Developer/Publisher: EXOR Studios || Overall: 8.0/10 | Note: Review includes the “European Assault” (DLC)
I’m a big fan of the tower defense genre, so whenever I get the chance to review a new game in the genre, I get excited. Unfortunately, there’s not usually a whole lot of variety, as a lot of it relies on how well the levels are designed, what kind of towers are available, and if there’s anything particularly charming about the game. The hook for X-Morph: Defense is that it mashes the tower defense with a “twin-stick” shooter, turning the player into a very important and active participant in defeating the waves of enemies.
Back in high school, I used to play Starcraft quite a bit — but I seldom played the game as it was meant to be. I always played the “Use Map Settings” customized maps, and there were a lot of different iterations of tower defense, among other “new” genres. On its face, X-Morph: Defense feels like a fully realized version of those old Starcraft tower defense maps. The idea of forcing your enemies to move around your towers and build barriers was one of the strategies you’d employ to make those maps easier and get the most kills, whether it was intended or not. Since X-Morph: Defense is designed with this aspect in mind, this leads to putting way more emphasis on the placement of towers and terrain manipulation, rather than the tower configuration. The path of your enemies to the core requires significantly more player agency than most tower defense games offer, and that’s one of the shining aspects of the game design. Where the tower placement gets complicated, is that enemies come from multiple directions, and even more directions are added as the map expands. This forces your strategy to change between waves, and you’ll have to re-evaluate your previous tower placements. Each wave demands you to pontificate to see if you can improve it even slightly; the freedom to do so comes from not “losing” resources for selling or moving your towers. Unfortunately, the tower weaponry variety feels intentionally basic, because the main emphasis in gameplay is with the player-controlled character.
As the titular “X-Morph” defender, you will eventually be able to switch between four different weapon sets on the fly (pun intended), depending on the situation. You’ll constantly be encountering helicopters or jets trying to shoot you out of the sky, and combine that with the ground units shooting projectiles at you, you’re almost in a bullet hell game. The towers become a secondary thought in the heat of the battle and you just kind of hope everything is working out… until it doesn’t. I’m not very good at bullet hell games, so it sort of takes the enjoyment away from the tower defense for me.
There are 14 levels in the original game and three more levels that are introduced in the DLC, which is called European Assault. There’s a lot of game, with approximately five to seven waves in each level. The story is an interesting take as you are the alien invader against a highly technologically-advanced human society who make giant mech bosses. The power fantasy of being an advanced alien seems a bit softened when the measly humans bring out these huge machines, but I digress. The boss battles are really unique challenges and have a more traditional twin-stick shooter vibe. While towers are still important during this phase, depending on the boss, it definitely becomes a game of skill rather than strategy.
As you complete each level, you’ll gain more skill points to put into a tech tree, which unlocks things like weapons, more health, or other buffs. You are mostly free to create your own strategy, but eventually you’ll unlock them all so there’s not a lot to strategize around when that happens. What you do notice is if you don’t have certain tech unlocked that matches the challenge of the map, you’ll just be fucked and have to start over. There are several difficulty levels, and it is pretty difficult on normal once you progress past the first few levels. I even put it on easy and it was still hard! I think I mostly suck at the shooting part of the equation, which isn’t surprising. Very Easy is a lot more in my wheelhouse, but it’s not like the game is going to play itself, you’ll still have to make sure to pay attention to what is going on.
I enjoyed X-Morph: Defense quite a bit until I realized that it was the same sort of challenge for the non-boss waves. It also becomes daunting when you see 8 different lines heading toward your core, you’ve already got a bunch of towers manipulating 4 different paths your enemies are taking, and now you have to worry about 3 different airborne enemies, and I don’t even know where the last line is coming from. After the 8th or 9th level of dealing with crazy lines, I just lost interest. I think there needs to be more depth in the way towers worked for me to really see this as a tower defense game first. There’s only so much fun in spamming the same tower without being able to improve them in some way within the confines of the level itself. Instead, I feel like it is a twin-stick shooter game first and that’s not particularly my cup of tea.
Despite my personal misgivings, I think there’s plenty of value to this game, it’s well made, and it has fun terrain physics. Once you get through the trash waves, the fun boss fights really throw in a unique aspect to the gameplay. If perhaps there were some smaller bosses sprinkled around it’d break up the gameplay and make it a bit more engaging since the trash waves take a long time to get through.