I have never been good at Tower Defence games. Despite having a blast with my first-ever encounter with the genre (Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne‘s tower defence-themed bonus level), ever since it’s been me and Plants vs Zombies versus the world. And believe me, I’ve played a lot of them. During my many years at Flash gaming site Kongregate.com, I played every game that was ever given a Badge (a site-wide achievement, carefully curated by site staff to generally ensure the games were good), and I’d say that Tower Defence was one of the leading A-tier Flash genres, and I sucked at allllllllllllllll of them. From Desktop Tower Defence to Gemcraft, I failed at one and all. These games were big and advertised heavily enough to have thick guides published by developers and fans alike, and I read them all to try to get the Kongregate Badges, and somehow still never got any better. Short of being told exactly what to do, I would eventually lose well before mid-game, and if I was told what exactly to do, I’d often find myself unable to work out why the walkthrough’s strategy was superior – my brain just couldn’t work this crap out! And that’s assuming it varied in any significant way at all, because sometimes I swear I’d be doing the exact same crap and would still lose. I’m not saying I’m cursed, but believe me you, I’m definitely not going to say that I’m not cursed.
And ultimately this is all bad news, because there are two Final Fantasy Tower Defence games! I’m talking about Final Fantasy Crystal Defenders, which we have lined up on Kyle’s PS3 for a much later date, and today’s game, Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a Darklod.
If you’re not familiar with Tower Defence, I’ll try to give a genre rundown. Defence games as an umbrella genre are maybe a little too broad for our purposes, so I’ll stick to the tower subgenre created by Warcraft III fans in 2003, and popularized by Starcraft fans a few years later. The general idea behind the modern genre is that it’s an RTS where you cannot build units, only stationary defence towers, which you generally cannot control in any direct fashion. The enemy, meanwhile, has extremely limited AI by design, and will typically attempt to bypass your towers rather than contend with them like you’d expect from an RTS army. Oh, it does happen in certain games – like this one, in fact! – but by and large, it’s your stupid towers versus their stupid zerg-rush. If you think about it, Tower Defence is basically a genre that embraces the faults of quick and dirty AI to create engaging gameplay, which is what helped them be so succesful on a limited platform like Flash. Hey, by the way, guess why zombie games were especially popular during the exact same development period!
My Life as a Darklord debuted in 2009, or more specifically: a year, a few months, and one mainline Crystal Chronicles game (Echoes of Time) after My Life as a King. It’s a direct sequel to MLK, and so Kyle and I would have played them back-to-back even if we hadn’t felt forced to push them ahead for preservation reasons. Despite being a narrative sequel, the game belongs to an entirely different genre than MLK, and we’re going to see how it plays with very little fore-knowledge on the matter. Wish us luck? Our first session runs from the start of the game until the very final level of Chapter 3. At the time of posting, we’ve finished the game.
Oh yes: as you’ve probably already guessed, our abbreviation for this game will be MLD. Yes, even though “MLaaD” sounds like “M’Lad,” and all the jokes I’m losing out on with that.
MLD has far fewer pretences about having a narrative than MLK, and it doesn’t have much setup before we get started with gameplay and almost never go back. The game begins with a mildly propagandistic description of the Darklord Craydoll from the previous game (“a kind, just, and extremely handsome man”), finally giving us his name, and talking about how he provided shelter for the monsters of the land in a tower after the fall of the Miasma. We don’t get the full name of the tower until later for some reason, but it’s dubbed the Flying Tower because of its ability to move around. Which… also isn’t clarified until later! I mean, it’s sort of implied, but if you’ve played enough Tower Defence games you’re probably used to the fact that, despite being a genre about not moving, Tower Defence campaigns have you move a lot, often without explanation or meaning!
After Craydoll’s death (presumably his final defeat in MLK), Craydoll invested the remainder of his power in a Dark Crystal at the top of the tower. This power was enough to actually scare away all incoming adventurers, and the monsters might have lived on in peace, had it not been for one loose end, who just now reached what I guess the monsters consider the age of majority: it’s Craydoll’s previously unknown daughter, Mira, and she’s just been crowned Darklord at the age of sixteen.
You might remember me mentioning in passing that the previous game established that Craydoll used to be a Selkie before he became Darklord, and that’s incredibly evident in Mira, who is clearly half-Selkie, half-Clavat. And it’s not like real life, or even the artistic flourish that was Chime’s Selkie-esque highlights on the tips of her hair, oh no. Mira is split down the middle between her two parents, which is so harsh as to straddle the line between audacious and insulting. She looks like fucking Two Face from Batman Forever!
Mira is a giant ham, and despite what might be the first explicit mention of a specific age in the Final Fantasy canon, is also a absolute child, even moreso than Leo. Unlike Leo, whose childishness was the foundation of his weak character arc, Mira’s childishness is going to drive the plot (and indeed, justify the game’s lack of plot) as she stampedes through the lands of FFCC like a bull in a china shop. The still biased intro text goes on to describe Mira as “[not knowing] the first thing about modern Darklord-ing.”
Thankfully, Mira is not alone: she has an army of Servbot-esque minions, a clan of Tonberries. The Tonberries attempt to give a tutorial, and while their advice is solid if you can pause the recording like I can, they end up all talking at once and Mira violently dismisses them (Mira likes to jump kick people and drop Behemoths on their heads), leading a charge on the nearby kingdom without a second thought. Thankfully, one of the Tonberries comes back to give a proper tutorial… or, is that a Tonberry? This new figure actually seems to be a woman in a Tonberry fursuit, complete with the rather bizarre decision to include Tonberry eyes, but to place sewn button eyes above them? I’m at a loss with this one, but in any event this is clearly someone in a costume, probably to be “dramatically” revealed later. She keeps to kayfabe, though, I’ll give her that: she calls herself “Tonbetty” and instead of the regular Tonberry chittering noises, she says “betty” as though she were some manner of Pokemon?
Tonbetty takes us to the main game screen, where we get our first look at the Flying Tower, which has a topper shaped like a heart. The whole thing might look Burtonesque if it were a little darker-shaded, but as it is, it’s just a little silly. Not hilarious, like the game will later try to claim, just silly.
Time for gameplay. In MLD, we’ll be taking part in the preposterous enterprise of invading territory by somehow having your buidings appear in it, and then waiting for the entire enemy army to come to you, rather than, say, ignoring you. This is basically one of the most common narrative tropes for Tower Defence and I don’t know how much I can blame MLD when so many other games are doing it too. Enemies will come at you in groups of 1-3, always of the same type and level within a wave (or at least we haven’t seen worse), and will try to reach the roof of your tower, where Craydoll’s Dark Crystal is suspended. If they get there, they will instantly destroy it no matter their level or Job.
To stop them, you’re going to have to add floors to your tower filled with traps and monsters. Each floor consists of only one room with one trap and upwards of three monsters. The game is kind enough to let you insert the new floor anywhere you want, not just at the top like we initially assumed, allowing you to cut adventurers off with new content. The traps, dubbed “artifacts,” form the lynchpin of each new floor. Should adventurers destroy the artifact, they destroy the entire floor, room and all, no matter how healthy the monsters. Thankfully, most adventurers can only attack the artifact if the monsters are already dead, but some exceptions exist.
One thing that’s important to keep in mind with your traps is that each floor can only host a single adventurer at a time. If one of them is already tied up in combat with the traps and enemies, the others get to walk by for free! Before too long, it’s easy to get overwhelmed as multiple large groups come in and skip past most of your defences! The game encourages you to think in terms of “building horizontally” to strengthen a single floor with additional monsters, or to “build vertically” by building multiple floors, but that’s just an intermediate strategy. Like so many Square Enix games, the game has no suggestions to make for advanced strategy.
Thankfully, we’re only at the start of the campaign, with single-enemy waves consisting of teenagers that got lost on their way to the grocery store. Less thankfully, the campaign starts you off in poor shape, with only one artifact and no monsters. This is bad, since without monsters, there’s nothing to stop adventurers from fleeing each floor the moment after a single exchange of attacks, one for each side. Tonbetty suggests you plant as many floors as you can support (presently five), each with the same Iron Ball trap. Payment comes out of your supply of “Negative Points,” or NP, wordplay on the RPG standard of “MP.” You get an NP bounty every time you clear an enemy, but mind that there are no other sources! This setup is enough to stop the level 1 Clavat “Trainee” adventurers, at which point you can thankfully proceed to the next level. Honestly I’m not sure why this tutorial is so damned slow, but it adds to the impression that the My Life games were meant for children, even though their difficulty doesn’t always hold to that.
As a reward for winning, you’re given two rewards in the form of “Karma,” one for clearing the map and a smaller purse for each adventurer you KO. This can be spent on either upgrades to your tower’s max height (up to 25 storeys) or on upgrades for your monsters, which we’ll discuss later. For now, the tower upgrades weren’t just cheaper, but far more desirable. We’ve currently settled on 15 storeys, since the final upgrade wouldn’t just be expensive, but we didn’t ever seem to reach 15 to begin with?
Level 2 introduces monsters to bolster your defences. You unlocked the Goblin after the previous map, so we can finally force adventurers to stick around and face the dangers of individual floors… for a while, anyways. Assuming there’s a monster in place to keep them occupied, the good guys will fight them, but will also try to escape using a mechanic called the Battle Timer. After this timer expires, adventurers move on to the next floor automatically, rendering them temporarily invincible to all but a few of your attack options. The length of the battle timer varies based on the adventurer’s Job and presumably stats, with some jobs specializing in running away.
Until the battle timer expires, adventurers and monsters will exchange blows. Each character and trap has a cooldown timer on their attacks, and yes, the timer does restore between fights, assuming the adventurers even leave you a gap between fights. No offence to the traps, but it’s monsters who do most of the DPS, with traps tending to provide status effects and other support matters. In fact, the game’s best damage-dealing trap is the one you’re looking at right now, the Iron Ball, and it’s kind of ironic to learn! Speaking of the gap between battles, monsters restore HP between battles, so much so that monsters aren’t really at risk of death against the average early-game enemy. Traps, meanwhile, can’t passively regenerate their health, and can only be healed by active healing abilities that we’ll also discuss later.
As that last paragraph helpfully illustrated, the game is outright obscuring its specifics at this stage, and it’s actually a little bit worse than it already seems! It would be one thing if it was just avoiding telling you about things that aren’t relevant yet, but after the first few tutorials, it also puts off telling you about things that are new, usually putting the explanation at the end of the stage, when you’ve already dealt with it! This was probably done in some sort of effort to maintain surprise when it comes to enemies, and while I don’t like that, I can at least see where they’re coming from in that regard. But the lack of explanation for friendly elements is just silly. When you get a new monster or trap, you get their stat screen and nuthin’. Are we sure these games are for children after all? Good luck, kiddos!
The game hasn’t really gotten started yet. You can literally beat the second level with a single floor of Iron Ball and three Goblins, so maybe I should fast-forward a bit. Level 3 is the first to introduce waves with multiple adventurers, and in the spirit of obfuscation discussed in the previous paragraph, you only get a tutorial for this the moment an adventurer is crawling past one of their buddies, guaranteeing that any last-minute fix will be left without a full charge metre! Kyle an I expanded our max floors to 10 after this level but still weren’t really “playing” in any sense of the word. A decent tutorial would have said everything we’ve seen so far in a single swipe. What we’re seeing here is kind of embarrassing.
The fourth level is the first with an actual nasty surprise. You’re just minding your own business, sleeping through waves of Trainees, when suddenly one Yuke Black Mage shows up followed immediately by two more in a single wave. As I’ve already implied, not only do you not get any advice for fighting this new Job class until the level is over, but you’re barely equipped to fight it to begin with, as the appropriate counter only comes later in the campaign! Thankfully there’s not much you can do and so only a limited opportunity to screw anything up: just throw out more floors and more goblins, hoping for the best!
Black Mages have the power to attack every monster on a floor with a single attack (thankfully, the attack doesn’t hit the artifact unless it’s undefended), and worse, it turns out that they’re strong against our Goblins in a Rock-Paper-Scissors triangle the game hasn’t explained yet! And on top of that, the gap between specialized jobs and Trainees is actually pretty wide! Oh, sure, Black Mages are a little slower to run away than Trainees, which is usually a good thing, though it means they get more attacks against monsters, which is rough when they have the advantage!
You hopefully pull through the Black Mages out of sheer force of numbers. In our well-prepared case, the final Black Mage died just after entering Floor 5, so take that as a warning that the 10 floor upgrade is critical! Tonbetty finally explains some of the details about Black Mages during the outro, though she’s not particularly helpful in this instance, and frankly you’ll get more from their stat screen via the in-battle menu.
You win a new artifact from this level: the Dark Dresser. Yeah, many of the game’s artifacts are based on home furniture. Sometimes, the home furniture theme can only be seen in the appearance of the artifact itself, like the Iron Ball, which is either a coat hanger or a mirror. In other cases, the furniture theme extends to the entire room. But a small handful (so far) don’t seem to have any connection to home décor whatsoever? I wonder if maybe there are localization oversights involved, like trouble conveying a double meaning, always a tricky localization task?
The Dark Dresser is a simple enough deal: it buffs its monsters’ defence stats, and is also cheaper than the Iron Ball. On the downside, it only allows you to place two monsters on the floor instead of three. The defence buff is going to be your only protection against Black Mages in the upcoming level 5 (before we get the mage’s intended counter), and it’s incredibly reliable buff in general. You aren’t likely to see monsters die on a Dark Dresser floor, and can almost always rely on a Dark Dresser floor to do the best that two monsters can do. The lack of damage or effects from an active trap is also a weakness, sure (the Dark Dresser is one of the few traps that can do literally nothing without monster accompaniment), but that price point and durability are hard to ignore.
After using Dark Dressers to turtle your forces through the Black Mages of level 5, it’s time for our first end-of-chapter boss. Kyle and I upgraded to 15 floors in preparation. Level 5 hadn’t given us any new stuff, so it was up to us to find the right balance of defence floors and offence floors to come out on top. We decided to lead with two Dark Dressers to prevent Black Mages from wiping out the floors that most enemies were guaranteed to visit, and alternated from there. This turned out pretty well: the Dark Dresser floors took the early ages down to half health, leaving them easily cleared by the next floor before they could land more than a single hit. But enemies also have their own levels, and obviously there’s a difference between Level 1 and Level 2 Black Mages. Furthermore, attrition began to tell, and in a truly unfortunate moment, the boss showed up when our first few floors were weak instead of dead and duly replaced!
The boss meanwhile, was a surprise in and of herself: Chime, from MLK! Similar to a Black Mage, Chime’s power was to cast group damage on monsters, with the key differences that 1) she’s level ten, and 2) she inflicts Slow on each of her targets when she hits! Our defensive layout took six floors to defeat her.
So, uh… we just conquered Padarak! In the tutorial. That just happened! I mean, I think? Of course there’s a catch, but not like… one that explains the empire’s comically inefficient defences. It turns out Mira’s not actually interested in conquering, because her skewed idea of what it means to be a Darklord has her thinking the only thing she should be doing is to make people cower in terror, and it turns out they think her tower’s a laughingstock, so she’s failed. It’s really not that bad a design, I really don’t get it, but whatever, this isn’t a plot-driven game. The game uses this as an excuse to give us a smidgeon of lore. Mira pig-headedly resolves to abandon the tower, only for Tonbetty to explain that every one of Mira’s powers (or at least her Tower Defence powers) are rooted in the Dark Crystal. It probably wouldn’t be wrong for me to address these powers as Architek, but I won’t unless the game makes it official. Mira thinks this is her dad’s way of punking her, because again: she’s a child. Our new cast, ladies and—oh, I already did that joke? Well then I don’t know, just end the fucking post or someth–