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A genre is an expectation. Pick up a game that labels itself as a first person shooter, and there are certain things that you'd expect to see. These expectations extend beyond the obvious and into more intangible properties, like pacing and story. For example, a game which is labeled a first person shooter is expected to have a fast, tense pace with buckets of action. These expectations are usually adhered to, and perhaps no genre is more conservative in this regard than the tower defense genre.
But appearances can be deceiving. The same things might be said about the platforming genre, and yet Braid demolished expectations for what a platformer might be by introducing brilliant writing and unique gameplay mechanics. As it turns out, the tower defense genre has also had its Braid. The name of the game is Immortal Defense, and it completely upsets the expectations of a the tower defense genre.
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A normal tower defense game might not even have need for this section. A normal tower defense game would include a couple paragraphs about how hoards of X are assaulting your Y with unimaginable ferocity. They must be stopped, of course, or else horrible consequence Z will occur. But Immortal Defense goes the extra mile and introduces one of the most interesting and literary stories that I've seen in any game.
You are a Path Defender. The government of your planet, called Dukis, made you a Path Defender in order to fight an enemy known as the Bavakh. As a Path Defender, you exist in Path Space, a level of reality beyond all others. To you, the routes which starships travel to get from one point to another show up as nothing but simple paths, and as a result you're perfectly suited to defend your planet. This is done not with structures, but with manifestations of your psyche known as points. These points have their own personalities, and they express themselves in the game through simple text messages that appear on the screen. Upgrade a point and it might thank you. Place it well, and it will occasionally celebrate the number of kills it has been able to achieve.
This all sounds very detached from reality, but the game also makes it clear that although you are a Path Defender, you were once a mortal person. In order to defend your planet, you left behind your wife, your unborn child, your friends, and likely the chance to ever return to mortality. This is a point the game does not take lightly. The game's story is held together by paragraphs of text which appear at the beginning of each level, and these are often messages received from your daughter and, eventually, your grand-daughter. The story of Dr. Manhattan from The Watchmen seems to be a heavy influence on this game, but I dare say that the story of Immortal Defense goes even further in its exploration of the consequences of immortality.
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In the early stages the gameplay of Immortal Defense is similar to what you would expect from any tower defense game. New points are gradually introduced, giving new forms of offense which can be used to encounter a constantly growing roster of foes. The game does not stay static, however, and it constantly introduces new concepts as the levels progress. The points, which act as a tower or turret would in a more typical tower defense game, can be used in combinations that make them more and more powerful. For example, the Turning Point can be used to make other points fire on opponents in directions which would normally be impossible These combinations are made more important by creative level design. Every level is essentially a path between one point and another, but these paths are created so as to provide many strategic opportunities.
Immortal Defense also side-steps some of the genre's classic faults. One of these is the possibility of the player building themselves into an impossible situation, a problem which in turn can ruin the pace of a tower defense game. This problem is vanquished in Immortal Defense by the use of numerous shorter levels. Individually, each one takes only three or four minutes to complete, which means that it isn't a big deal to start over again if a strategy appears hopeless. This in turns gives Immortal Defense room to be more challenging. As the levels progress, the paths become accompanied by numerous obstacles as well as a variety of enemies, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Immortal Defense is not a game that wishes to take long walks in the park, and as the levels move forward it becomes quite difficult. Unlike some tower defense games I've played recently, it does not go out of its way to point out successful strategies. Some of the boss fights can seem virtually impossible at first glance. But as with all good puzzles, these levels can be unraveled through creative usage of the tools at hand, and there are few things more satisfying than conquering a level you originally thought unbeatable.
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Graphics And Sound
Playing the first level of Immortal Defense will bring immediate comparisons to Geometry Wars, and this comparison is valid throughout the game. Immortal Defense is not simply playing the copy-cat, however, and there is a lot of interesting flare to be seen. One persistent visual effect is the way that the game's visuals focus on the cursor. Move to one side of the screen and the enemies and points placed on the opposite side will fade and eventually become entirely blurred, represented only by pulsations of light. On the downside, the game's interface graphics are strictly low-fi. More bothersome, however, is how distracting the flashy graphical style can become in later levels. Fully upgraded points put out a lot of firepower, and it can be difficult to discern what is happening beneath the glow and flow of combat. There are times where the game's flash moves beyond a style choice and begins to distract from the gameplay.
Luckily, the game's purr is pleasant from start to finish, even while flashes of light are blinding you in the last ten levels. The soundtrack of Immortal Defense would sound awkward if left on its own, but it has a organic tone that supports the game's abstract intellectual slant. The sounds of combat are also impressive, with the most notable being the noises used to represent the destruction of enemy vessels. Ships disintegrate with the unforgettable sound of a glass pane breaking, immediately letting the player know that an enemy has been vanquished. The shattering of opponents is a welcome respite from the generic explosions you'd except from a game involving combat against an alien menace, and reflect the fragility of the vessels against the power of your will.
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Value And Verdict
Immortal Defense was released in 2007 and was not reviewed by any major publications. The game is not even listed on Metacritic. Being an independent title from an extremely small group, it is only available as a download at the price of $14.95. At that price, Immortal Defense is nothing short of a steal. Playing through the entire campaign at the stock difficulty level took me ten hours. That isn't a particularly long time, but it is no shorter than the campaigns of some modern shooters. More important than quantity, however, is quality. Immortal Defense may be short, but it is also one of the most mentally and emotionally challenging games I've played in years.
This game is impossible not to recommend. It is cheap enough that anyone can afford it, and thanks to its low-fi graphics, it can be played on almost any system. Buy this game now, even if tower defense games are not normally your thing. The game is not impossible to dislike, as its graphics will prove too distracting for some, and others may become frustrated by the more challenging levels. But at $14.95, Immortal Defense is a worthwhile bet for even the most skeptical gamer.