There are some games that just instantly feel familiar. For me, Hell Warders was one such game. Probably best described as “grittier Dungeon Defenders,” Hell Warders offers a substantially different setting than the game that inspired it in which you play as a Hell Warder, a member of an ancient order dedicated to fighting the forces of hell, during one such occasion in which the forces of hell are invading your world. Now, the fact that it is similar to Dungeon Defenders isn’t a bad thing in and of itself; sometimes, a change of setting is all that is needed to make an otherwise stale formula feel fresh again. The key question is whether Hell Warders does enough to set itself apart.
Those who are familiar with Dungeon Defenders will likely feel right at home immediately. When you start the game up, you choose one of three classes and are then thrown into a 3D lobby of sorts, from which you can set up your game, invite other players, select perks, should you have hit reached high enough level to unlock any, and so on and so forth. Once everything has been set up and you have started your game, you are sent to your level of choice where you will begin placing defenses, which are represented by different unit types, and otherwise preparing for the first wave of hellspawn. Defenses can be placed freely with very few restrictions and are not locked to a grid. Each wave of hellspawn follows a set path that is shown to you during the defense placement phase before the wave begins, making it easy to tell where defenses are needed. Certain waves will also include Elite hellspawn, which are denoted above each spawn point by an icon representing the type of Elite hellspawn that will spawn there during the next wave.
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A key difference between Hell Warders and Dungeon Defenders is the way that defenses are handled. Whereas classes in Dungeon Defenders can each place a selection of class-specific defenses, each of which costs a certain amount of mana, Hell Warders’ system is much more simplistic. Various orbs representing different defenses are placed all around the map, much like classic arena shooters. Any player of any class can pick up these orbs and place the defenses that they provide as long as their team has not reached the defense limit for the map, which seems to be 50 on each of the maps that is currently available. Depending on the defenses contained within the orb, you might get upwards of four of a defense per orb, with orbs for stronger defenses providing only one per orb. It should also be noted that you can only carry the contents of one orb at a time and, should you not want to use the defenses that you are currently holding, you must discard them, destroying them in the process. Fortunately, orbs respawn fairly often, so you shouldn’t find yourself at too much of a disadvantage if you discard a defense or two per wave.
As you build up your defenses, you really get the sense that you’re fighting alongside an army. This is largely due to the fact that each defense, regardless of what it is, has some sort of living unit attached to it, be it an archer or the operator of a catapult—the fact that you can place units nearly anywhere, allowing you to, for example, line ledges with archers also contributes. Looking around at a map that has reached its defense limit, you really get the sense that you’re part of an epic battle. It sets the stage well and I personally feel that seeing the army you’ve built just before a battle begins is quite rewarding.
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During each wave, you join your defenses on the battlefield, fighting the hellspawn of that wave alongside them. If one of them happens to be destroyed, you can replace it; a small timing mini-game offers you the chance to place the defense instantly, but failure means that you have to wait out a fairly long timer. It’s a fun enough core gameplay loop, if only because of its similarities to Dungeon Defenders, but there are a few key issues.
Perhaps the most prevalent issue is that gameplay doesn’t feel smooth. When you hit any direction key, it feels like your character takes a second to start moving. When you jump, it doesn’t often feel like you connect with the platforms that you are jumping to. I also often found myself getting disoriented or falling off of ledges because the camera would suddenly do a near-180 and face me in the wrong direction.
Combat doesn’t allow animation canceling of any kind, so, for example, there’s no way to combo into a skill from a basic attack. However, a much more problematic side-effect of the lack of animation canceling is that, as the knight class, you have to wait for the painfully long sword swinging animation to end before you can block, making it difficult to play well during fights against Elites.
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Interactions with hellspawn don’t feel particularly great, either. Whereas the hellspawn can affect players in various ways, pulling them to them or knocking them back with explosions, players can’t move them in any way. The only way that players can affect hellspawn is by damaging them. Perhaps it’s for the best, though. I’ve already seen hellspawn get stuck on ledges that they should never have been able to reach in the first place. The grabs and knockbacks, which feel fairly unpolished and sudden, would likely only lead to hellspawn getting stuck all over the map.
There are only four maps right now and none of them feel particularly polished. All of the maps have issues with the scenery being placed poorly, with various objects very obviously clipping through each other, but each map also has its own functional issues. On one map, I walked through a staircase that I probably should have been able to climb. On another, there’s a massive fan in the center that pushes players up into the air. There is a specific ledge that it always seems like you should be able to reach, but you instead fall just short of, as if the distance between the fan and the ledge wasn’t measured properly. There’s a specific platform on the same map that has a crack in it that you can fall into. Yet another map has lava that slowly rises up. Touching the lava means instant death. Because of this, you sometimes barely clip the lava to the point that it doesn’t appear that you’ve hit it at all, but you still end up dying.
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The game also suffers from some performance issues. My computer has an i7-6800K and a GeForce GTX 1080 and I still often saw my framerate drop to around 30 or 40 during moments when large swarms of hellspawn were on screen or a number of effects were going off. Fortunately, the same can’t be said of the netcode. I didn’t notice any significant lag or connection issues during play.
Hell Warders may one day be a rather good game. It’s firmly rooted in a proven formula, while also attempting to take on an identity of its own. The problem is that, at present, it simply isn’t polished enough to recommend. To make matters worse, there are only four levels, which can be played through once within the span of about two hours, and three levels of difficulty. For the time being, I’d recommend waiting to see how development progresses over the course of Early Access.
Hell Warders will be available on Steam Early Access on June 6th for $14.99.