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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (384)

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Sundered 3/5
Iconoclasts 3/5
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Lands of Lore III 2.5/5
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Rage 2 4/5
EnHanced 3.5/5
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Xenoblade Chronicles 2 2.5/5
Far Cry 5 4/5
Jotun 2/5
Armada 4/5
RiME 2.5/5
Song of the Deep 4.5/5
Shadowrun: Hong Kong 4/5
Destiny 2 4/5
Shadowrun: Dragonfall 4/5
Shadowrun Returns 3/5
Kirby Star Allies 3.5/5
Dark Quest 2 3.5/5
Never Alone 3/5
Octopath Traveler 3/5
Guacamelee! 2 4/5

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Dungeon Defenders II   PC (Steam) 

Protean Shifted in the Right Direction    4/5 stars

Last Summer, in 2017, the MJ Crew first took a stab at “Dungeon Defenders 2” (“DD2”) because Nick simply couldn’t hold-out any longer and wait for the game to come out of Steam Early Access. What we experienced was a rollercoaster of highs and lows, with Trendy Entertainment, the Indie dev behind the ‘Dungeon Defenders’IP, absolutely nailing the core gameplay, seamlessly blending Hack ‘n Slash RPG and Tower Defense into a whole-better-than-the-sum-of-its-parts… then ruining everything as they brought the game out of a multi-year Early Access period with sweeping, misbegotten overhauls that broke the balance, ruined the difficulty curve, and hid important pieces of information from players for no good reason. At the time, I published a review noting that Trendy had a reputation of doing this, stretching all the way back to their first game, the original “Dungeon Defenders.” Trendy has garnered for themselves a reputation of ‘Trendying-up” everything they touch.

Now, a year later, Trendy released another sweeping overhaul for “DD2,” dubbed “Protean Shift.” Larger and more ambitious than the previous Chaos and Shards update that largely ruined the game, Protean Shift has ‘shifted’ the game back onto the right track in a way I no longer thought Trendy capable of accomplishing.

Presentation
“DD2,” like its predecessor, is still an Unreal Engine game, but the time gap between this game and the original shows just how much both graphic designers who use the Unreal Engine and the engine itself have improved. “DD2” is just as colorful, cartoony, and fantastical as its predecessor, with whimsical fantasy environmental designs and slightly aged-up versions of the characters from the first game. Character models are very well animated, and everything about the game’s visuals is incredibly appealing and eyecatching.

The audio is competent, with a number of original tunes as well as remixes from the first game making up the soundtrack. The single biggest disappointing change about “DD2’s” audio, when compared to the first game, is that the Barkeep no longer stands around spouting one-liners with a thick, Irish accent. I really missed him!

Technically, “DD2” falls on its face, a bit. While it is technically pretty solid and now (finally) fully supports Xinput controllers for both gameplay and the menu UI, it still has issues with resetting all of the player’s options upon updating. The biggest problem, though, is that Trendy has decided to axe the offline/P2P Unranked mode from the original game in favor of an always-online, server-driven Live Service called “Playverse.” Trendy’s Playverse servers can be a bit spotty, though the relatively low player counts caused by previous unbalanced builds of the game driving everyone away means that it’s really only a small handful of folks online at any given time. I guess we should be thankful that the ‘Dungeon Defenders’ community shouted-down the idea of “DD2” being a Free2Play PvP MOBA, as that was Trendy’s original plan, but the fact that it’s still a Free2Play Live Service means that when Trendy gets tired of hosting Playverse, the whole thing will be lost to posterity.

Story
“DD2’s” narrative is, at its heart, a rehash of the original game’s story, set a few years later, when the player characters are teenagers instead of kids. Once again, the armies of the Old Ones are hot-to-trot to smash and grab any Eternia Crystals they can get their hands on. This time, however, a mysterious leader marches at the head of these armies, a cloaked figure known only as the Harbinger.

While at first it seems that the Harbinger is set on releasing the Old Ones again, it eventually turns out that he’s primarily out for his own gain, as so many sub-villains are. As the heroes are distracted defending various points within the lands of Etheria, the Harbinger hatches a nefarious plan to destroy the royal family.

With the Protean Shift update, the campaign has been lengthened a bit, while simultaneously chopped in half, with the campaign missions up to the first boss (the midpoint of the game) making up the ‘campaign’ and an extended series of mini-episodes culminating in new-ish boss encounters, along with the final battle with the Harbinger, separated out in a series of ‘adventures.’ Overall, playing through the story content still takes about 20 hours or so, though the real draw of the game comes from the story-free modes and progressive difficulty modes that unlock once the campaign is over (these can add hundreds of hours of gameplay, or thousands for the maniacally devoted).

While originally I criticized “DD2’s” story for losing focus and not really making any sense, the new campaign/adventures format not only introduces new cutscenes and dialogs, but generally creates a story flow that makes much more sense than before. Still, the game feels like it ends on a cliff-hanger, foreshadowing some huge new chunk of narrative still to come… but Trendy has been so busy trying to fix their broken and unbalanced gameplay that they haven’t really put any work into adding new content.

Gameplay
“DD2” is a true sequel to the original “Dungeon Defenders” with its revolutionary idea of combining the Tower Defense genre, where players plop-down stationary, automated defenses along routes traveled by enemies in order to kill those enemies before they reach a specific goal and destroy it, with the Hack ‘n Slash RPG subgenre, where players bathe in piles of randomly-generated and color-coded loot looking for the best stats and passive abilities to make their characters more powerful. Each hero class in “DD2” features 4 hero abilities and 4 defenses, allowing them to build impediments for the incoming waves of enemies, then jump into the action themselves, shoring up weak-points in person or dealing with powerful mini-boss enemies that might be too much for defenses to handle on their own.

Quality of life improvements in “DD 2” include an always-visible mini-map, motes of light during the Build Phases that show the exact routes enemies will follow, the ability to hot-swap between a group of four heroes (called the Hero Deck) even in the middle of Combat Phases, and no negative stats appearing on loot.

While the campaign and adventure modes are just there to get players started, the real meat and potatoes of “DD2” comes from the Chaos Tiers, which replace the Nightmare difficulty level of the original game. There are currently 7 Chaos Tiers, each of which offers the player the opportunity to play the original campaign/adventure stages in any order they want, but with increasingly beefy enemies, exclusive new enemy threats in each tier (meaning new strategies are required), and better loot. Players who have reached even the first Chaos Tier also have the option to pursue exclusive rewards by completing Mastery mode or Onslaught mode. In Mastery mode, players replay each of the game’s stages with capped stats based on the Chaos Tier in question, but can earn between 1 and 5 stars by winning while conforming to a list of arbitrary restrictions (such as Build No Towers, Build No Auras, Don’t Die, etc.). These stars are cumulative across all stages and tiers, and add-up to threshold-based gifts. Onslaught mode, which used to be the game’s endless mode, is now a floor-by-floor challenge, where players ascend a metaphorical tower, with each floor becoming more and more challenging, but also featuring random mutators on each enemy route, making the threat different every time and forcing players to adapt. In general, I really like both Mastery and Onslaught, as they transform the game from rote repetition into an evolving strategic challenge, though straight-up repetitive play in the Chaos Tiers is still essential, as gearing up for these tougher challenges requires a lot of gold and Defender Medals.

The loot system has been the subject of the most revisions over the past year, and has finally become truly enjoyable in Protean Shift thanks in large part to a concept Trendy has dubbed ‘gear permanence,’ where they no longer want players to throw away all of their characters’ equipment every 5 minutes when a new piece drops with 1 more point in a given stat. Instead, the Protean Shift update introduced both a heavy revamp of the gear upgrade system, as well as the Tinkering system. Each piece of gear that drops in the game now reveals all of its pertinent information to players: You can see at a glance what gameplay tier it’s from, what level it is, and what its Gear Score (formerly Item Power in the Beta phase) is. Using this information, it’s much easier to determine what loot that drops is actually useful, as well as what tier of gameplay the player should be focused on. Once a piece of gear has been upgraded to level 10, it’s also possible to evolve it to the next gameplay tier – e.g., taking a piece of Chaos 1 armor and evolving it to Chaos 2 – granting it a new set of 10 upgrade levels and a tier-appropriate stat boost. Evolving gear is actually quite easy to do, and the ability to carry over the player’s entire arsenal of gear from tier-to-tier really helps smooth out the horrific difficulty spikes that used to plague the game. It’s even possible to transform lower-rarity gear into higher rarity gear using this same system, thus very few pieces of loot can be immediately dismissed as trash, and it is nearly impossible for the RNG to ruin an otherwise useful piece of loot.

In addition to raw stats, gear also comes with up to 3 Shard slots and 3 mod slots. Shards are interchangeable magic stones that apply specific passive abilities to both characters and their associated defenses, covering a mindboggling array of things (think slot gems from ‘Torchlight’). Shards can also be upgraded now, by merging 11 copies together in a process called Gilding. Mods, are another system of passives tied to gear, which can still be moved around via Tinkering, but are otherwise far more restrictive. Tinkering a mod from on piece of gear onto another destroys the original piece, and the entire process revolves around Defender Medals and Gems, the game’s Freemium currencies. Still, Tinkering is a fantastic addition to the game, as, combined with the gear permanence mechanics mentioned previously, players are truly the guiding force in what their character’s equipment looks like. Grinding for upgrade materials and currencies to perform an upgrade is far more palatable and has a much more visible end goal that simply grinding for random drops and hoping against all hope for a tiny, incremental upgrade.

As a Free2Play game, “DD2” is fairly benign, however, it does hide some nefariousness within its loot system. Gems are a currency that can only be bought with real money, whereas Defender Medals are earned in tiny quantities during normal play and more reasonable quantities by completing daily/weekly missions. Gold is earned in larger quantities during normal play, but is also consumed in massive quantities, making it the poster-child for worthless Freemium money. Originally, the only things players could buy with Gems were cosmetics that made their characters/defenses look different, bag upgrades that increase the size of the player’s inventory, and optional hero unlocks to expand their roster of playable characters. I spent roughly $20 on microtransactions to increase my bag space and unlock a character, and have been sitting on enough gems for another instant character unlock should Trendy add one that interests me. However, it’s noteworthy that hero unlocks can be bought with a large number of Defender Medals instead (roughly 8000-10000, out of a maximum of 12000 carried at a given time). With the newer gameplay systems implemented since launch, though, Gold seems increasingly useless, while Defender Medals and Gems are competing to be the default currency. As I mentioned, it costs a ludicrous amount of Gold to do things, and when the player is given the opportunity to pay for something in Defender Medals or Gold, the medals are usually a much better value. However some things don’t even have a Gold option, but instead make the player choose between Defender Medals or Gems, in which case Defender Medals are the ONLY option for those who don’t want to treat the game as a giant money pit. Specifically, the Tinkering system only accepts Defender Medals or Gems, as does unlocking new heroes. The fact that loot drops can be combined, upgraded, and evolved in new and interesting ways in the Protean Shift update, though, means that players will find themselves increasingly butting heads with inventory size limits, with Gem-funded bag/vault upgrades the only solution. Maybe I’m tilting at windmills here, but it seems like the Shard Gilding system and Tinkering system are specifically designed to fill-up tons of storage space while the player saves up the materials/currencies to complete the process, which would tempt many people to simply buy more storage space rather than make tough decisions about what rare goodies they’re willing to dump.

With a roster boasting 12 characters, including the original four – Apprentice, Huntress, Monk, and Squire – the returning Summoner and Series EV – now known as the Abyss Lord and Series EV2 – the DPS-only Gunwitch and Barbarian, gender-swapped versions of 2 original heroes – Adept and Initiate – as well as 3 all-new heroes – Lavamancer, Mystic, and Dryad – “DD2” has plenty of diversity amongst its playable cast. Only a few of these characters are available from the outset, though, with most of them unlockable with Freemium currency. And any ‘Dungeon Defenders’ player worth their salt will want to unlock almost all of them (the Gunwitch and Barbarian, with their lack of defenses, seem pretty useless to me), which is a pretty big time/money sink right there. But once the whole roster is available, the combinations of defenses the whole cast can bring to the field at once allows for some incredibly strategic gameplay, especially when one takes the complexity of the Shard and mod systems into account. “DD2” is a min-maxer’s dream, but thanks to the heavy rebalances of character/defense stats brought in the Protean Shift update as well as the truly excellent loot system, it’s no longer impenetrable to newcomers.

Overall
Anyone who played and dismissed “Dungeon Defenders 2” as another Trendied-up disaster should really give the game a second chance now that the Protean Shift update has landed. Combined with a few smaller changes that have been patched-in over the past year, this update not only brings “DD2” back to the place of fun and balance it occupied during the tail-end of the open Beta period, but has taken it even further toward excellence. “Dungeon Defenders 2” is without a doubt the definitive example of its particular mix of genres, offering gobs of entertainment value for free. While it still isn’t perfect, thanks entirely to the facts that it is always-online and Freemium (Free2Play with microtransactions), it’s still a whole bucket of fun and far better than I ever expected from Trendy Entertainment.

Presentation: 3/5
Story: 3/5
Gameplay: 5/5
Overall (not an average): 4/5

 

 


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