One Mage Army

(Editor’s Note: What follows is the original review written for the first version the author played. Since then, one or more major critiques have been addressed by the developer. For a list of these, see “Addendums” below the original review score at the end of the article.)

Today’s economic malaise must have penetrated even fantasy realms, because the number of heroes manning town defenses are dwindling. Clueless Ideas’ iOS debut may be named Magic Defenders (Out Now, $1.99), plural, but in truth this one’s about a single fire-flinging dude’s battle with endless waves of orcs. Why the town couldn’t afford to hire the second character in the game’s logo remains mysterious, but Castle Defense veterans will no doubt appreciate the challenge this entails.

Magic Defenders lets the player warm up his or her magic casting skills in two introductory levels, but make no mistake — this is one you’ll be most interested in if you’re up for an endless take on the Castle Defense genre, because a quickly unlocked Endless mode is where the meat lies here. As with most games that feature endless design, Magic Defenders suffers from the fact that the expert player has to wade through well-mastered stages of gameplay before reaching the level of challenge that caused a Game Over.

If its endless design doesn’t immediately dissuade you, however, Magic Defenders is excellently built. Laying waste to monstrous hordes lets the player character rack up tons of experience, and how the resulting Level Up points are distributed has a big impact on long-term success. Choosing among attributes like the player’s available magic points, strength of individual spells, and magic regeneration rate isn’t clear-cut, so there’s lots of room for experimentation when the player has to start over.

Four spells lie at the player’s disposal. A low-cost energy ball falls wherever he or she taps at the screen, and three costlier elemental spells are summoned up through a no nonsense drag-and-drop interface. Magic points consumed in casting all of these are a scarce resource, so the player must economize by casting the more powerful spells over tightly packed groups of enemies. Also important is the order in which the player follows up one spell with another; each of the elemental spells changes the defensive properties of affected monsters for a time. The nuances here aren’t immediately intuitive, so the player will want to spend some quality time poring over the details in the game’s pause menu.

Regardless of the player’s preference for or against endlessness, Magic Defenders‘ design undermines its otherwise solid gameplay in one respect. Endless mode uses the exact same level map each playthrough, and this removes a lot of the fun guesswork that goes with Level Up decisions at first. A randomized map with different avenues and bottlenecks each go around might have kept this one much more compelling over the long haul. Also, the collection of spells eventually lose their appeal since there are no additional options to compete with them as the player progresses. The developer’s banking on high score competition through OpenFeint to keep it enticing for now.

On the aesthetics side, Clueless Ideas rises well above its name. The number of level maps can be counted on two fingers, but at least they’re finely hand-drawn along with the player and enemy sprites. Particle effects used in spells provide some eye candy, and Magic Defenders sports a set of epic choral tracks. I’m eager to see the developer try something much more ambitious, because they’ve certainly got the technical and artistic chops for it if their first title is any indication.

iFanzine Verdict: Magic Defenders sports interesting drag-and-drop gameplay and excellent technical quality all around, but its content feels all too limited in scope. The experience is likely to wear thin after a couple hours unless the player is really into high score competition.

[xrr rating=3.5/5]

Addendum: New map added
Addendum: New player character added
Addendum: Free ad-supported version released