Tower defense games have flourished since smartphones became popular. A perfect match of complex strategy and simple controls, the genre is omnipresent across the app stores, offering versions in just about any setting one could imagine. A downside of the genre becoming popular on the mobile scene, however, is that most of these games are plagued with microtransactions, with progress a total slog if the player does not splash out cash every few minutes. Legend of Towercraft rejects this dreadful modern payment model, offering a clever strategy title with no pay-to-win elements and a smoothly increasing challenge.
Legend of Towercraft is about protecting one very unfortunate dwarven town. Just as soon as the local hero has sent giant spiders scurrying back to their nests, ice golems clamber down from the mountains or orcs stomp down forest paths, intent on destroying the hamlet. As the hero protects the town from the constantly increasing threat, they slowly improve their equipment with items dropped by fallen enemies, becoming better prepared for the battles ahead.
A typical tower defense map involves a long, winding path that enemies walk along towards an end point that must be protected. To stop them, towers are built along the sides of the path, with different types of towers effective against different enemies. Legend of Towercraft takes an unusual approach with the maps: Each one is played four to five times, with each attempt adding more twists and branches to the path.
Initially this felt like padding — as a fan of the genre, I wanted to get to the more complicated maps right away. Once I got past the opening area, however, the slow unfurling of each map made sense. Giving the player time to acquaint themselves well with every corner of the screen prepares them for the difficult boss encounters, where every last loop in the path swarms with monsters. Multiple maps are also available at a time, allowing one to back away from the tricky orc wizard encounter and work on something else.
Towers are kept simple in Legend of Towercraft, as the four different types — archer, sniper, rock thrower, and support — cost the same amount of money, and the structures can only be built where a red flag is planted. Weighing the four types of tower equally leads to some clever strategic decisions, rather than simply aiming for the most expensive option. Rock throwers are good for damaging groups of enemies, but snipers are better for picking off problem characters like the orc healer. Support towers aid in a variety of ways, depending on how they are upgraded, but losing a precious slot for a tower that does not attack is a tricky decision too. As the hero progresses in the adventure, the towers can be upgraded into more specific roles, adding complexity to later levels while still keeping the interface simple.
Beating a level awards the player experience points, which can be used to level up the hero character. At the beginning of the game, the player chooses between three classes: fighter, magician, or builder. Each accommodates for different play styles, determining if the hero character spends a lot of time in close combat, throws spells from a distance, or has abilities to improve buildings. Leveling up further develops these attributes through a skill tree, giving the magician new spells or allowing the builder to craft a turret.
Initially the hero characters are not very helpful, too weak to beat back much more than a spider hatchling or two. The monsters of Legend of Towercraft drop vast amounts of loot, however, which when equipped vastly boost the player’s stats. A hero armed with a better club and a proper chestplate becomes a vital last line of defense against the hordes, especially on later maps. Unused equipment can be sold for diamonds, which in turn can improve the shops in town and upgrade the pieces of armor that are used. With rare drops, armor smiths, and a thriving real-world trading market for gear, the drive to improve equipment gives meaningful rewards to repeating levels.
Legend of Towercraft is still in early access, which results in a few rough patches. While the game has been available on Android for a while, the recent Steam release feels a bit awkward, as the interface is clearly meant for touch screens. Adding some more traditional PC controls, like the ability to pan the screen by moving the cursor to the corner rather than clicking and dragging, or hovering the mouse over a tower to see a description, would be helpful.
The tutorial is also unfinished — the basics of tower defense are explained, but the extensive crafting and trading system are not touched upon. I figured out the marketplace easily enough, but how to trade with real people or why I would want to disenchant an item remains a mystery. The game has a friendly Discord community that does a good job of explaining the basics, but a more thorough explanation in-game would be helpful.
The artistic style of Legend of Towercraft is simple, but it passes the important test of readability and running well on a variety of devices. The towers and their upgrades are easy to distinguish, and both the PC and mobile versions run smoothly. Each version of the game has its advantages; on the PC getting a bird’s-eye look at the map is much easier, but the mobile format is perfect for short sessions while multitasking. Game progress can be carried across multiple devices, so players can experiment to see what fits them best.
I have sunk 10 hours into Legend of Towercraft and can easily see why some players have spent a hundred or more. The game is challenging but not cruel, and the maps are highly varied. The loot drops keep level grinding exciting, but a clever approach is far more important than a shiny helmet. I am hoping for an iOS release in the future so that I can take my builder on further adventures. For those who wish to support the developer, the game offers purchasable cosmetics for the main character or extra bag slots for holding loot.
Next week we will be playing Saint Kotar: The Yellow Mask, a horror title with a branching storyline. The game can be downloaded from Steam. If you wish to share your thoughts, discussions are happening on the Discord server.