Tower Defense. Not only is the phrase a runner-up for the redundancy awards, but it’s also the name of a very specific subgenre of strategy games. For the uninitiated, gameplay revolves around waves of baddies walking from point A to point B and you having to stop them by strategically placing towers (Hence the name). It all started a couple of years back in the mod scene for games like Warcraft III and has since
blossomed well, grown to be one of the most popular concepts for internet flash games. And that’s a good thing too, because those are exactly the kind of games the internet is best at (Tower defense games, not flash games mind you): The kind that don’t constantly need your attention. It’s the great and glorious internet after all, we want to check our emails, watch funny clips and browse The Escapist.
And Tower Defense games leave more than enough time at your hands to do all that, while you wait for a wave to get blown to smithereens by your towers. But since it’s the foul and rotten internet, there’s about a bazillion of Tower Defense games out there and only about a dozen or so are somewhat good. And if that dozen were a team of high school sprinters, then GemCraft would be Usain Bolt.
GemCraft is easily the best Tower Defense game out there, for a number of reasons. Firstly, the concept of deadly jewellry is a pretty aesthetic one in a genre populated largely by crudely drawn cannons and monkeys. But much more important than that, is what the developer Game in a Bottle managed to add to gameplay. The usual amount of strategic thought in a game of this type boils down to the two questions of “What Towers do I want to buy/upgrade?” and “Where to place them?”. GemCraft, by contrast, adds a phenomenal amount of new strategic possibilities to the whole shebang. Not only do you have to strategically place your towers in this game, you also have to create gems to put into them. These gems can be combined to form better ones, or fired at the enemy as a grenade. You can build water trenches, or switch your current gems between your towers to maximize their efficiency. Or you could just save up your mana and spend it on an increase in total mana gain.
That’s the reason each individual level is fun. But the reason why GemCraft as a whole has turned into a massive time sink for me is the inclusion of RPG elements. Your score, you see, doubles as experience points. By racking up enough points you get to level up and spend a few points on some skills to increase your proficiency in certain parts of the game. Not only did this abolish all the bad feelings I usually have in these kind of games for having to start fresh from zero once I finished a level, it also added another layer to the battles past mere survival. Tower Defense games usually include some kind of button to send in additional waves early, but those are normally only used by the kind of people who genuinely care about online highscore rankings. But here, the fact that you get an actual in-game reward for scoring high will make you constantly play the game at the razors edge, sending in just as many waves as you can handle. And it makes gameplay even more addictive, as if that would have been necessary. It turns the game into a massive time sink, but to the game’s credit there’s an ultimate goal at the horizon and the game does have an end and it even gives some conclusion.
Which is incidentally why I’ve always held the original GemCraft in higher regards than its sequel, perplexingly titled GemCraft: Chapter 0. While the new gameplay mechanics work and bring ridiculous amounts of strategic possibilities to the table, its most apparent novelty is bringing possible time-consumption to bizarre heights. Each individual level
can must be replayed a total of eight times under slightly different circumstances, and considering that the amount of levels included actually increased, that’s quite a lot of playtroughs. At the time I stopped playing I had already sunk about the same amount of time into Chapter 0 I had in GemCraft and there was still absolutely no sign of any form of ending in sight. It had turned from a harmless, free pastime into a form of video game cocaine and I found that it slightly put me off the whole experience. However judging by the popularity of similar drugs, perhaps I’m the only one who worries about this side of gaming.
But before this turned into a moral sermon, I believe I had the intention to review something here, so let’s get this sucker back on track. In conclusion, GemCraft is the one statistical success the millions of attempts at this particular concept had to bring up eventually. It’s free, surprisingly complex and will have you busy for quite some time, especially if you want to see the cliffhanger ending. The only shortcomings I could find were no actual flaws but concessions to the oddities of internet flash gaming (like the minimalistic soundtrack and story).
Bottom Line: Either you like GemCraft or you don’t. Regardless, you’re just a single click from seeing for yourself.