So often in games, it’s the player who is forced to navigate and survive the obstacles put in their way. We fight, shoot, jump, and slash our way through all the enemies and traps the designers lay out for us as we make our way to the goal. It is much less common where we get to be the ones designing the gauntlet of dangers that our enemies must pass through. The one genre that really capitalizes on that strategic fantasy is tower defense games.
Somewhere between an RTS and a management game, tower defense titles are some of the most addicting games there are — when designed right. Something about watching a line of enemies get mowed down by your perfectly-placed and organized traps, turrets, and special abilities is endlessly entertaining. The basic concept has been expanded to cover all types of art styles and themes and to integrate other genres. The genre is nearly flooded with titles, most of them good, but we’ve picked out the best tower defense games to sink your time into.
The Bloons series is an interesting one to look back on. What started out as a little Flash game where you played as a monkey throwing darts at balloons in a sort of prototype Angry Birds-style game has spun off into a series of downright fantastic tower defense games. The first two games in the series were free browser games, but starting with the third entry, they also started appearing on mobile marketplaces, up until the latest entry, Bloons TD 6. This is the first game in the series to feature 3D graphics and not have a browser-based counterpart due to Flash no longer being supported on web browsers.
The basic format is the classic tower defense style, where you build towers to try and stop waves of balloons, or bloons, as they’re called, from reaching the end of the track. Some bloons are immune to certain tower types, like fire or magic, and become progressively stronger over time. Towers can be upgraded in three different branches, and a special hero tower will automatically upgrade itself. Each map offers its own challenges, and new modes can be unlocked on each one completed. It has gotten plenty of updates and support, making it one of the most popular and successful tower defense games around.
The later games in the series have taken the concept of plants fighting off zombies into the third-person-shooter space, but the original Plants vs. Zombies was one of the first major mobile gaming hits. It drew in tons of players with its simple concept, easy-to-pick-up mechanics, and charming art style. Unlike other tower defense games, PvZ is lane-focused rather than having enemies follow a track. Plants can be placed on specific squares on the grid, and zombies walk in straight lines along those gridlines from right to left. That alone makes it easy for even casual players to pick up and play.
The difficulty and complexity do ramp up as new types of plants with unique properties are added and the zombie waves become more overwhelming. With such limited space, knowing what type of plant to prioritize becomes an integral part of the game. Each level calls for new strategies, and the game is great about keeping you on your toes and never falling into a single strategy that works on each stage. Other modes like the puzzles, zen garden, and survival complete an already-excellent offering.
The first Defense Grid was a cult hit on the PlayStation 3 and 360-generation consoles. It launched in the early days of tower defense games being on consoles and was highly-rated for a project with such a limited budget and low price tag. The sequel, Defense Grid 2, was able to use that goodwill and launch a successful Kickstarter to bring the game to the next generation of consoles. It is one of the more standard tower defense games, but that works to make it functional for console players using controllers.
The setup is simple. You build towers on levels with unique paths, restrictions, and enemies to stop waves of aliens trying to steal your power cores. If an alien reaches the core and escapes, its game over. Different aliens have different strengths and weaknesses, so having a variety of towers is key. Other standard features, like upgrading and selling towers, are all here but with a bit more of a narrative to keep you engaged throughout each level.
The first major departure from a typical tower defense game is the newest entry in the series, Orcs Must Die! 3. This series stood out from the beginning by combining the genre with a third-person perspective. Rather than playing as a disembodied force overlooking the action, you take control of specific characters with their own weapons and abilities to fight off waves of orcs. Paths work the same as a traditional tower defense game, but being on the ground level gives the entire experience a much different feel than any other.
Orcs Must Die! 3 focuses more on traps than towers, which makes sense given the perspective. You can lay down spike traps, launch pads, wall traps, fire traps, and many more. You’re meant to synergize these traps together into combos that wear down the orc’s numbers — or just slow them down enough — for you to clean up the rest. Being able to directly contribute to the action is a great change of pace, and the light and comedic tone of the game keeps it fun. Co-op is also a major focus and will have you coming back to challenge levels time and time again.
Just like Bloons, Kingdom Rush evolved from simple beginnings as a Flash game to one of the best and widespread tower defense games of all time. It uses a simple medieval time period and inviting visuals, plus some of the most simple mechanics yet. Monsters will follow the clear path that you must build towers on to save your kingdom. There are just four basic towers, eight special towers, and 18 abilities to apply and upgrade your towers with.
The campaign takes place over several distinct locations and backdrops, with over 30 enemy types and even boss battles. You can even summon ground troops in addition to building towers as another tool to fight off the forces of evil. Plus, if you enjoy the style and systems of Kingdom Rush, there’s plenty of it to enjoy. Aside from the base game, there are also Kingdom Rush Frontiers, Kingdom Rush Origins, and the upcoming Kingdom Rush Vengeance.
Of all the takes on the tower defense genre, Over The Top Tower Defense is the one that fully embraces the chaos that these games are built on. Rather than just whittle down enemies until they vanish, OTTTD lets all the blood, guts, and limbs fly across the battlefield as your turrets rip apart increasingly weird and absurd interdimensional creatures. Aside from the 12 tower types you can use in traditional tower defense fashion, you also pick from seven hero classes to make a squad of three. Each one can level up in an RPG-style system to unlock new active and passive skills, plus earn new weapons and armor.
The setup is as over the top as the presentation. In 2136, a company named HEROCORP is tasked with defending the Earth against invading dimensional creatures by invading them first. OTTTD is a hodgepodge of tower defense with MOBA mechanics and Starship Troopers with a little Rick and Morty thrown in. Somehow, that combination ends up making a fantastic game.
Dungeon Defenders II was a very early free-to-play title on the PS4 and Xbox One consoles and, like Orcs Must Die! 3, focuses on the hero aspect of the genre more than towers. Of course, you will still be building defenses, but this is done between rounds. When the thieves, wizards, robots, and other enemies start invading, the game is more of a traditional third-person action game. There are 12 heroes to pick from, and they all have their own playstyles to learn.
Bringing in even more outside influences, Dungeon Defenders II also emphasizes loot. During games, you will pick up new weapons and items to upgrade your hero with in addition to resources to make new towers. This is another game best played with friends, which is easy since the game is free and is still being worked on and updated to this day. If you enjoy the loop of building, fighting, looting, and repeating, this is one tower defense game you can sink a ton of time into.
Described by the developers as the sequel to the “world’s first Tower Defense/FPS hybrid,” Sanctum 2 may be aging a bit graphically but is just as fun as ever. It was really only a matter of time before a team put you right in the action by combining one of the most popular genres there is, first-person shooters, with the strategic nature of a tower defense. That does make it the least approachable entry for casual players who come to the genre for a more slow-paced or puzzle-solving type experience, but it’s perfect for anyone who wants to spice up their action with some extra mechanics.
The game still relies on the player building mazes filled with turrets to deal most of the damage to the waves of enemies, but it also uses elements from modern shooters. You pick from a set of classes, customize their loadout and perks, and jump right into the action. The game was built with co-op in mind, and even with a team of four, it’s still very challenging. Strong coordination is key, but being able to personally correct for some strategic mistakes on the fly with strong shooting makes it feel like you have a bit more control than other games.
In a strange turn for the PixelJunk series, the developers decided to make a sequel to the first PixelJunk Monsters game 10 years later as opposed to continuing the trend of each game tackling a new genre. That just goes to show how popular the tower defense genre has become, and the return of this style of game was very welcome. PixelJunk Monsters 2 doesn’t try and reinvent the genre or combine it with another to stand out from the crowd but instead focuses on making the most refined and polished tower defense experience possible. Set in a visually delightful world of colors, creatures, and environments, the sequel sticks to the Polynesian-inspired style and characters that are so rarely seen in gaming.
In terms of gameplay, you pretty much know what to expect if you’ve played any other standard tower defense game. You select a level, build your towers, and do your best to hold off waves of enemies on their way to a hut you’re trying to defend. You do need to manage a Tikiman to go collect the spoils from fallen foes without getting into danger himself. That extra element is just enough to keep you engaged while your turrets are doing all the work instead of just sitting back and waiting for waves to end.
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