Friday, August 5, 2011

Freebie Friday: GemCraft: Labyrinth

Genre: Tower Defense
Developer: Game in a Bottle
Publisher: Armor Games
Release year: 2011

Freebie type: Flash
Paid option: Premium Edition upgrade: $5 US.

Zolgar paid: $5
Beaten: No
Zolgar's rating: 8/10
Replayability: High

So after bashing Sanctum a bit a couple weeks ago, I decided for the next Freebie I actually needed to do what I feel is one of the best Tower Defense games on the market, especially for the price.

GemCraft: Labyrinth is the 3rd in a series, unlike many Flash game series though, it's not a case of “it's the exact same game just reskinned”, yet the developers managed to still keep the feel, style and playability, but simply improve on the design.

Now, if you've played a lot of Tower Defense, you're probably sitting there wondering what is so great about GemCraft: Labyrinth (and the rest of the series, in fact), because after all.. all TDs are basically the same game. Honestly, that's kind of true, they're all basically the same game.. but saying that is like saying “All first person shooters are basically the same game.” They all use a predefined formula, but those that stand out are ones that find a way to deviate from that formula.

Take Sanctum, as a TD is follows the formula to the letter, but it then lets you take part in the action in FPS mode. It's not, however, the first TD give you a 'player character' that assists the towers. I forget what it was called, but there's a Platformer TD that you have a gunman in it as well as the towers.

The GemCraft series deviates from the formula quite a lot, and Labyrinth shows it the best.

First, the game actually has a story! We're not talking a generic “OMGz0rz the Creep(tm) is attacking your Convenient Plot Device(tm) following a set path, use these nonsensical weapons you shouldn't have anyways to protect it!” Especially Labyrinth gives you an actual story progression as you play through the game. The gist of the story is that you are a student of the GemCrafting school of Wizardry (not taught at Hogwarts, no), which is the discipline of creating weaponized gems. You discover the source of the creatures that have attacked, and nearly destroyed, the village you were protecting.. and go after it. I know, I know it sounds generic.. but it gives you a lot more than that as you play through.

Then, there's a bit of an RPG element to the game, or more to the point what the game industry calls an RPG element. Because clearly “Leveling Up” makes an RPG (you know, instead of things like.. choices and consequences.. OK, I won't start ranting about that). As you beat a map, you gain experience, this XP is determined by how good you do, as you gain XP you level up. Levels grant you skill points, skills have passive effects on the game, anywhere from granting you more mana, bonus to damage, bonus to Gem attributes, reduced creation costs, etc. Also, it allows you to reset your skills at will, to try something else.

The number of Towers (“Gems”) you get is, in and of itself rather impressive. This isn't the classic TD fodder towers (slow high damage, fast low damage, explosion damage blahblahblah), no sir. While some of the Gems have standard TD tower attributes, others are completely unique to GemCraft, and their 'special' always improve as the gems get higher in level.
  • Chain Hit: Moderate base damage with a chance to hit multiple creatures, damaging all of them.
  • Multiple Damage: Decent base damage and has a chance to add a multiplier to the damage the gem deals.
  • Blood Bound: Low base damage but takes a percentage of the total kills a gem has and adds that to the damage of the gem.
  • Mana Gathering: This is your standard 'extra money tower', it generates mana (your 'money') with every hit, deals low damage of course.
  • Poison: This one is pretty self explanatory, slightly low 'hit damage' with a DOT (Damage Over Time, for you non-slang-savvy folk.)
  • Shock: Fair base damage and has a set chance to Shock (freeze in place) a foe for a set amount of time.
  • Slow: Also fairly self explanatory, decent base damage.
  • Armor Tearing: A semi-common one in TDs, this one reduces the armor of it's target, making it take more damage from towers, deals low damage on it's own.
You might be thinking “Well that alone isn't much.” and you know what? You're right. You can also combine gems, not once but twice. (Well, you can actually combine gems as much as you want, but after 3 type gems they get weaker, and only the dominant 3 gems work.) When you combine gems, the multi-type gems gain a bonus to damage, range and attack, but also gets a penalty to it's specials. To counter that? It has multiple specials. So you can do things like:
  • Chain Hit/Multi Damage/Blood Bound: This gem is honestly broken. It deals multiple damage, hits multiple foes, and for every kill it deals more damage.
  • Slow/Mana Gathering/Armor Tearing: These are the perfect companion to the above-noted brokenness. Slows your foes down, makes 'em take more damage, and give you more mana to boot. Especially if you happen to use them in Traps (I'll explain later).
  • Slow/Chain Hit/Poison: You can't tell me that's not a killer combo.
And that's just scratching the surface, you can create .. well, if my brother-in-law and I are correct: 129 different towers. (Please feel free to provide me with math that shows I'm wrong, but don't say I have it wrong if you don't have the equation to back it up.)

Next up on the list, you also get more than just Towers. You also get Traps, Shrines, Amplifiers, and Bombs.
  • Towers: Are obviously what you drop the Gems in to in order to make them shoot at the Creep.
  • Traps: Are akin to towers in that you place Gems in them to damage the Creep, but in this instance they are placed in the pathway and have a fixed, very small, range. The Gem has it's damage reduced, but it's special (or Specials, for multi-gems) increased.
  • Amplifiers: Also get Gems placed in them, but they do not directly harm the Creep, instead any Tower or Trap adjacent (including diagonally) receives a buff to damage, range, firing speed and it's special(s).
  • Bombs: Say something slips past your last tower, you can grab a Gem, turn it in to a Bomb and drop it on the Creep to do an AoE explosion for decent damage. The damage and number of critters the explosion can hit is based off the tier of the Gem you use.
  • Shrines: Shrines are slightly strange. These deal damage in a predefined pattern (either an AoE, or straight lines on the N/S and E/W axises), based on the tier of Gem your sacrifice to them, in addition they have a cool-down time so you cannot simply spam them.

Now most TDs have like 10-30 maps, maybe 50 levels with lots of duplicating maps. Not CG:L, 165 (I think) standard story maps, plus 4 challenge maps that can be unlocked, and so far none I have found have been exact carbon-copies of another, though obviously there are only so many viable patterns before you start to run in to “this looks kinda familiar.” Each map also has default Gems 'unlocked' for it, but for a bit of Mana you can unlock additional Gems for use for that fight.

There are also your Battle Settings. Say the game isn't hard enough for you, or you want to get a bit more XP, as you level up, you unlock modifiers for battles. 20 modifiers in total (for the free version), which add more monsters, add more waves, make monsters stronger, etc.

Lastly, there's the Achievement system. By now, if you've read many of my reviews, you'll realize I like to mock achievements. GC:L is not exempt. It does have a lot of meaningless “Congratulations, you blew your nose!” achievements, I'm sorry “Amulets”. What it does well though, is it breaks them down in to different categories. One of which is actual honest to the FSM achievements! Radical concept, eh?

Now, no game is perfect.. CG:L is no exception to that rule:
The Creep is simply generic. A few models, 'tough slow' 'weak fast' 'swarm' 'normal' and 'boss' monsters. Not even flying monsters. Everything that went in to the rest of this game, I would have really liked to see a little more creativity with the critters.

The balance of the Towers is .. slightly skewed. Know that combo I mentioned back there? Blood Bound/Chain Hit/Multi Damage? While I was writing this, I was also playing GC:L, and I was on Endurance mode.. I got past wave 150 with one of those towers (surrounded by 8 amplifiers), not even any traps. By the end it was doing something like 20,000 damage per hit, and hitting at least 2 foes every shot. I've had other combos prove good, but nothing is as good as that.. and it's just insane if you pair it with mana/armor tearing/slow or shock traps.

I feel certain features are lacking in the Free version. In order to get Endurance Mode (unlimited waves), you have to purchase the Premium Edition, and most of the Challenge Amulets required Endurance Mode. The previously mentioned 4 unlockable maps? To get those, you have to get all of the Challenge Amulets.

It moves slow. I can comfortably keep up with the game on 'Fast Forward'. It really needs another tier of speed that makes things move even faster.

If you purchase the Premium Edition, you are still forced to play online, logged in to one website or another.

Not a lot of detractors though, especially not for a game you can play absolutely free of charge.

Finally, a word on the Premium Edition:
Honestly, I was on the fence about purchasing it for two reasons. First, it seemed it would slightly off-balance the game, and second.. it's a Flash game, which I have to play in my Browser on Armor Games. If I have no internet, or Armor Games goes down.. I have no game. The factor that made me decide to buy it was deciding that I had already gotten more than $5 worth of enjoyment without even paying for it, and I am a firm believer in supporting Indy developers.

The Premium Edition doesn't even throw the game balance off much, though it does make it a lot easier to level up, and start out if you buy it before you start playing.
It gives you 30 extra skill points (doesn't mean much after about level 30, before that it could be really useful though.)
It gives you access to 9 new skills (some are useful, so are not so much), none of which are exceptionally game-breaking.
Lastly: it open up an extra 10 Battle Settings, these include Endurance Mode, Tenfold monsters, Bosses Only, and 7 more almost as challenging.

Jokes about The Sorcerer's Stone or Family Jewels will not be tolerated.”

Available from:
Armor Games
Game in a Bottle

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