It's been two years since Dungeon Defenders' quartet of child heroes saved the color-saturated world of Etheria with a mixture of tower defense and action RPG hacking, slashing and shooting. Since 2011, the Squire, Apprentice, Monk and Huntress have all grown into taller, lankier teenagers. Dungeon Defenders 2's tower defense fusion has grown up with them.
I donned the Apprentice's floppy wizard hat for a preview of Dungeon Defenders 2 with Trendy Entertainment's lead content designer Daniel Haddad and marketing director Philip Asher. The build we played represented only four months of work for Trendy, so it was completely focused on "core mechanics": Building towers and killing a whole bunch of armored orcs and skittering goblins. That focus came with a frank admission from Asher: the action RPG/tower defense combo didn't entirely work in the first game, and they want to do better.
In the first Dungeon Defenders, tower defense was fun. The combat was playable, if a bit mindless. But the two didn't gel at all. The camera would pull up into an awkward overhead perspective when you built towers, which also had to be selected from an equally awkward series of radial pop-up menus (though keyboard shortcuts did help). Aside from building, upgrading, and repairing, there was no interaction between players and towers.
A new trait system is part of Trendy's solution to that separation. In Dungeon Defenders 2, towers, hero equipment, and abilities can be assigned traits--freezing damage, for example--that affect enemies. A new Apprentice tower shoots flames that spread from enemy to enemy; if someone douses those enemies with oil, they'll take much more damage. Frozen enemies can be shattered. The Apprentice can also launch a tornado spell that knocks enemies into the air, where they're bombarded by devastating shots from anti-air towers that would normally ignore them.
Before I tried out the new tower/ability combinations, I spent a few minutes running around our preview map, a small village with multiple entrances, admiring the sequel's new look. Dungeon Defenders 2 is gorgeous. The first game's charmingly garish bloom and heavy black outlines are gone, and the new color palette is more pastel. Other than The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, I can't think of a game that looks more like an honest-to-god cartoon.
Dungeon Defenders 2 feels good, too. Asher said that the developer put a ton of work into improving basic combat mechanics for the sequel, and it shows. For example, in the first game, the young Squire swung his sword back and forth with each click of a mouse button, but there was no finesse or weight to his attacks. The same back-forth animation looped forever as he ran through mobs of enemies dishing out damage without much feedback. Trendy nicknamed it the lawnmower effect.
There's no lawnmowing in Dungeon Defenders 2. The teenaged Squire and Monk now perform attack combos with a series of animations for sword/staff swings. Trendy wants melee combat to be more third-person brawler, less landscaping. The animation improvements extend to the other characters as well; when I held down the right mouse button to charge up the Apprentice's magic shot, he held his staff behind him and then snapped it forward to unleash the blast.
The strategic build phase--planning out tower placement, collecting resources from chests scattered throughout the map, fortifying defenses--remains mostly unchanged. However, Trendy split the first game's currency, mana, into two resources: One for casting hero abilities, and one for constructing, repairing, and upgrading towers.
And here's a big change: There's no longer a limit to the number of towers you can build in a map. According to Asher, the first game's build limit marginalized the strategic choice between building more towers and upgrading them to be more powerful. That will be a common choice in the sequel. Because using abilities is now a big focus of combat, and there are no build limits, both resources feel more valuable.
On top of making combat deeper, Trendy's introducing varied objectives and more opportunities for strategy into the tower defense framework. In the map we played, enemies came through a large set of gates in the middle of the map, while smaller gates let in more enemies from the sides. Where there were once generic Eternia crystals to defend, there are now main objectives and sub-objectives. On this map, the two sub-objectives were locks that opened up more gates for enemies to flow through. During the final round, we made the tactical decision to sell our defenses near the sub-objectives and pull them back to the main gate, which we had to defend at any cost.
Some of Trendy's small improvements do a lot to smooth out their tower defense/action RPG formula. The camera never leaves its behind-the-back perspective, even when placing towers. Building towers mid-combat no longer locks you helplessly in place, as heroes can still move and attack within a small radius as a tower is being built or repaired. Flying enemies now use AI to choose a target instead of beelining for a predetermined Eternia crystal.
Ultimately, the most encouraging thing about Dungeon Defenders 2 is how candidly Trendy's devs talked about the first game's problems. And there were a lot of problems, though they didn't prevent the game from being fun or addicting--according to Steam, I played 112 hours of it. DLC releases were geared towards higher difficulty levels, so players who were away from the game for a few weeks could come back and find themselves hopelessly behind. Loot scaling was so steep, only grinding for hours on the highest difficulties produced the best gear.
Every issue I could think of Asher admitted to, or even brought up first. Trendy Entertainment has gone through some adolescent growing pains of its own over the past year; when the developer first announced Dungeon Defenders 2 back in March, it was confusingly divided into a cooperative tower defense like the original, to be released at some point in the future, and a MOBA, which went into beta in the spring. The two would share characters and, supposedly, some form of progression.
But the MOBA was a dud, and Asher admitted that the studio grew so quickly after Dungeon Defenders' success, they ended up chasing the MOBA genre's popularity and making a game no one in the studio really wanted to make. So they scrapped it--all of it, with the exception of their new teenage hero character designs--and started over.
From what I played, I can't say how Dungeon Defenders 2 will improve upon the original's loot mechanics or character progression, or how well Trendy will vary its stages with creative objectives. Those are the elements that will make Dungeon Defenders 2 a 200-hour addiction instead of another 20-hour tower defense game.
Trendy is at least saying all the right things. Traits applied to weapons will affect how attacks animate and injure enemies. An ability hotbar at the bottom of the screen is the only hint of MOBA design in the cooperative mode, and each character will supposedly have multiple abilities to fill out that bar--there could be some very cool tower/attack combinations if they deliver on this front. Lead content designer Daniel Haddad talked about a metagame that would organize the community into taking on challenges together to push the Dungeon Defenders 2 story forward. Campaign missions will not be selected via a boring menu, this time around.
There's still one big wildcard left: How Trendy will implement F2P monetization into their game. Asher was adamant that the core gameplay would be there even if you didn't spend a dime. The good news is that Trendy plans to launch Dungeon Defenders 2 in open beta in the first quarter of 2014 and let fans influence the F2P structure. There will definitely be heroes beyond the core four, but how many, and how much will they cost? Until the beta launches it's too soon to say.
One thing's for sure: Dungeon Defenders 2 will still come packing a challenge. Haddad casually mentioned that the build we were playing was easier than the final game, since all of our objectives returned to full health between waves. We still lost on the last wave, to the final three enemies, who hammered our main gate into submission before we could deliver the killing blows. I left the demo thinking about how we could've set up our defenses more efficiently. Next time, I'll be ready.