I've always had a soft spot in my heart for Final Fantasy games. I also rather enjoy the strategy and tactics involved in a good tower defense game. So, you can imagine how pleased I was to hear the Square Enix's Final Fantasy themed tower defense game, Crystal Defenders, was on its way to the Xbox LIVE Arcade.
For those of you unfamiliar with the tower defense game, the basic premise is that you have to build up towers along a pre-defined path in order to stop waves of monsters getting to the other side of the map, and in this case, devouring your crystals, of which you have 20. You do this by spending resources, or in this case Gil, which is earned by defeating the monsters. The twist in Crystal Defenders is that rather than building towers, you station Final Fantasy units (such as the soldier, black mage and thief) along the paths. Once you clear all the waves of monsters, you win. If you lose all your crystals, you lose. Simple enough.
Upon booting up Crystal Defenders I was greeted with bright, crisp, colourful menus. A good start then. From here I decided I would start off the game in true n00b fashion, in W1, the first out of the three game modes. This mode promised to be simple and was apparently designed for new players. After getting wiped out on the very first map after around 14 waves I realised that this game wasn't going to be a walk in the park. It isn't insanely difficult, but it does take some time to get used to how different units react with each other, and against the different enemies, and I actually enjoyed spending my first couple of hours in the game experimenting with different unit types. To add more strategies to the game, you can summon creatures to help you out in dire need, although these summons will take some of your crystals as payment. If you have a lot of enemies that have made it past your units, you can try summoning a herd of Chocobos to try and wipe them out. If the enemies are moving too fast you can use a summon to slow them down. This simple little mechanic really helps add a new level of strategy to the game.
Moving on to W2 and W3, I was introduced to power crystals and more summons. Power crystals add yet another layer of strategy, as they can increase attack speed or power to any units stationed nearby, but they do of course cost Gil. You will spend numerous attempts on each of the 12 maps included in the game trying to find the perfect balance between the different units and abilities you have on offer.
Okay, so now onto the not so great stuff. As previously mentioned, there are 12 maps. 6 of these maps are slightly tweaked versions of the original 6, so there isn't really a great deal of variety. I also mentioned how crisp the menus look. Well, unfortunately the game doesn't hold up so well. It doesn't run in widescreen, with the actual play area limited to a 4:3 area in the middle of the screen, and some animated borders around the edge. Now whilst these animated borders do provide information such as what units are good against the current wave, I would have really preferred the whole game running in widescreen, and to have had the ability to call up this information as and when I need to. The in-game graphics are also fairly sub-standard. Sure they look and move like classic 2D Final Fantasy sprites, but therein lies the problem - they look dated and blocky. I would still love the art style of the game just as much if the graphics had been bumped into smooth HD. It would still retain the Final Fantasy look. The only thing I can really put the look of the game down to is laziness, which is quite frankly disappointing.
At the time of writing there isn't anything similar to this on the XBLA, and so if you are busting for some tower defense action, this is really your only choice. That's not a hugely bad thing, as it plays well, and has some undeniable charm to it thanks to the Final Fantasy theme. Unfortunately it falls short on map variety, and graphical polish, which is what is stopping me from really recommending this game.