure on a tough encounter is often a matter of subtle differences in positioning, so even though you can experiment with different loadouts and configurations of militiamen, you’re probably equally well served by just repositioning your archers and slowing down the horde with diversionary tactics. It’s not flashy, but it makes you feel like an accomplished tactician when you beat an encounter you’ve been stuck on by doing something as simple as setting up a strategic retreat at the right moment. It’s a low-key type of strategy that rewards subtlety, and it fits right in with a game where a necromancer can show up in a horde of zombies and you don’t even notice him until the zombies start coming back to life.
The main problem with Dark Frontier is the imprecision of its controls, which would be forgivable if the game didn’t demand such precise positioning with such a small margin of error. As it is, though, promising strategies fall to ruin because you didn’t tap whoever you needed to select precisely enough and your currently selected soldier started walking across the map. Because this is the type of game where you can get completely stuck on a hard level, I probably don’t need to tell you what it feels like to lose because of a control issue. I often found myself wishing for a button that would let me cycle between my soldiers, rather than having to select them with the same gesture that issues them orders. You can pause the game whenever you need to move your units in a high-pressure situation, which does help a lot, but it would still be nice to have a more intuitive, touchscreen-friendly way of selecting units.
Dark Frontier is like trying to invade Russia by land: sloppy and difficult, but strategically fascinating. It’s not for everyone, and there’s a free version with a fully-intact endless mode you can try if you want to get a feel for it, but if you’re a tower defense or RTS fan, Dark Frontier has the potential to keep you at war for a long time.