Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Defending the Tower: My Life as a Darklord

I never got around to picking up Final Fantasy Crystal Defenders for any platform, and I'm kind of glad I didn't, because Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a Darklord came out a few weeks back on WiiWare, and does it better. Unlike it's similarly-named predecessor, FFCC: My Life as a King, which was a city building simulation with all of the RPG action offscreen, FFCC: My Life as a Darklord is an engaging and action-packed tower defense game.

If, like me, you're an aging gamer wondering what the heck "tower defense" games are, and how you could have missed running into one of them for so long, allow me to share my recent enlightenment. Tower defense is a relatively new genre that originated in the late twenty-oughts but still feels charmingly retro. It's real-time strategy gaming boiled down to the essentials: timing, strategy and careful decision-making. The goal of these games is to set up a series of defenses, with varying abilities and resource costs, to fend off a finite onslaught of enemies. Plan well and you will be successful; waste your resources and prepare to be overrun. A round can usually be played in less than ten minutes, perfect for browser, portable and casual play.

FFCC:MLAD (the name is lengthy even as an acronym) takes the concept literally, casting the player as an aspiring young villainess who needs to protect the dark crystal at the top of her tower from marauding bands of bright-eyed adventurers. All the standard Final Fantasy character classes are here, ready to besiege the player's forces of darkness. The player sets up offensive, defensive and support floors of the tower, populates them with melee, ranged, magical, healing and generic monsters, and prepares to fend off the incoming good guys.

What really makes the game (and the genre) work is that you have limited resources at the start of each level, and can't just build an impregnable defense that will work every time. Choices must be made, and it's often vital to dispose of the first waves quickly, earning points to buttress the bulwarks as tougher enemies start to show up and climb the tower. The menu pauses the action, fortunately, but the game still becomes hectic and chaotic as each battle progresses. Some enemies move slowly, others quickly, and each level brings new challenges and patterns to deal with.

That's a good thing, because as a WiiWare title, the game has to make the most of limited storage space. Every level looks and plays much the same way, and the story is rendered as simple text with minimal grunts and giggles from our heroine. Fortunately, the available storage has been lavished on the monsters and floor types -- new ones arrive from time to time, and they are always nicely rendered and animated. The gameplay is addictive, as well -- as the range of player choices grows, the number of ways any given level can play out also increases. Earning victory points (and a token amount for each defeat) allows the player to level up her monsters, with RPG-style decisions to make about which creatures to favor with an upgrade.

Unlike its predecessor, which was fun for a while but didn't wear well, My Life as a Darklord varies the gameplay enough to keep it fresh. I'm glad Square-Enix decided to go in a different direction with this sequel -- it preserves the sense of doing something different in the established Final Fantasy/Crystal Chronicles universe, but it's much better as a game. Even the world map is improved -- it's not just a haphazard network of dungeons, there's a clear sense of progress with challenging side quests clearly delineated.

(Now if I can just avoid the temptation to buy additional downloadable content -- there is WAY too much of that available for this game. But some of it can be earned, and I'm just cheap and dedicated enough to go that route.)

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