Always imitated, never equaled. In the world of mobile tower defense titles, there is Ironhide Game Studio's Kingdom Rush series, and there are all others. Nobody does it better, and they've rounded out their hat trick with the release of Kingdom Rush: Origins.
Origins retains the basic gameplay elements - four different tower trees, heroes, a cheeky and pop culture-laden storyline - while creating a new experience that's just different enough to keep you coming back for more. Hey, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Longtime fans of the series, and tower defense games in general, will be right at home with Origins. Everyone else just hasn't discovered it yet.
There is something immensely satisfying playing a game that just works on all levels. Every bit of Kingdom Rush: Origins is finely polished. The touch screen controls are great, the designs and animations are never dull and whoever they have on level design over at Ironhide should get a raise. Frontiers, the second game, left me a little cold; I played it, but the maps weren't up to what we got in the original. The towers were less inspired. It is still a fabulous game, but I revisit the first title more.
Origins fixes all of that. The maps here are brilliantly thought out. Not a single one feels like a retread of any previous iteration of the game.
True to its title, the game follows the events before the first and second game. Here, you command the Elven forces as they make their way across a world map designed to look like Middle Earth.
You begin with your four standard towers: Archer (Hunter Arbor), Barracks (Defender Barracks), Sorcerer (Mystic Dais) and Artillery (Stone Circle). The simplicity of the towers is key. Each one can be upgraded to level 4, at which point two specialist towers can be picked from, but there will only ever be four buildable towers, because that's all you really need. Other games can overwhelm you with choice; Kingdom Rush provides more than enough tactical options without ever feeling like you're forsaking one or the other type.
Of course, favorites always appear. Archer towers are my bread and butter, and I am a huge fan of the level 4 Golden Longbows upgrade, which can shoot halfway across the map if placed correctly. The Stone Druids, the heavy hitters of the group, are great because at max level, they can provide additional infantry support in the form of runed bears to block enemies from advancing along the path.
Kingdom Rush: Origins is very good at all three phases of the tower defense game: the start, the build and the battle. A great tower defense title never truly leaves the 'build' phase, and Origins offers just enough tower abilities that you'll rarely max anything out during the end-level pushes.
Even on the last wave, you're still in a pitched but equal fight with the endless horde of dark elf and demonic attackers. I lost out on a number of stars because one or two enemies squeaked by my defense when my attention was elsewhere on the map. The game does not require constant attention. Certain parts towards the end can be done on near automatic, but it throws enough turns at you - such as the spontaneous creation of a new path, or the unexpected boss fight - that you'll be constantly monitoring your progress and checking what needs upgrading.
The game comes with three heroes: Eridan, the Archer; Arivan, the Mage and surprise favorite Catha, the Healer. Six more are available for purchase, but are absolutely not required to enjoy the game. Though commanding a dragon named Faustus sounds very, very appealing.
Each hero comes with five skills, one of which is the series' newest mechanics: hero special attack. The new skill adds a third map-based attack in addition to the Lightning Storm and Reinforcements. Eridan, for instance, rains a volley of arrows down on a group of enemies on the map, while Arivan summons an Elemental Tornado. It would be easy to criticize these additions as making the game easier and, by extension, cheaper but fear not, the difficulty remains the same. Having another arrow in your arsenal, so to speak, is simply great.
The enemy units mindlessly marching to their demise are a good solid mix of melee, ranged and magical opponents. As with all games, there comes a point when you're just throwing everything at a particular unit regardless of their strengths or weaknesses, but finding those weaknesses is still pretty fun. Except for the Stone Golem. That thing has no weakness.
A big draw in the Kingdom Rush games are the Achievements. They're fun, pop-cultured infused challenges with names like 'Valar Morghulis','Killtacular' and 'I Volunteer As Tribute!'. Most you won't even be aware you're earning, while others will take quite a bit of time to achieve.
The most emphatic recommendation I can make to the threequel is this: During a particularly bloody conflict while commuting to work, I missed my stop completely. Not in a 'oh, I'll just get out here and walk the few blocks' kind of missing a stop New Yorkers often do, but the 'Christ almighty, I was supposed to get off four stops ago.' A lot of handheld games are designed to grab your interest for only a few fleeting moments here and there. Kingdom Rush: Origins wants all of you, and you will gladly give of yourself freely.
Kingdom Rush: Origins was reviewed on an iPhone 5S with a code provided by the publisher. It is now available for iOS, Android and Amazon for $2.99, with an iPad version going for $4.99. It's worth every penny.
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