Dungeon Defenders 2 grows up with a new focus on colorful loot

Trendy Entertainment hit a lot of the right notes with its 2011 tower defense gem, Dungeon Defenders. The game is informed by some of the more recent approaches taken with the genre, marrying the frantic push of defending against waves of rushing enemies with the kinetic thrill of action-RPG mechanics. Dungeon Defenders 2 expands on the original game’s ideas in some welcome ways, and it does so with a newly improved visual aesthetic that helps add to the impression of a more polished overall experience. The game is still a few months off from launch, but the little we got to try during a recent demo left us excited to see what’s next.

Story/Concept

Two great tastes taste great together. Conceptually, Dungeon Defenders 2 is a coming together of tower defense and action-RPG play. The sequel returns to Trendy’s high fantasy world of Etheria, with the previous game’s four, now grown heroes setting out to defend the land against the invading “Old Ones” (no relation to the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft). Trendy hasn’t yet revealed much about the story, but that’s the top-level pitch. Defending against the Old Ones involves traveling around the world and keeping enemies at bay through five waves of attacks in each location, using a mix of powers unlocked from leveling up and constructed defenses.

Gameplay

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A little bit country. The tower defense layer of Dungeon Defenders 2 hinges on the game’s green resource gems. This is your currency for buying new defenses and upgrading/repairing existing ones. You earn them by killing enemies during a wave or by unlocking chests scattered throughout each level using the two keys you earn during each new build phase, which occurs between waves. Each class has four different defenses mapped to numerical hotkeys (5-8) on your keyboard. Pressing the button brings up a silhouette of the desired defensive emplacement that you are then free to find a home for. Clicking once sets it in place; with towers, you can then move the mouse around to tweak the direction of fire and click a second time to finalize the build.

Towers and defensive emplacements vary by hero. We spent most of our time using Dungeon Defender 2‘s Huntress, a bow-wielding ranged fighter that focuses more on trap-setting than traditional tower defense-style towers. She’s got a poison dart launcher that she can place, but she’s also got a couple of variations on landmines, including one that drenches all enemies in napalm and another that stuns them by lifting them into the air on a jet of water. We didn’t spend any time playing with the other characters, but they all fall into the same sort of roles that they did before. The Squire and Monk both favor close-range combat, though the former is all about tower-building while the latter focuses more on traps and team support. The magic-wielding Apprentice is a ranged attacker that builds magical tower, balancing the trap/support-focused ranged attacks of the Huntress.

A little bit rock & roll. The action-RPG layer of Dungeon Defenders 2 plays out during the attack phase. Building defenses is necessary to your survival, but all of the towers in the world won’t stop the advance of the Old Ones if you’re not willing to get your hands dirty as well. This is where the game’s blue resource gems come into play. Hotkeys 1-4 are mapped to your chosen hero’s direct attacks (really 1-3, with 4 serving as a generic ‘heal self’ action), each of which cost a certain number blue gems to use. Just like the green ones, blue gems come from enemy drops and opened chests. Heroes also have two resource-free direct attacks; a rapid-fire, low-damage attack that you hold down the left mouse button to use, and a higher damage charge attack that you hold and release the right mouse button to use.

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Heroes can also collect and equip an assortment of gear, dropped by enemies and chests alike. Trendy takes a cue from Diablo here, with a color-coding system used to denote the item’s rarity (and, by association, power). Most of the gear we came across during our play session boosted one or more skills while reducing others. A new bow might enhance your overall damage and your acumen with one offensive ability, but at the cost of health and movement speed (just as an example). Although it’s not ready yet in the current pre-alpha build, we’re told the heroes will also level up and gain new skills as you progress through the game.

Happy together. Cooperation is a huge component in Dungeon Defenders 2. You can choose to tackle the game solo, but it’s really built for four human players to take on together. So much so that different abilities are built to complement one another. Take the aforementioned Huntress landmine that stuns enemies on a jet of water. Place it in close proximity to the Monk’s electricity-powered landmine and you deal out extra damage. The Huntress can also drench an enemy in oil to slow them down using one of her offensive abilities, but combining it with any fire attack – including her own napalm balloons – also equates to extra damage.

For the higher-level waves, cooperation becomes essential. You have unlimited time to work with during the build phase, and you can hold down the Shift button on your keyboard at any time to see where the map’s spawn portals are and what threat level they represent for the given round, along with a breakdown of the enemy types they’ll spit out. You’ve really got to use this info to plan ahead and place complementary emplacements alongside one another.

Certain levels also include player-triggered environmental traps, like flame jets or water spillways, and sub-objectives. In one map that we played on, the primary objective required that a close-set pair of structures be kept safe, but a secondary objective added a third location to defend. Losing either of the primary objectives results in a loss, but losing the secondary objective just makes the going harder. In this case, the secondary was a structure blocking a central lane on the map; enemy forces eventually overwhelmed it, which created a new, very wide path for attackers to use.

Presentation

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Cartoon heroes. Trendy delivered an eye-catching visual aesthetic in the original Dungeon Defenders. Much like the sequel’s heroes, the art design in Dungeon Defenders 2 feels just a bit more grown up. The cartoon vibe remains, but the cel shading is gone in favor of a cleaner look. The bright and colorful environments pop with detail and, once the battles heat up, particle effects. It’s very pleasing to the eye. Trendy also paid particular attention to coloring in the world outside the maps. Eternia is rendered in much more vivid detail now, with players able to see where they’ve been and where they may be headed when they peer outside the boundaries of a given location.

Takeaway

Dungeon Defenders 2 appears to be a tremendous evolution of the first game’s ideas. The refreshed visual style catches the eye immediately, bringing to mind the likes of Orcs Must Die and other heavies in the genre, and the enhancements to the gameplay amount to an across-the-board improvement. There’s still more to be seen too, with the aforementioned hero skill trees and an “AI director” mode modeled after Left 4 Dead that reads your strategies and tweaks each wave to trip you up, but what’s there right now is great fun to play with already. Look for Dungeon Defenders 2 to launch as a free-to-play title later this year on PC, Mac, and Linux.