Grumpy Old Men

An army of bandits think they’re about to score the motherload in a defenseless village but they’ve got another thing coming, as it happens to be guarded by the legendary Grove Keeper (Out Now for $2.99, Lite). This squat, shirtless, nose-picking elder may seem the least likely candidate for fending off an invasion, but it helps that he’s a godlike immortal who can draw upon the forces of nature as well as support from a troupe of equally unlikely heroes. Under the player’s guidance, he takes the fight back to whatever shadowy figure lies behind all the unrest.

Stylish art stills with text overlays convey Grove Keeper‘s story during interchapter segments. As one might guess from the game’s premise the player can count on lots of silly shenanigans, but they do add up to a rather touching lighthearted adventure despite a few too many grammar slip-ups. Grove Keeper is a lightweight in this department in any case, its focus falling squarely on providing a very unique and excellently fleshed out Real-Time Strategy experience.

Apparently taking lessons from the couch cushion school of fortress design, the Grove Keeper and his allies erect comically makeshift fortificaions to serve as forward operating bases during their campaign. These structures wobble with realistic physics as individual pieces break down under enemy attacks, though keeping the fort intact is merely a secondary goal for which the player receives performance ratings; a level ends prematurely only if the Grove Keeper himself gets crushed in a fortress collapse or takes a few direct hits. Keeping all his comrades alive is critical to success, for the Grove Keeper’s own abilities are mostly supportive in nature. As the player taps on environmental objects, he commands vines to ensnare foes, rocks to deflect enemy projectiles, tornadoes to sweep back incoming hordes, etc; all these actions buy his allies time to snipe away with long range attacks.

Grove Keeper lacks the kind of resource management and unit deployment systems that make its most formidable Castle Defense competitors so readily accessible to RPG fans; the player has to make do with whatever assortment of allies and natural objects the game assigns to each level. However, Grove Keeper should garner a wide audience among Real-Time Strategy fans looking for something streamlined but fun, as it succeeds in keeping the player totally immersed in the business of environmental manipulation and directing the behavior of the Grove Keeper’s allies to some extent. If players aren’t used to iOS’ multi-touch capability yet, they certainly will be after a few hours here, because it’s crucial to handling levels in which enemies flow in from numerous directions at once.

Grove Keeper‘s lasting claim to fame will undoubtedly be the extent to which its gameplay rests on well implemented physics and the player’s ability to make use of it. Certain enemies are so well shielded or otherwise adapted that they’re effectively impervious to the direct attacks of the Grove Keeper’s allies, and therefore the player must learn to use the protagonist’s support abilities in creative ways — perhaps deflecting incoming projectiles at such an angle that they strike a foe’s weak point, or finding ways to push enemies into bottomless pits as they climb slippery hills. This lends the gameplay a very dynamic feel and surprising depth as levels continue introducing new twists. It also helps that each level lasts only a short while, giving the player a sense of very swift progress.

On the downside, the million and one ways in which any of the player’s forts may collapse can lead to bizarre outcomes Grove Keeper‘s designers did not intend. In one early level, for example, my archers became exposed and fell to short range attackers, who then could not reach the Grove Keeper due to the particular way in which the fort had partially collapsed. Since the Grove Keeper lacked measures to dispatch the remaining enemies at that point, the game entered an infinite loop and I had to re-start the level. These situations appear to be very rare, and in any case are practically nonexistent provided the player performs well. Only when the fort begins collapsing might things go strangely awry.

All of Grove Keeper‘s various touchscreen control points work without a hitch — a great accomplishment on the developer’s part considering how many different objects, characters and enemies are tappable. Battlefield size varies and levels are usually zoomed out so the player can view their entirety by default. Alternatively, the player can zoom in by way of a virtual button, and drag the battlefield view by holding any point that isn’t interactive.

Making use of that zoom button is worth it just to get a closer look at the game’s hand-drawn sprites, which tend to be quite tiny by default in larger levels. With all the attention Grove Keeper‘s developers lavished on polishing gameplay and visuals, it’s a real shame that the game lacks a proper soundtrack outside of the main menu screen. Grove Keeper is therefore a strictly BYOM (Bring Your Own Music) affair; do yourself a favor and bring some epic or perhaps outrageously cartoony tracks along for the ride.

Grove Keeper‘s story mode contains 80 levels as of the release version, and these are good for seven or eight hours’ worth of gameplay depending on player performance. As the campaign progresses, the player unlocks scenarios of rising difficulty in an infinite “Last Stand” mode that mightily increases replay value for challenge seekers.

iFanzine Verdict: Just as satisfying as it is quirky, Grove Keeper is a surefire hit for Castle Defense and Real-Time Strategy fans who can do without heavy RPG or resource management elements. Thanks to its stylish execution and streamlined gameplay, it’s also very worth the attention of more casual gamers looking for something that’s easy to pick up and play but will also last a while. Now, if we could just get an in-game soundtrack!

[xrr rating=4/5]