Dungeon Defenders II, the sequel to Trendy Entertainment's 2011 Dungeon Defenders, arrived on Steam Early Access this past Friday. The four-person co-op tower defense action RPG (whew!) currently features four playable characters: the tank-like squire, the wizardly apprentice, the bow-wielding huntress, and the versatile monk, each with their own attacks and tower-building talents. Their goal: to protect their central core from monstrous invaders over a series of five progressively harder rounds. Most maps have secondary cores as well, and while these sub-cores are important—if the baddies bust them, they open up additional invasion lanes for the enemy—you can lose all of your sub-cores and still walk away with a win.
Between rounds you can modify your defenses, equip newfound loot, and strategize: each lane gives you a preview of which baddies, and how many, are approaching. Plans, of course, can quickly go awry. Flying enemies begin to arrive in later rounds in their own elevated lanes, and if left unchecked they may swoop past your carefully-placed defenses and land directly on your cores. There are also occasional appearances by special boss monsters, meaning everyone may need to drop what they're doing and flock over to help, potentially throwing a wrench into your plans for the round.
There's a nice feature that allows you to swap between three of your own characters during a match, in the event you don't have a full team, someone drops out mid-match, or if you wind up with three other players who all insist on playing the same class. In the interest of fostering cooperation, loot drops are unique for each player (a change from the original game): there's no need to race around snorfling up goodies for fear of someone else getting them.
Another nice element is the benefit class combinations can bring to a match. For instance, monsters treading on the Huntress's geyser trap are not only flung into the air, they're also soaked with water, leaving them susceptible to extra shock damage. Setting up a geyser near a monk's electrical trap can therefore become a nice automated one-two punch. If someone has set up a frostbite trap, it's a good idea to set up a few cannons protecting the same spot: once frozen into cubes, baddies are especially vulnerable to concussive damage. These combos carry through to personal weapons as well as traps. In the middle of one match I found a sword that did electrical damage so I spent the next round dashing between geyser traps just so I could dish out some extra pain.
Between matches, players can run around in the tavern lobby, buy and sell weapons and relics, add enhancements to their gear, tweak their abilities, check out the costume shop (it's not open yet, but you can see a couple planned outfits on display), and even file bug reports with the bartender.
Though still in pre-alpha, Dungeon Defenders 2 is already an attractive game. The art style is bright, colorful and cartoony, player and monster animations are enjoyable and often comical, and there are exciting, splashy effects for weapons, towers, magic, and explosions. So many effects, in fact, it's easy to lose sight of exactly what's happening when you're hip-deep in combat (it reminds me of Torchlight in this regard).
I've enjoyed my time with it so far. There's tons of loot to collect: just a couple matches quickly filled my inventory to the brim, so consider that itch scratched. I've found most matches suitably challenging, with my team often pushed to the brink of being overwhelmed but still managing to pull off a win. I've primarily been playing the squire, and have unlocked a few of his special abilities: a powerful overhand swing, a provoking taunt, and massive earth-shattering shield bash which is incredibly satisfying to use. Each class has six character specs they can feed points into: I don't find the squire's specs terribly interesting, but I'm told by developer Brad Logston, with whom I played a few matches, that more specs are planned for all classes.
The rollout is a bit unusual. It's available to purchase in Early Access on Steam, but when it officially launches (date unknown) it will be free to play. In exchange for buying now, players receive in-game currency they'll be able to spend on costumes and other cosmetic upgrades, and can earn influence points that let them vote on upcoming game features, though I'm not sure how enticing that is except to devoted fans of the series. Also worth mentioning: this is an online-only game in all respects. Even if you're playing alone in a private match, you'll need to be online for it.