After Gregg B of Tap-Repeatedly was so popular last time and got all the girls, I considered two options: inviting him back or assassination. I chose the cheaper of the two, obviously. This time we discuss Immortal Defense by Radical Poesis Games & Creations, just another tower defence game. Or is it?
HM: It is a joy to write about a weird indie game like this. It's what - three years old - but I still feel it hasn't been discussed enough. I think RPS have never done a piece on it aside from mentioning the "name your price" offer.
GB: Which is a shame. I played it nearly two years ago and while I'd not played that many tower defence games before it felt very different indeed. In truth, Immortal Defense is difficult to 'sell' to people because on paper it’s a pure TD game but then there's that story to go with it...
HM: Definitely no problems calling this a Tower Defence game unlike my confusion over Titans. In many ways, it's classic TD. There are towers. There are enemies. You plant towers. They do things to enemies, hopefully resulting in enemies' demise before they reach the exit. There are a couple of differences though that set the game apart, right? Your cursor gets to shoot for one.
GB: Yeah and it has a charge attack that increases in strength with each chapter or at least it does if you hold it for long enough. Also the number of enemies killed by each turret is recorded and displayed at the end of each level - very handy for analysing the efficiency of your defences. This is something I've not seen before in a TD game.
HM: Oh God. It's not something I've seen in this game either. Now you tell me.
GB: Hahah, it's great for checking the efficacy of your turret positioning. There were no end of times that I realised that particular turrets just weren't killing anything because they were positioned badly. So with time I began to understand exactly how each turret should be used. Or at least could be used.
HM: That explains my poor learning curve. I got through a good half of the game just by luck, I wasn't really learning strategy - just winning because it was mighty lenient. Bad placement could still result in a win, just not a great win. And when it got hard, and boy it did, I felt like I was only then starting to learn with this broad tool set.
GB: I keep calling them turrets but that's a disservice to their ingenuity. Each point, as they're referred to in the game, corresponds to a part of the protagonist's psyche, so there's Fear, Courage, Love, Pride, and several others that don't quite fit in so well.
HM: That's the other plus to Immortal Defense. It has a wide variety of points as well as enemies. The points don't map so well to the kind of turrets you see in other games. Sure, the Fear point is whatever other games use to slow down enemies, such as the temporal turret in Defense Grid. But, really, what the hell is the Danmaku point? Or the Pride point? I also like the way some of the points interact with the cursor itself, like scooping up mines from a Cut point.
GB: The Danmaku point is bizarre and very difficult to use but the Pride point? That's my favourite. It's such a sweet idea: it starts weak but as it kills more it becomes more confident, more powerful and from there it snowballs into this fierce little bastard. Couple it with a Love point (a point which has no attack but boosts other points) and you've got a real showstopping combination on your hands.
HM: The complexity you get from knitting together all of these points and the different types of enemies makes one awesome strategy sweater. I was humbled reading your discussion of Immortal Defense strategies over on Tap. I realised I hadn't got deep enough into the game. There is enormodepth here.
GB: There is, but in truth these crazy little strategies only come about when the difficulty ramps up because you've got to start thinking outside of the box. I started the game on 100% difficulty and kept going until I hit a brick wall. I played and played, sussing out all sorts of little combinations but the level just wouldn't yield. Like Titans, Immortal Defense allows you to go back to previous levels to optimise and carry more of the game's currency ('cache') forward, alleviating the difficulty somewhat.
HM: 100% difficulty. Jesus H. Optimus Prime of Christ.
GB: I still had to lower it though. To about 80%. ; -)
HM: I dropped to 20% to finish the last six levels or so. I hit a wall for a couple of months. I'm still a man, though, right? Bugger. I just finished my cup of tea.
GB: You are HM. You just wanted to see what the story had to offer and boy what a story it is.
HM: Hoo boy. Now talking about the story is tricky. This is ultimately what pushes the game beyond a clever TD into something really unlike anything I've played. But to say too much about it would ruin the entire experience. Right, so, the basic story is you ascend into becoming some higher being called a path defender to protect your world Dukis from the aggressive Bavakh. The "paths" in each level are actually paths through hyperspace and your job is to take out the enemies en route while they are relatively defenceless. But that is only how it starts out. Man.
GB: See what I mean about it being a hard sell? Suffice to say that only one other game has the honour of haunting me like Immortal Defense did and that’s Planescape: Torment. Yeah, a TD game managed that. I want to talk about the story more but I can't, it’s an experience to be savoured; to be enjoyed at first hand.
HM: Tell me if this matches how it went for you. I tried out the demo on a whim, I heard the "Torment" comparison from somewhere else. I started playing and thought it was a bit, I dunno, funny names and exclamationitis. I was not impressed at the start.
HM: A lot of characters do a Hello! I am! Hello! but going back and having a second look it wasn't all that bad. After the first chapter, I thought, well, might as well see where this is going. And then at the end of the second chapter, the demo ends and it was like WHAAAAT. You have got to be kidding me. I literally had to buy the game to find out what happened next. What about you?
GB: I saw the Torment comparison then bought the game. Such is my love for Torment. My initial impression on loading it up was that I felt like the game was going to have a very understated beauty to it. I know that sounds ridiculous but the main title theme is just sublime.
HM: I can look back at the opening of Immortal Defense and see how understated it is. But at the time, when I first fired it up, I was underwhelmed. That could be stopping some people from engaging with this. And they should engage. Two things put the story head and shoulders above a lot of other SF-themed games. First, it's the epic scope, a galactic story that spans time and space. Second, the direction of the plot. This is not headed where you think it is. Oh no.
GB: I remember reading that some people had issues with the sprites, the flashy psychedelic visuals and the abstract nature of it all. None of it bothered me at all. I remember showing some of my console friends and they couldn't have looked more indifferent. "But the story!! And the turrets!! And the story!!" Actually I've got a real soft spot for the sprites and I'm glad Radical Poesis Games decided to go with the spaced-out look. It suits the game perfectly.
HM: The enemy sprites are quite surreal and not "icons" that represent their attack function. And the language that goes with them! The jellyfish-like "Coarse" which shuts down points, for example. It doesn't feel like it's copying anything aside from the TD genre itself.
GB: There are a load of enemies too, all with their own little quirks but they can be quite hard to identify when things start getting hectic.
HM: The graphical death-orgasms are probably divisive. Killing an enemy will generate a small little pop. If you're successful and start mowing down enemies en masse, it's like half your monitor is bleeding intense white light, and if you can see anything, it's just some crazy nonsensical blur. You can't even see your cursor during these moments. I liked it. Some don't because you can't see what's going on during times of crisis but, I think, that is the point.
GB: I liked it as well but I eventually turned the effects down which thankfully didn't dull the aesthetic too much. When you're on 100% difficulty you need to be able to see shit. I wanted to mention earlier the format of the game and how it reminds me of Braid. The story is told through passages of text between each level and, like Braid, it seems almost independent to the game itself. However, coincidentally both titles at certain points tell the story through the gameplay, and to startling effect. This is quite rare in my experience.
HM: Yes, again, something that didn't work for me from the outset. But once you get used to the game's structure, it becomes involving. And moving. I guess the only thing about the story is that you might feel detached from it at a certain point, and feel like you're playing out someone else's story and not your own. On his review for PopMatters, L.B. Jeffries commented on this but I think it's unavoidable – like in Beautiful Escape – when you want to tell an unconventional story.
GB: Ah, that was what I was wanting to get at. There comes a point where as the player you become more than a little alienated. From there it's apparent that you're not the player character, you're a witness to his story, so to speak.
HM: True. Initially, there are points in the game when the music swells and rouses you to fight. I want to path defend! I will destroy these Bavakh! Deep Space, one of my favourite pieces, does this:
HM: But these kind of moments become increasingly rare as you move through the game. I'm not unhappy with that. The story is all the more awesomer for moving away from that sort of cliche.
GB: It is. I read one of your comments over at Tom Jubert's site where you said, generally speaking, you don't tend to look for subtexts in most games because quite frankly few will have them but I'm sure you agree that that's certainly not the case here. There's an idea in Immortal Defense which reminds me of Bioshock, but I can't talk about it.
HM: I will use my Ortho points on you if you spoil the plot for everyone. This is definitely Paul Eres' game - Immortal Defense made me seek him out for Punchbag Artists - but the story is by John Thornton. I think some great credit is due here. This is exactly what we want from indie.
GB: Absolutely. The only problem is that, like Planescape: Torment, Immortal Defense has raised the bar. This of course is a good thing, but I can’t help feeling spoilt, like I won’t appreciate anything less. I want more games like this. I'm keeping an eye on Radical Poesis' next game Saturated Dreamers.
HM: The trailers I've seen of Saturated Dreamers don't excite me. Don't excite me in exactly the same way that Immortal Defense trailers didn't. So obviously I'm going to have to unlisten to my trailer logic for this one. I guess my money is down already.
GB: Get unlistening.
HM: Is there anything else to mention about this stunning thing?
GB: Other than 'GO BUY THIS RIGHT NOW', no.
HM: Okay. GO BUY THIS RIGHT NOW. It's only THREE YEARS OLD. It's still on PAY WHAT YOU WANT. If you don't hurry up soon, you'll be buying from Good Old Games. Thanks again Gregg B. I need to go make some tea.
GB: Mmm, tea...
Post-game buzz: Tower defence that begs comparisons with Planescape: Torment. Yep.