If you’re going to go through the depths of Hell, you’re going to need friends–no, really, you’re going to need several to get through Hell Warders.
Type: Single-player, Online Multiplayer (1-4)
Genre: Tower Defense, Team-Based, PVE
Developer: Anti Gravity Game Studios
Publisher: PQube Games
Release date: 11 March, 2019
To describe Hell Warders in a few words, the simplest statement is that the game doesn’t feel finished, but not in the sense that it is lacking in content. As a game out of Early Access, there is more than enough provided with three character-types, twenty levels across Normal and Hard settings, and dozens of unit combinations to warrant its asking price. However, the far more egregious dilemma comes from the game’s lack of balance as well as not scaling its difficulty fairly—the keyword here being fair—based on the number of players.
Before continuing this review, there are a few pieces of information to preface. First, while the devs have stated there is a scaling system, it is clearly not balanced from the single-player experience before applying additional units or higher stats. Most of my time was spent by myself, and there were no noticeable problems until I reached “The Harvesting Room” in Act 2, which I had unlocked 38/40 beacons (this game’s reward system for unlocking new units and more stats.) It was at this point when I was introduced to the Shieldbearers, and this one unit halted any progress between six or seven hours of attempts. As a result, and on to my second point, I also tried playing with another reviewer, which meant leveling up his character to that stage. Even with this second player, this level was not beatable on Wave 5—let alone possible to get the best rating—with any margin for error (on Normal.) Finally, after asking for help, several players shared an exploit to handle these units, spamming one character’s bombs while dumping all my stats to lower the cooldown-rates. Even with this extreme solution, this level was not possible, alone or with a friend, if there was one mistake made. At this point, and after all my attempts to come up with different strategies, the only sensible conclusion I could come to was that this was not how the game was meant to be played.
As a result of this imbalance, unless you are willing to have two or three dedicated friends play with you—the servers online were never active, and the Discord server is also equally barren—I cannot recommend Hell Warders. If this game was still in Early Access, my criticisms would be more tempered; however, after eight months of silence from its last update, the game is clearly not ready. If you do manage to enjoy this game despite its unbalanced nature, I wouldn’t disagree with you because the core gameplay can be enjoyable when it all comes together; the problem is the game still hasn’t sorted its problems out when it was meant to be complete, even two weeks after its official launch.
This is NOT “the Dark Souls of Tower Defense”
Before going straight into the nine circles of Hell Warders, however, I want to illustrate what works about the core gameplay and why, after so much trouble, I wanted to keep trying. At its core, Hell Warders is a third-person tower-defense hybrid similar to Dungeon Defenders or Orcs Must Die, yet this game focuses more on army management rather than traps or your own characters. Like these other tower defense hybrids, the player characters still play a vital role in maintaining order, but they are more of a secondary priority to unit synergy as well as how to use their placements to your advantage. Conjurers can slow-down fast enemies; Pike-men groups can hold back mobs for a while; and Ballistae can cleave through narrow crowds. Having replayed the first two Acts many times with newer units, the overall strategic, yet simple, depth underlining the game rewards the more observant players who enjoy optimizing their defenses with the best offenses. These glimmering moments when everything comes together are what Hell Warders can live up to the tag-line, “It’s just like Dark Souls,” but this obvious comparison that the game intends to evoke makes its flaws outshine any of its own merits.
Despite first impressions, and despite the idea that the difficulty boiled the blood of a reviewer, I want to emphasize how and why this game is not “the Dark Souls of…” you may think it is. As much as that expression is oversaturated in reviews, this game shares so many motifs, enemy designs, and even quirks like random laughing from NPCs that makes the comparison unavoidable. However, that association was clearly intentional, which can be immediately seen by the three main characters involving NOT the Lord of Cinder, NOT the Bloodborne Hunter and NOT a Lord Gwyn/Smough hybrid. (The last one may be debatable, but the Knight uses fire and the third one uses electricity—the Hunter doesn’t use any elemental-based abilities—so it’s more than a coincidence.) Using similar imagery or ideas doesn’t automatically imply one game is copying one another (Darksiders 3 is a good example), but the bigger issue is when the game constantly reminds you of another game as well as how something was done better.
While some lore enthusiasts may disagree with me, combat is as much of a core aspect in Hell Warders as it is to the Souls-like experience, but the bigger issue here is how overtly simplistic it is. The Souls series may not have as robust mechanics as Devil May Cry, but there was elegance in their simplicity and a sense of purpose behind every decision. Parrying, poise, weapon move-sets, etc. all made what was an otherwise bare-bones combat system more satisfying. Hell Warders simply has mashing the attack button with no combos as well as cool-down abilities with varying utility. Each character possesses two stun/group attacks and different weapons, but not all of them are equal to one-another. The Knight’s shield bash stuns more targets far longer than the Samson’s (the hybrid’s) meek barrel-pushing stun; however, Samson’s bombs are worthless compared to the damage he can dish out with his hammer to most bosses. While there is depth behind the strategy component of the gameplay, the player’s character lacks any substance other than spamming the same attacks.
In an ideal world, these advantages could be balanced across all characters to make them equally enjoyable, but that is not the case in Hell Warders. As previously mentioned, certain abilities are weaker than others (Samson’s bombs versus the Hunter’s), but also some fighting-styles are obviously better. The Hunter may have the strongest bombs, but their default attacks are the weakest and the worst to use; there is also no hold-attack button, so you are going to tire out your hands mashing the same button (and his ultimate ability is to spam even more shots faster.) The Knight also suffers from weak attacks, but his sword-and-shield style and some of his abilities make him feel more fluid. (Unfortunately, his charge attack is difficult to gauge whether you hit the enemy or if you whizzed past them.) Samson, on the other hand, has the best boss-killing tactic of charging his hammer to kill most bosses between four to six hits (there is no cooldown on these swings, only a brief windup period.) Of these three, Samson was the most enjoyable (and the most optimal) to play solely due to how many fewer swings are needed to get the job done.
Some players might excuse these inherent issues by supplementing them with stats, which is what the game tries to accomplish. These stats come in the form of beacons, which also unlocks more units for your army. However, just like there is no I in team, there also doesn’t appear to be I in Hell Warder’s statistics as the actual amount needed to improve these flaws won’t fix your problems unless you dump tens or hundreds of points. (There also aren’t any stats shown to know what leveling up your units in-game does for you, so there is no idea how much better the team has become except higher levels probably mean better damage or more HP.) Instead, these stats encourage finding exploits to get around the gameplay’s problems such as the fact no character deals magic damage, so when you face the Shieldbearers, resistant to all physical attacks, you have to rely on dirty statistics or exploitative abilities, or by luring the AI so that your allies can do the work for you. (For comparison, five or six swings by Samson will kill a boss; it will take ten to fifteen swings to kill a Shieldbearer, and more are required if there is a Healer nearby.) In the game’s favor, you can always reallocate your points at no cost, but it’s a bandaged solution to a core problem that bleeds throughout the rest of the gameplay. If this issue was the only problem with the beacons, then you might be forgiving of this annoyance; however, it also has another consequence on the game’s progression.
The other negative aspect of these beacons is their potential to make you replay previous levels. This normally wouldn’t be something worth complaining about in a game, especially as someone who has played his fair-share of Metroidvanias, except when you are possibly required to have a specific unit in order to advance further. Earlier I had mentioned that I had unlocked 38/40 beacons, which was due to receiving a 3/5 rating on one level; the reason I mention this information now is that I could have unlocked the Flame Magus, another magic unit to help with the Shieldbearers. Unfortunately, I will never know if that unit would have made things easier because the level that I didn’t perfect has a brutal final wave with Bonewheels on steroids that always ruined my perfect run in the last few seconds. (Yes, I also played that level many times just like the Harvesting Room, which they both share a similar problem with wonky physics, knockback and bottomless pits.) There are no level-skip options nor anyway to earn extra beacons, so in my situation I am stuck between a Bonewheel and a harder place.
Now I could continue detailing these many examples or other issues like non-host players losing their saved progress for no reason or how the AI’s limitations will break defensive formations often, but I believe my point is made clear that this game is not as polished as it should have been for release. If you also have been paying attention to these criticisms—issues with combat, stats, and retrying previous content to get good—then you’ll understand what Hell Warders tried to incorporate from the Souls series and why the association does not live up to the name’s pedigree.
Verdict: Back Through the Fire and Flames with You—for Now
Although this review may come across as negative, Hell Warders is a game that I truly want to enjoy someday when the devs sorts its issues out. There is a good idea somewhere beneath the avalanche of its faults, but these issues won’t be addressed if they are not called out.
These comments may seem throwaway after writing up this review, but I want to get the point across that I don’t hold any ill-will towards Anti-Gravity Game Studios who probably spent those eight months trying to make Hell Warders as best as it could be. Nor do I view Hell Warders as a bad game; it’s a deeply flawed game that could potentially shine with enough refinement. I also am trying not to come across as another armchair game critic, but these imbalances are so transparent that I am surprised more critics haven’t pointed them out. (Not that I want to poison the online well, but I honestly thought I was playing a different game after reading and watching various reviews. Most articles underplayed just how unbalanced are the single-player and the two-player modes, and most of their images/video came from Act 1 or Act 2 levels, except one Switch review with trailer footage beyond Act 2 towards the end.) Even excusing the possibility that these outlets only played with three or four friends, which I highlight because they have pointed out that the single-player mode is brutal, there should be some possibility to succeed rather than none. Those same words are also my encouragement that Hell Warders will, someday, succeed, but definitely not today.