In combining a tower defense game with a platformer, Aegis Defenders carries an ingenious idea at its core. The problem is, that idea is never fully reallized: the game's surface-layer tower defense is serviceable but unbalanced, while the platformer underneath is unimaginative and frustrating, leaving very little to actually enjoy.
Each level is separated into two sections: you'll explore and puzzle-solve your way through a linear side-scrolling section for 10-20 minutes, before stumbling upon a MacGuffin that, for a number of contrived reasons, needs to be defended. You must then place various items around the enclosed area of the level to fight off enemies during a series of waves, each preceded by a preparation phase. Those enemies are varied enough in design and appearance to keep things interesting; importantly, they come in four colors, each corresponding to one of your squad.
Your team is comprised of main protagonist Clu, her grandfather Bart, a traveler named Kaiim, and his old flame Zula, and each character's attacks are most powerful against enemies of the same color. Placing one character's item on top of another's can create combination towers that have more powerful effects, and doing so makes the tower defense half of the game more active than the genre's standard. For example, place one of Clu's bombs in the same position as one of Bart's defense blocks, and you'll make a trishot turret that's powerful against both blue and yellow critters.
The idea is to create an extra layer of strategy--not only do you have to think about where you place your items, you must also consider which additional items you place in combination with your original. However, the discrepancy between damage dealt to an enemy by the corresponding color hero and an opposite-color hero is barely noticeable: Clu's bow is almost always the most effective weapon, so I ended up using her the majority of the time regardless of what color enemy I was faced with, rendering the color-matching and combination mechanic inconsequential. That said, combining items and seeing more powerful combinations taking down enemies quicker is satisfying--as is dealing damage with your active weapon--even if most waves just end as a scramble to deploy as many towers as possible, regardless of color.
Most frustrating is that playing by yourself, rather than using the game's local co-op option, becomes nigh-on impossible around the game's middle third; the number and strength of your opposition increases, and the teammate AI fails to keep pace, meaning you eventually find yourself doing all four fighters' jobs yourself. Bart is capable of repairing broken defenses, for example, but he'll only do so if positioned directly next to one. You can have him follow your active character, but then he won't attempt to fix or fight anything. So, inevitably, you must manually position every character in the exact spot you want at the start of a round before coming back and taking them out of harm's way when necessary. But doing so means you leave your other fighters in the incompetent hands of the AI, meaning they'll each deal far less damage than if you were controlling them. Micromanaging your squad becomes essential to progress, and regardless of whether this was the developer's intention, doing so is a frustrating experience, especially when I always felt disadvantaged by not having a human partner to help.
Most frustrating is that playing by yourself, rather than using the game's local co-op option, becomes nigh-on impossible around the game's middle third...
Exploration sections forego the tower defense in favor of basic platforming. There are switch-activated doors, warp panels, and yet more technicolor enemies. But the platforming within is trite: we've seen all this before, with more precise controls and more imaginative puzzles. There are a handful of standout puzzles in the late game--one memorable example sees all four characters spread out across the area, needing to cooperate in order to move a critter through some laser beams and utilize its own power to melt a barrier--but most are simplistic cases of merely unlocking a door or blowing up a cracked wall. More interesting mechanics, such as the warp panels and air bubbles you can use to move across gaps, are introduced far too late and rarely used in compelling ways, while even the basic concept of a moving platform doesn't crop up until halfway through. Worse still, while the sensation of jumping is fine, the art style makes it difficult to see exactly where a platform ends, resulting in far too many failed jumps that feel like they weren't your fault.
At least in these sections checkpoints are frequent enough that death isn't too much of a hindrance. However, this is not the case in the tower defense areas, where death rarely teaches you anything and always sends you back to the very first wave. Death will be frequent, too: enemies are powerful and plentiful, and many are bigger and possess greater agility than any playable character. The difficulty curve is all over the place, with the campaign remaining relatively easy before a sudden spike during a ridiculously tough third quarter, later tapering off again as it approaches its conclusion. Finishing the game took me around 20 hours, despite the in-game clock--which doesn't appear to track failed attempts--saying I only played for two and a half.
During each mission, the game's narrative is told through dialogue scenes--some of which you can choose responses within, though I never felt like my decisions affected anything of note--while cutscenes at each stage's opening serve you exposition pertaining to a disaster that struck humanity thousands of years ago. I struggled to stay invested in that exposition, however, since it remains irrelevant to what's happening in the present-day plot until the story's conclusion, so I simply got bored. You're bombarded with so many gobbledygook names and phrases--The Clarent, The Deathless, Manasa, Hozai, Shem, Sen, Ichor, Vaara, and Aegis itself, to name a few--that I was confused about who was who and what their motivations were from the very outset, and this robs the story of any emotional impact it attempts to have. Why would I care that Shreya has been captured when I'm not really sure who she is and why she matters?
It's marred by a plethora of tiny issues: repetitive voice samples, inaccurate hitboxes, inconsistent framerate, poor AI, and overuse of music, among others bugs and glitches. And these all amount to an experience that is not enjoyable.
It doesn't help that your camp--a base where you can buy upgrades and talk to other characters between levels--will suddenly be inhabited by never-before-seen characters at seemingly random points in the story. Why is there a strange man hanging out near my home, and why are none of the other characters acknowledging him? One character, named Nick, appears about one-third of the way in and is the subject of an intriguing romance subplot--but that subplot never amounts to anything before Nick disappears as suddenly as he turns up. Some interesting character interactions and story revelations happen towards the end, but by this point I'd long since given up caring about any of the characters involved.
Defenders does at least offer a comforting sense of rhythm: you go off and explore, defend a base, come back to camp to acquire upgrades, then go and do it all again. However, even at this surface level, the game has too many small issues to ever really enjoy. It's marred by a plethora of tiny issues: repetitive voice samples, inaccurate hitboxes, inconsistent framerate, poor AI, and overuse of music, among others bugs and glitches. And these all amount to an experience that is not enjoyable.
Aegis Defenders is disappointing because it had potential, and I still think that potential exists. There is satisfaction to be found in setting up its towers and combining them in interesting ways to make bigger and better turrets. And its loop of exploring, defending, and upgrading is alluring. But the game never meets your expectations. Whether it's the nonsensical narrative, the frustrating combat, the numerous bugs, or the simplistic platforming, Aegis Defenders stumbles more often than it excels.