To be perfectly honest, I’m not really a fan of tower defense. Even the best tower defense are to real-time strategy what a chess puzzle is to an actual game of chess. They take a portion of the gameplay and isolate it to be more approachable, but are less dynamic and interesting as a result. At worst, tower defense gameplay feels more like frantic managerial work than anything else. Approaching Kingdom Rush with a skeptical eye, I was happy to find my expectations well exceeded. Kingdom Rush might not be all that innovative when it comes to core game concepts, but somehow it manages to fire on all cylinders, keeping things interesting and addictive from beginning to end.
For anyone who somehow completely avoided tower defense games up to now, here are the basics: the player is provided with a single scene of a path. Enemies spawn at one end of the path and mindlessly march towards an objective which the player defends with—you guessed it—towers. If the enemies reach their goal, they deplete your health. Along the sides of the path are empty building slots, where you can place a variety of towers. Each kill earns you gold, which is in turn used to build and upgrade towers to kill more effectively, and the cycle repeats itself until either you die or every wave of bad guys has been eliminated.
For Kingdom Rush, this basic formula is complicated by the variety of tower upgrades and enemy types. The rock-paper-scissors balance between enemies and your towers brings much-needed strategic depth to the gameplay. For example, artillery towers with an area of effect attack might be great for large groups of weak enemies, but a single armored baddie would be better handled by a mage tower, which does higher damage but fires slowly and at only one target. Higher upgrade levels branch off the tower varieties for yet more nuance. Do you upgrade your archer tower into fast-firing rangers, or long-ranged snipers? At these top tiers, further upgrades unlock even more tower-specific abilities, like poison arrows for said rangers, or explosive sniper shots.
Spicing up your arsenal even more are the meteor shower and reinforcement abilities, as well as a hero unit. These elements combined allow for multiple approaches to the same problem, an awesome thing in any game but especially rare for tower defense. Learning to place and upgrade your towers effectively is still puzzle-like in the sense that general strategies are encouraged by the game mechanics, but the leeway afforded by the upgrades and special abilities keeps it from falling into the formulaic. The game also discourages conservatism by throwing in a monkey wrench here and there, such as dynamic paths and boss units. None of this is exactly new or ground-breaking for tower defense, even in combination, but it makes for a terrific game. It doesn’t hurt that Kingdom Rush brings everything together seamlessly, with great style and aplomb.
The game is further elevated by the quantity of playable content. There are about twenty levels to begin with, each fairly distinct in theme, enemy type, and path arrangement, and adjustable difficulty settings (normal was plenty tough for me). A three-star rating system quantifies your performance in a level, based on how many health points you have by the end of it. Finishing the first version of a level with three stars unlocks two harder versions of the same scene, which are each worth another star upon completion but you only have one health point and there are elite enemies to face. You also get gemstones you can use to purchase one shot special abilities by killing certain enemies. Stars can likewise be used to purchase upgrades. Props should be given for Kingdom Rush‘s IAP implementation, which is of the benign variety. You can buy more heroes and extra gemstones, but the three heroes offered in the basic package were plenty for me and the game is pretty generous with the gems.
The art is another feather in Kingdom Rush‘s cap. It’s colorful and consistent throughout, a little on the cutesy side but not outright childish, with great animation. Everything looks remarkably shiny and clean, but it’s really the little touches that stand out. Things like the comic book-style onomatopoeias and animated fauna on the scenario maps are welcome flourishes of character, small examples of the attention to detail that pervades the game. The sound is also pretty impressive, with a good range of effects to liven the battlefield and your units giving comedic responses your clicks (a la Warcraft).
In sum, Kingdom Rush is everything a tower defense game should be, and raises the bar high for any future forays into the genre. The prevalence of tower defense may be a byproduct of the recent surge in casual gaming, but this game is anything but casual. Seriously, I just couldn’t stop. It was damn hard to pry myself from the game long enough to complete this review, I can tell you that much.
Kingdom Rush is superb tower defense, marrying the best ingredients of the genre with a strong sense of style and craft. Highly recommended.