I have to give Armor Games some serious credit for what they’ve accomplished here, with Kingdom Rush (out now, $0.99) – a game originally released on their website in flash format – they’ve successfully made me enjoy playing a genre that I normally can’t stand. It has created a set up where I actually feel like every little choice I do matters significantly, and none of those choices are whether or not I make IAP purchases to unlock the permission to win. Furthermore, they also manage to throw ever newer challenges at you without using the commonly cheap tower defense mainstay of artificially creating difficulty by completely changing your core building options.

From the very beginning Kingdom Rush presents you with a very simple arrangement of basic buildings at your disposal: guard barracks, archer towers, mage towers, and mortar launchers. While the latter three of those are very self explanatory to anyone who has ever played a tower defense game before, the guard barracks here present an element of game play more unique to the genre. When you tap on the guard tower you will be able to control the rallying point of the soldiers attached to the barracks, and any enemies that come into contact with them will be physically detained until either side is dead (if the soldiers die, the barracks will always train more shortly). In this way a single guard barracks can be used to patrol multiple paths by changing the rallying point of its garrison at pivotal moments during a level, at least so long as both of the path ways are in the structure’s range.

In another area where I must commend Armor Games, the upgrades to a tower in Kingdom Rush are such that – unlike most tower defense games available – they actually justify the cost versus simply building more low level towers. The abilities of a level 4 tower will generally be such that it alone does far more work than the bevy of level 1 towers that could have been built for the same cost, and because of this furiously building low level towers at random is not the encouraged strategy that it is in many other tower defense games. Thusly one of the first things you will need to do in many stages is build a singular tower of the highest level you can afford, thinking carefully about where and of what type.

Speaking of level 4 towers, it is whenever you advance a structure past level 3 – particularly later in the game when multiple high level options become available per building type – that things really start to get interesting. Suddenly you will find yourself with choices such as do you advance your level-3 archers up to the elven ranger tree fortress, or the powerful – but very slow – musketeer tower? The elves are extremely fast and capable of taking out large armies of weak enemies all by themselves, while the gunners can do massive damage that is utterly vital against opponents that have massive pools of health. Furthermore – once a tower has reached its highest level – you will also be able to purchase extra abilities for the soldiers who are there, such as poison arrows for elven archers or the chance of doing instant kill headshots for the musketeers.

You also have two special abilities, summoning either meteor storms or instant reinforcements, that can be used over and over for free each time a cool down clock finishes. The reinforcements option places a bunch of conscripted farmers wherever you want on a pathway, useful for either slowing down and/or splitting up a group of enemies for the benefit of your main forces. The meteor storm itself calls forth a rain of high damage to come down from the sky, this attack takes a few seconds to arrive and thus can be tricky to successfully target an enemy group with.

The enemies you will face in Kingdom Rush provide a simple to remember rock-paper-scissors setup in regards to what is most effective against them, and information can be brought up mid-level on enemies the first time a new kind shows up as well. Flying units will completely evade land forces, armored units will be able to avoid damage from magical sources, and still others enemies will be resistant to arcane attacks. You will also occasionally face giant boss monsters who completely shake up how the game works entirely, such as the giant Yeti at the end of the snow region that will constantly freeze all of the towers around it forcing you to break the ice by tapping them rapidly.

When you successfully survive a stage you will be ranked from one to three stars based on how many enemies you let slip past your defenses, but these stars are more than for just vanity purposes since they also serve as the currency with which you purchase permanent upgrades from the level select map. The purchasable star upgrades can do things like decreasing the cost of creating and upgrading structures, the inherent attack range of your units, as well as increasing the power of the special meteor storm and conscripted reinforcements abilities. As a really nice feature, you never need to worry about spending your stars in such a way that future levels become unwinnable as you can always freely redistribute them to your heart’s content.

One thing I particularly like here, that has been a bit of problem in other tower defense games I have played on the iOS, is that Kingdom Rush never gets confused as to what you’re clicking. However – on the flip side – most of those other games also let you build and upgrade structures while pausing the action, which is something Kingdom Rush does not give you the option to do. So I guess it’s a really good thing that the game doesn’t constantly cause missteps when you’re in a hurry, especially since the game rewards you with extra building money for hitting a button to make the next enemy wave come immediately rather than waiting for it to arrive.

With the matters of Kingdom Rush’s gameplay finally out of the way, I would now like to close this review by spending some time talking about how this title both looks and sounds. Whenever you build or upgrade a structure you will be treated to randomized high quality voice clips filled with an endless stream of various pop culture references, such as an enhanced mage tower happily declaring “Might AND Magic.” The graphics – however – are extremely tiny and under detailed, and this can make it especially hard to tell certain enemy units apart – even if you’re zoomed all the way in – for those of you not playing this game on an iPad.

iFanzine Verdict: While it lacks the positively magical charm of a game like Plants Vs. Zombies, Kingdom Rush is a very well made tower defense game that relies on actual strategy and has an upgrade system which shows that the developers spent a considerable amount of time play testing their own game. Whenever you win in Kingdom Rush it will be because of superior strategy, and whenever you lose it will be because of poor choices rather than the game pulling byzantine cheap shots upon you. While the iOS release of Kingdom Rush does feature some IAPs, they thankfully don’t come in a form that affects the balance of the game whatsoever. The only minor downsides to Kingdom Rush is that the tiny graphics make it very hard to differentiate various enemy units when played on the iPod/iPhone’s small screen, and that – unlike many other tower defense games on the iOS – you can’t build/upgrade structures while the game is paused.