Retro-throwback is a popular aesthetic these days. Turns out, detailed 2D pixel art, jammin' chiptune soundtracks, and pick-up-and-playability are timeless. One under-the-radar series that's been rocking the retro aesthetic is Gotta Protectors, a multiplayer overhead action/tower defense/real-time strategy fusion that's earned fervent fans. Gotta Protectors: Cart of Darkness is the series' latest entry, and it's a frenetically fun and strategic adventure alone or with up to three companions.
The world of Gotta Protectors is one of those video game fantasy universes where hordes of monsters are always attacking, placing the kingdom in peril. Fortunately, the kingdom has Princess Lola and her magical banner that can heal and protect all of her subjects… except for herself. That's a pretty fatal flaw, but fortunately, she's got a guardian army: the Gotta Protectors, a motley gang of warriors and weirdos whose purpose is to keep Lola from harm (and quench her thirst for monster blood by proxy). And Lola needs to be kept safe from all harm, because there's one other power she wields: a shriek of frustration that can destroy everything.
From the outset, it's clear that Gotta Protectors does not take itself very seriously. Your gang of Protectors consists of a variety fantasy classes, each with something a little off about them. This includes an obnoxiously smug archer, an old paladin trying to relive his glory days by riding a toy horse, a ninja whose quest for unencumbered speed has left him practically naked, a mystic whose anti-social nature leaves you wondering whose side she's really on, and an amazon who is what the kids these days call "thicc," among others. Adding to their humor is the fact that they're all aware that they're in a video game, breaking the fourth wall and making deliberately-cringey 90's pop culture and game references. Princess Lola, despite being so helpless that she can't even move by herself, gives them somewhat backhanded encouragement while gleefully reveling in their monster murder. The bizzare, humorous atmosphere and charming visual Easter eggs scattered throughout (try pressing X on the pause screen) are a delight, and help make Cart of Darkness stand out among similar retro-styled games.
That's not to say that the gameplay isn't up to scratch, however, because Gotta Protectors is delightfully frenetic. Princess Lola commands a rolling fortress-city-on-wheels that travels along train tracks to ram into and wreck enemy strongholds… provided she's sitting in the driver's seat. As Lola either waits or chugs along the tracks in her battle fortress, enemy hordes will appear and attempt to swarm the castle and harm her. That's where you (and other players) come in--you'll need to keep Lola and the castle safe until the enemy base is destroyed, because if she takes too much damage, she will scream everything into oblivion.
Progress in Cart of Darkness is mission-based, with each mission having four maps. After building a team of three Protectors and setting up their skills, you'll be sent off to the battlefield to guard Princess Lola, scurrying around the maps to set up barriers and autofire turrets, taking out monster-generating statues, and making sure that you, Lola, her castle, and the barricades are all in good shape. It might sound hectic--and it is! Enemy swarms will appear at certain points, and you'll need to adjust tactics on the fly to deal with the variety of foes: goblin grunts, beefy damage-sponge minotaurs, evasive flying bat and succubus gangs, vanishing ghosts, bomb-throwing werebears, speedy lizardmen, poison-barfing zombies, and hard-shelled giant insects. Every once in a while there's a huge boss enemy that will require wits and strength to overcome, too, challenging you to employ unorthodox strategies to keep their overwhelming strength at bay.
Gotta Protectors: Cart of Darkness is a frenetically fun and strategic adventure alone or with up to three companions
Each of your three Protectors has up to three special abilities that you assign, and you can swap your Defender at any time. Their abilities vary by class and have many different effects: building and repairing defensive barriers, healing skills to help both you and Lola, offensive weapon attacks and magic, summoned monsters to call to areas of the map, movement and object rearrangement skills, even decoys and traps. Every skill is useful in some way, and learning how to best utilize the--as well as figuring out an ideal skill-spread amongst your team--is challenging and enjoyable. And since skills cost money and/or MP, you'll need to be careful about using them as effectively as possible.
With waves of monsters constantly pouring in, even weak foes can start to overwhelm Lola quickly, so smart skill use and barrier-building while prioritizing which enemy groups to eliminate is crucial. After each map, you'll be able to buy temporary upgrades for that mission. However, these upgrades revert after the mission, and any gold spent this way is gold you can't take back to town to buy character skills and permanent castle upgrades. Is making the game easier in the short-term worth it? That's up to you to decide.
Gotta Protectors' strength lies in its masterful blend of frenetic action and careful long- and short-term strategy. Do you spend money building a wall of barriers or turrets, or count on your trigger finger and crowd control attacks to keep enemies at bay? How good are you at putting out multiple fires at once, often literally? What do you do when a particularly nasty enemy variant suddenly emerges? You'll need to make decisions very quickly and have the action-game chops to back them up. In multiplayer, you'll coordinate with friends to accomplish the same goal--it's a little bit easier with more hands on deck, but no less fun or frenzied.
But Cart of Darkness isn't without flaws, and perhaps its most annoying element is how extremely grindy it can become. Upgrading your Protectors and castle takes a lot of money, and even if you're frugal, you can only bring back 9999 gold from a single mission--and you'll usually bring back much less. For reference, new skillsets for each Protector cost anywhere from 3000-15000 gold, requiring some mission replays and scrimping-and-saving to unlock everything. Missions are also quite long--usually around 20-40 minutes for your first playthrough of each--which means grinding that cash takes time. Also, if you have to return to town mid-mission, you need to replay all of that mission's maps over again. This is a big pain if, for example, you reach a map where a very specific skill would make clearing the map significantly easier, but you aren't clairvoyant and didn't bring a Protector with that skill, so you need to go back, redo your team, and then play all the way back up to the point you left off at.
One of the features hinted at in the title of Cart of Darkness is finding the hidden power-up game cartridges. These games feature goofy names based on well-known old titles and grant your Protectors extra powers when equipped. It's a nifty feature, but even it's affected by the grind: cartridges only reach their full power after gaining several levels in battle, and finding them in the first place requires figuring out bizarre, arbitrary goals on each map. It is a funny callback to some of the ridiculous things old games made you do to find secrets, but rather annoying in practice if you want to find and upgrade all of the carts. And sometimes things in Gotta Protectors get way too hectic: I've failed maps because I didn't see that I'd accidentally pushed Lola out of the safe walls of her castle while trying to keep a massive onslaught of enemies and their magic and projectile attacks at bay.
But even with its flaws, Gotta Protectors is fun, challenging, and unique in both single-player and online or couch-crew multiplayer. Its mix of goofy humor, old-school visuals and music, and engaging gameplay makes for a game that's difficult to put down. Even when you screw up big-time and Lola's screaming annihilates everything, you'll be eager to hop back in with what you've learned about the map and try again to get it right this time. There's nothing else out there quite like Gotta Protectors, and you'd do well to enlist in Lola's security squad.