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Crystal Defenders (Xbox 360) artwork

Crystal Defenders (Xbox 360) review


"Even if you have the proper characters on the map, sometimes that’s not enough. You might have placed a bunch of archers but if none of them are leveled up, later foes can shrug off their attacks and rush through an entire gauntlet of archers or wizards. Since every level a character gains costs you more gold than the previous one did, Crystal Defenders becomes one of the most exhilarating games about effective resource management that you’ll find on Xbox Live. A single mistake can be enough to throw off your whole approach."



More than two years ago now, Square-Enix released an Xbox Live title known as Crystal Defenders. It’s a tower defense game. You’ve possibly played one like it before. The way that genre works is that you have to defend your tower from a bunch of enemies who proceed along a trail in a procession. You place defensive troops and you hope that they’re in the right places. Then you set the invasion into motion and wince at any damage that your foes manage to inflict on your base. It’s a fun genre and Crystal Defenders is an addictive and challenging experience that does it justice.

The game’s name comes from the fact that your “tower” is actually a stash of crystals. You start out with 20 of them and you need to survive 30 rounds with at least one still in your possession or the game ends and you’re taken to the scoreboard to see how your performance stacks up against previous ones. There are 12 levels in the game. Each of those levels features a separate scoreboard. Since it can sometimes take many hours to finally arrive at the strategy that allows you to clear a given map, the Crystal Defenders package is more robust than its limited number of levels would suggest.

In ‘W1,’ the first mode, you’ll find the most basic play. Other modes build upon the general concept with additional complications and challenge, but that first mode is plenty difficult. Crystal Defenders is an extremely challenging game overall. It’s not unfair but sometimes things become so demanding that you’ll swear the level that has you stuck is unbeatable. Then you’ll try another 20 times and finally beat it.

When matches begin, you have all the time that you need to place your troops. You can pause the approach of foes any time you like, even once a round has properly begun, and then place as many defenders as you have currency to afford. The developers aren’t worried about you cheating because this is very much a game of wits. You either know what you’re doing and will maybe see your pile of crystals through to the final round, or you’re hopelessly outclassed and you’ll have to rethink your strategy from the ground up. If you get tired of watching early rounds unfold slowly as you work your way back through a level to reach the later rounds, it’s also possible to hold the ‘R1’ button and put things on fast-forward. This is truly a game that you can play at your own speed.

The challenge comes from the constant need to balance your defenses. You begin with 40G and that’s enough to either spread a few characters across the map or to place one character and increase his level so that he does more damage to any foes that happen to pass. You just have to decide where you can place him so that he has the most opportunity to harm his foes and you have to be sure that you don’t pour too many resources into the wrong type of character. For instance, you could get so preoccupied placing general fighters around the map--because they do significant damage against slower beasts with strong physical defense--that you forget to put an archer or a wizard on the map. Then you’ll come to a round where physical attacks do no good, or where you’re attacked by a slew of airborne enemies and your fighter just stands around uselessly because he lacks projectile attacks.

Even if you have the proper characters on the map, sometimes that’s not enough. You might have placed a bunch of archers but if none of them are leveled up, later foes can shrug off their attacks and rush through an entire gauntlet of archers or wizards. Since every level a character gains costs you more gold than the previous one did, Crystal Defenders becomes one of the most exhilarating games about effective resource management that you’ll find on Xbox Live. A single mistake can be enough to throw off your whole approach.

As already noted, later stages add layers of complexity. In addition to new character types, the ‘W2’ mode introduces power crystals that you can purchase and place. When they are dropped within range of your troops, the result is an enhancement to your attack range, power or frequency. You can spend more gold to increase the area of effect for the crystals if you like. The ‘W3’ mode adds still more character types and the enemies are more ferocious than ever, so you really have to remain on your toes if you want to survive. All stages also feature special attacks that can be activated in exchange for some of your 20 precious crystals, and there will be instances where perhaps you’ll have a line of foes approaching and you have to make a judgment call: do you let them continue their rampage and possibly get killed before they can reach your crystals--or possibly take away 12 of your crystals if that’s not what actually happens--or do you sacrifice 5 crystals right from the start of the round to unleash a powerful summon spell that all but wipes the board of enemies in an instant?

While Crystal Defenders features compelling gameplay that should appeal to those who like to see the fluff stripped away so that they can focus on hardcore strategizing, not everyone will appreciate the Spartan approach. The complete lack of a plot makes sense within the genre, but those who buy the game because its logo and characters resemble classic Final Fantasy content are going to be thoroughly disappointed. On a related note, the visuals here feel like something that the original PlayStation could probably have handled. There are many, many enemies and characters and animations that can fill the screen at once as you work through the stages, but the flurry of activity is as impressive as anything gets; attack animations are simple, almost crude. Even summon spells mostly amount to flickering light and static images. Sound effects are similarly basic.

If you’re able to forgive Crystal Defenders its flaws in presentation, flaws that don’t affect the actual gameplay in the slightest, then the game is a worthwhile and even highly recommended purchase. There are some who will spend 40 or 50 hours with it and still find themselves coming back to it on occasion. Others probably will tire of it before they’ve finished playing the demo. Give the demo a download, then, and see where you stand. You might find yourself agreeing that defending crystals is a lot more fun than it would seem.

Rating: 8/10

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Staff review by Jason Venter (April 23, 2011)

Jason Venter founded HonestGamers in 1998, and since then has written hundreds of reviews as the site's editor-in-chief. He also is a prolific freelancer with game reviews, articles and fiction available around the Internet.

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