For players looking to get a quick strategy fix, nothing is better than a good tower defence game. With roots as far back as Space Invaders (which can arguably be included in the genre as the player’s ship defends the base of the screen), the genre has seen many twists and turns over the years in the core concept of protecting a target from waves of enemies: units were given an adorable makeover in Plants vs. Zombies, PixelJunk Monsters added playable characters alongside the towers, and Orcs Must Die changed the perspective entirely. Despite the genre’s huge popularity, with the mobile storefronts filled to the brim with different variants, I have never encountered anything that plays quite like Core Defense: Prelude. Developed by Ehmprah, the inclusion of roguelike elements into this tower defence game makes for an enticing combination.
The goal of Core Defense: Prelude is to protect the titular core, a glowing blue orb placed squarely in the centre of the screen. Enemies can spawn from all four corners of the screen, requiring the player to place walls and towers cleverly to slow down the march of the monsters. The twist, however, is that the player does not get access to all towers right away: a randomised choice of three devices is presented at the beginning of the game, with another choice earned after every wave. With no knowledge of what options will be unlocked, the player is forced to adapt their strategy on the fly, with only the most flexible thinkers able to survive the 50 waves of enemies.
Setting Core Defense: Prelude apart from its contemporaries is the incredibly limited resources: whereas most tower defence games will involve generating some kind of currency to purchase towers, such as sunlight in Plants vs. Zombies, here tower choice is solely determined by the picks made in-between rounds. Furthermore, only one of each kind of tower can be placed, with seven towers total permitted per run. This limitation seems incredibly restrictive at first, but makes for interesting play. In one run, a lucky player might obtain the Repeater right away, with its rapid firing rate annihilating early enemies. Another attempt might be working with the trickier Boom Blaster, which is great for big groups of enemies but does little damage to each individual creature. The position of towers and walls can be shuffled around between waves, eventually creating intricate mazes for the mobs to weave through.
Aside from picking which towers will be used for a run, the choice in each round also extends to options for upgrading the buildings, adding universal buffs, and even increasing the odds of a rare option appearing. These factors make each choice feel important, a careful consideration of which units should be prioritised. To take every new tower as it appears is tempting, but focusing on upgrading a single building also has its merits. A fresh run of the game also randomises the enemies that appear, so following the same strategy each time will rarely work.
Core Defense: Prelude falls into a lovely ebb and flow of carefully sculpting a pathway of towers, and then refining the plan as the enemies increase in complexity. The interface is nice and clean, with swapping towers being quick and easy to accomplish. The choice card system is interesting and addictive, with each wave bringing something new. That the game ends abruptly at the end of the 20th wave, then, is disappointing. The game is intended as a demo for the full experience, but as the turn counter at the bottom is counting towards 50, getting suddenly yanked out at less than halfway through is jarring. Furthermore, this reduction in length reduces the chance to show off the strategy and complexity of the game’s systems: I reloaded the game three times to try different approaches, but with the aggressive manner the game force-quits you out, I doubt many other players would do the same. This abrupt ending could be improved in a number of ways: if the game is to retain the 20 turn limit, a tougher boss on the final wave along with a victory screen and an encouragement to try again would show the game in a much brighter light. Alternatively, the game could let the player through the complete 50 waves, but limit which towers and power ups can appear, a ‘lite’ version of the experience that would still entice players to get the full version. Either way, the current ending leaves a sour note on what is otherwise an enjoyable experience.
Core Defense: Prelude is a well-designed tower defence that takes a unique approach to the genre. The addition of randomised elements keep each run fresh and interesting, and rearranging towers between waves allows for a lot of strategic flexibility. The end of the demo could certainly use reworking, but the gameplay itself is extremely solid. If you would like to support the developer, the full version of the game is available on itch.io, and will also be on Steam in the near future.
Next week, we will be playing The Black Rose, a psychological horror game about a date gone wrong. The game can be downloaded from itch.io here. Discussions are happening in the Discord server, or you can email me here.