There’s a plague sweeping the nation, and it goes by the name “Match-3.” I prayed that the Bejeweled outbreak would end eventually, but with new strains being produced each day, things have only escalated. Epidemiologists are at a loss. It’s gotten to the point where my mom and her middle-aged office friends have turned Candy Crush into a full-on gambling ring. When I look into my mother’s eyes, I no longer see her soul—only blue gumballs and hell-red jellybeans.
There have been some notable exceptions to the scourge, like RPG-puzzler 10000000, which was released for Android earlier this year, but these exceptions have been few and far between. Enter Pixel Defenders. I hit “install” and steeled myself for another mindless multicolored grid. But amazingly, I got the exception instead of the rule. I didn’t expect it, but Pixel Defenders gave me some hope for the future of Match-3s, even in these trying times.
The story behind Pixel Defenders is simple—a duo of bandits cooks up a scheme to steal the riches from some nearby royalty. When they realize they can’t do it on their own, they dial 1-800-HIRE-A-DEMON to get some help. The demon comes with his own army, but also his own agenda: world domination.
It’s up to you to protect the royals by creating armed defenders. This is accomplished by grouping colored units in threes. By matching three blocks (pixels, if you will), you create a basic defender. Group three basic defenders, and it turns into a defender of a higher tier. For example, three wizards form a sorcerer, and three sorcerers form a warlock. Higher-tiered defenders inflict more damage and are more likely to have special effects associated with their attacks. You complete a level by defeating all the enemies. You lose if any of the royals have their health reduced to zero, or if all the spaces on the board get filled.
Pixel Defenders is sort of like chess in that you need to be thinking several moves ahead to get the higher-level defenders in the right formations so they continue to match up. If a defender ends up in the wrong spot, you can move it by paying action points (points you accumulate by making matches), but you need these action points to attack the demon’s army, so moving defenders should always be a last resort.
If you need action points ASAP, you can pull them out of your loot chest. Also available to you in your loot chest are obstacles (if you match 3 obstacles they disappear), voids (they can remove any unit from the board), and megapixels (they can be used as wildcards, or to heal the royals). You can use up to four items from your loot chest in each round. However, the total amount of items within the chest is finite. This adds another layer of strategy because you have to plan for future levels. Another element I like about the loot chest is that you are awarded loot when you earn stars on a level—you can earn stars by completing the level in under a certain amount of turns, keeping the health of the royals above 62%, and creating third and fourth tier defenders. This encourages you to go back and replay levels to earn more stars, not just because of gamer OCD, but in order to gain helpful items to beat the game.
The artwork is pixelated as advertised, but still manages to look really clean at the same time. There are 24 different defenders and over 10 kinds of enemies, each with their own special attacks. Most of the attacks are visually low-key, but there are definitely a few showstoppers, like a series of laser cannons called in by walkie-talkie. And Pixel Defenders is not without a sense of humor—one defender has a 70% chance of turning his enemy into a chicken.
If I were a mover and a shaker, there are some changes I would make. I would point out that there’s an undo button in the tutorial (it’s very faint and in the upper-left corner of the screen, so I was more than halfway through the game before I actually found it). I would create a log of each of the defenders the player discovers and their special characteristics as a reference guide. And I would take the special characteristics idea even further by making certain enemies more immune or susceptible to certain types of attacks—that way there could be more strategy in deciding the distribution of defenders.
Pixel Defenders is simple, but it manages to be challenging at the same time. You need to carefully consider where to place each unit. You need to figure out when it’s best to attack, and when it’s best to save up action points. And you need to figure out how to improvise when one of the royals wanders into the exact spot you were going to put a defender. This is not the kind of Match-3 game that sucks the soul out of middle-aged women. This is the kind of game that sets an example for what Match-3 games should be.