In a genre saturated with numerous iOS titles where everyone has already picked a favourite, launching yet another tower defence game is at least daring. We've seen soldiers, monsters, robots and even the Star Wars Empire have a go at it, so I'm certainly curious to see what Chinese developer imohoo can add to this saturated App Store category.
War Grimoire HD [iTunes Link] is a tower defence type game where you build an army of soldiers and place them strategically on the battlefield to defend your territory against wave of enemies. The main twist is that your "towers" are actual units, which you can upgrade and level up during the battle and in the game menus on a RPG style.
The decision to use units makes sense using open maps to create your own mazes, but understandably, your soldiers won't move from their position. While old favourites such as Plants vs Zombies or Legendary Wars use a horizontal lane system, War Grimoire has the classic top down perspective.
Just the same thing that made the genre popular with titles like Fieldrunners or the Sentinel series. Instead of the typical maze scenario where enemies follow the same path, in some levels you'll face an open environment where enemies make good use of the AI to take the the weakest route to the other end of the screen avoiding your defences.
Set in a cartoony fantasy world, the game impresses with the level of detail in the cute characters but also its variety. There're six different types of units that can level up to three tiers and can also be equipped with new sets of weapons to change their abilities. This means that instead of upgrading the cheap melee soldier to make it stronger, you can enhance other attack areas normally reserved to more expensive units—slowing down, expanding range…
This levelling system is supported by the gold coins and crystals that you collect during the game. Monsters will randomly drop coins and chests, which you have to pick up, keeping you entertained during enemy waves. I didn't find the mechanics specially rewarding, since upgrades are pricey and unless you are very lucky, you won't be able to unlock a new weapon tier after completing a level, for example. The fact that the game teases you with a technology chart with weapon upgrades doesn't help either and at some point I even wondered if I was playing a freemium game!
On the plus side, I find the tower defence and RPG mashup very original and it does succeed at innovating in a very repetitive genre. Thinking about it, I'd love to see this sort of customisation in a real-time strategy game. The negative side comes with the implementation of these ideas. Being an iPad exclusive title at launch, it disappoints seeing contextual menus using only 70% of the screen. This wouldn't be noticeable if you could jump to the game in 10 seconds, but unfortunately, this is not the case.
There's also a bizarre interactive tutorial to introduce to the levelling interfaces which leaves a lot to be desired. The explanations are terrible and it just makes the game more confusing than what it actually is. I hear that the developer will change this with an update so nobody needs to see that tutorial again.
The graphic work deserves a mention since you don't see this level of character design and its 3D recreation in many iOS games. The Japanese chibi style works great and its a shame that the icon itself doesn't portray this well enough. In fact, the unit and enemy graphics are so crisp that they make the rest of the level art look bad. The design decision to go for a 2.5D world is respectable, but when you zoom in the 2D scenarios clearly lack detail.
And this ties in with the gameplay experience, since the animations don't seem to flow naturally and you can notice lag on an first generation iPad when there's a lot going on. Every character has its own animation, but your own units, which stay always in the same position tend to look very static and way unnatural for actual living beings. Their behaviour is a bit robotic, being completely frozen until an enemy is in range—something understandable in mechanical turrets seen in other tower defence games, but not very natural when your units are actual people.
Overall, War Grimoire does a decent job using successful game mechanics and adding a RPG twist, adding extra depth to a genre that we have all got bored of at some point. Although the idea is great, the execution disappoints and you feel let down at times, when the lack of polish is really noticeable. I'm happy to see that the developer is working to make the experience smoother and has launched iPhone and Mac versions too, hopefully meaning further emphasis in retina display graphics and other enhancements such as Game Center integration. It might sound unfair to judge a 1.0 version comparing them with other tower defence that have been out for years, but that's the benchmark for all the fans out there and we won't settle for less.