I want to take a moment here to remind people that I am not a fan of the tower defense genre in general, it tends to be filled with gameplay that is essentially copy-pasted from one title to the next – with the only appreciable difference between them being the presentational graphics – and ultimately ends up offering little in the way of strategic diversity. Occasionally there are some truly stellar gems that occur in the field – such as Plants Vs. Zombies – that manage to pull themselves up above the general mediocrity of the genre, but they are far and few between. This all needs to be understood so that you have the proper context to understand the severity of this statement: the unique innovations in Gimka Entertainment’s Defender Chronicles II: Heroes of Athelia (out now, $2.99) left me wishing I was playing a generic vanilla-flavored tower defense game instead.

The first noticeable difference between this game and its standard brethren is that you don’t build traditional towers, or even objects with different graphics that are otherwise just towers under a different name. In Defender Chronicles II you build guilds that spawn soldier units of a specific type, and these soldiers will then combat directly with the enemies advancing across the game’s levels. Unlike in a standard tower defense game where the destruction of a unit requires you to build a new one entirely, a defeated soldier is replaced – free of charge – by the guild a certain amount of time after the current one is defeated. Upgrading the guild itself will increase the life and damage capabilities of the soldier attached to that guild, and in the case of some unit types will cause the guild to even spawn multiple soldiers at the same time, but upgrading the guild does have the curious side effect where it temporarily removes the soldier attached to it from the playing field.

Furthermore, the way that these guild spawned units fight the advancing enemies is also different from the way that guard towers normally behave in more traditional tower defense games. Your melee units will stop the first enemy that crosses their path and continue to trade blows with that monster until one of them is dead, during which time all other enemies will simply walk right by that unit scot-free. Your limited range magic units will only attack enemies if their target stays around long enough for the sorcerer to prepare a spell; if nothing slows down the enemies walking by them, then they will never attack anything at all. It is your weak powered archers themselves that behave the most like traditional towers, with them shooting arrows quickly at anything that is within their targeting radius.

In another difference from what is normal for the genre, the type of damage a unit is dealing matters far more than normal as enemies will often be immune to any damage of a certain type. Some enemies will be immune to all ranged damage done by archers; some enemies will move right past strong melee characters without ever engaging them in combat, even when the soldier was otherwise unoccupied; and some enemies will avoid both and only be hurt through the attacks of the limited range magic users that take forever to get a spell ready. Still others just walk by all of your units and don’t take any damage whatsoever, such as the golem like creatures that appear on the third level, serving little purpose other than to ensure that the number of enemy misses you’re allowed is heavily misleading (more on this later).

The final major difference is that on each map you have a singular hero character – of which you have four to choose from – whom gains exp at the end of each and every battle, with each hero needing to be leveled up separately. The hero character’s stats affect both their highly powerful personal attacks, as well as the stats of all the soldiers on the battlefield when that hero is being used. Their specific stats, as well as the nature of their personal attack, may be further modified by equipping them with special gear that is either bought with tokens or found as spoils of war. Furthermore, certain pieces of equipment will enable them to cast magical enhancement on units – selected the same way that one would upgrade a guild – that can be used so long as the hero still has mana points remaining.

The aforementioned tokens are either won at the completion of a level, or – in a move that will ultimately surprise no one – are available straight from the developer at the cost of real world money. These tokens are not just used to buy new gear – which once given to a hero will become their permanent property, even when they’re not actively using it – but also to unlock access to advanced and/or new kinds of troops. However, one can not simply just in-app purchase unlock everything right away – even if one were impatient – as the unit unlocks won’t be available until after certain stages have first been finished.

Unfortunately the in-game tutorial explains more or less none of this, and the tutorial itself doesn’t display at all unless you play the first level on either the novice or casual difficulty setting. The developers here have assumed instead that you’ve already read their astoundingly long wall-of-text manual, which – by the way – is hidden away in the section of the title menu that is labeled extras. I am not joking when I say that this manual is a wall-of-text, it goes on for a ridiculously long ways – written in prose suitable as a substitute for sleeping pills – and has almost no diagrams to accompany it. The most offensive part here is that it contains so little useful information – despite its length – that it could have actually been compacted down into far less space, and would have become much easier to comprehend in the process.

One of the few things I actually did manage to pick up from the game’s overly long manual was that Defender Chronicles II apparently has a staggering 9 difficulty settings available, with the more advanced settings making it possible – if you play well enough – to earn even more rating stars. The combined number of rating stars you have currently earned apparently controls your reputation level, which in turn controls the quality of the equipment up for sale in the item shop. However, when you first start out, only the lowest three of those difficulty settings – novice, casual, and master – will be available to you on any of the game’s stages. However, the game’s developers might as well have entitled them: the one that is so astoundingly easy that you will win without trying or learning anything, but instead die of soul-crushing boredom in the process; the one that will seem to be fairly easy until you reach level 3, at which point it starts blocking you with cheap shots; and the one that actually seems like it has just enough difficulty for the gameplay to be meaningful, until on level 3 when it blocks you with even worse cheap shots.

The problem in having a hero with stats is that the developers literally expect you to grind your brains out – in the worst way possible – as the difficulty setting labeled casual is well off limits until after you already have many of the advanced unit types unlocked, as well as far better stats than what you began with. The problem with the developers literally forcing you to play the novice setting is that it’s just painfully boring to watch the long fights happen when there is almost nothing you can do to lose those them, save for not building guilds at all. However, if you don’t do this – perhaps because you are asking for a challenge – you are quickly going to learn that this game has a bevy of cheap shots to ensure that everyone has to first play a ton of mindless sessions at the difficulty setting below casual.

The real fun begins on the third level of Defender Chronicles II – Razortooth – where if you’re playing on the master setting the game will start throwing enemies at you that are simply impervious to damage by any of the unit types you could possibly have at that point, unless you’ve already progressed further into the game on lower difficulty settings. If you play this accursed level on casual instead – a name which, by all rights, is supposed to mean easy in regards to how most gamers understand the term – the match will seem painfully vapid up until the slimes show up, which will subdivide into a ton of faster little slimes in response to you attacking them – all of which count as separate enemies if they get past you – causing you to suddenly go from perfect to absolute failure in seconds because you don’t yet have the modified stats needed to deal with the mini slime rush of the apocalypse. However, you can totally get through just fine by dialing the game all the way down to novice where the only challenge you’ll face is to not fall asleep amidst the very long waves of utterly brittle opponents.

With matters of how the game plays – as well as how the game demands excessive mindless grinding – now out of the way, I would like to talk about a noteworthy non-gameplay element found in this title: competent voice acting. In a move that is quite unheard of for most iOS titles, Defender Chronicles II features complete voice acting at the beginning of each and every stage. Unfortunately, these story scenes are filled with a ton of names and jargon that will mean absolutely nothing to the player at all – whether or not they’ve read the overly lengthy manual – with the sole potential exception being those whom have already played the earlier game in the Defender Chronicles series.

iFanzine Verdict: The game’s many innovative features all look great at first glance, that is until you realize they’re just being used to enforce maximum excessive grinding – at gameplay settings so easy as to be insulting – rather than forming the foundation of a meaningful strategic experience. In the end it deeply saddens me to say that the game would actually have been more fun to play if it had tried to innovate less, as that can only serve to encourage the game’s contemporaries to continue pushing forward in their otherwise relatively safe mediocrity.