Many games take the history of Asian nations as their focus, from the Japanese combat-based Samurai Warriors series to the Romance of the Three Kingdoms games, which use the warring kingdoms of first-century China as their basis. The newest to enter the ring is Defense of the Middle Kingdom, which also focuses on the latter's subject matter, putting a tower defence spin on the warring kingdoms of Wu, Wei and Shu dating to the Yellow Turban Rebellion in 184. But does this title do the rich dynastic tales justice?
The gameplay here is simple – curving paths cross the screen with arrows indicating enemy entry and exit points, and you place commanders about the battlefield to intercept them. As you fight, which takes place automatically, you'll have to keep an eye on which of your troops are running out of health so that you can resupply them as well as upgrade them when you've accumulated enough gold by killing off your foes. This is all performed by clicking menus and buttons on the touch screen, and holding L or R speeds the battle up. Most levels will simply feature a small section of walkways, though some include a fortress at centre, the opposing forces attempting entry from all sides. You cannot move your forces after you place them, so strategically setting them down is key. If you let too many enemies through, it's game over. You can also utilise strategic points, which range from increasing your defences to laying down a small poison swamp to intercept the baddies.
There are thirty levels in all, though they're not much different from one to the next. Still, defending your kingdom can become quite fun, even if it does become repetitive after extended play thanks to its simplicity and lack of variety.
Many details adorn the top screen, but good luck figuring out and remembering what it all means. It's very much symbol-based, and even the quite detailed instruction manual doesn't cover it all. A tutorial would have proven a nice inclusion as well, but it's absent here. The game also features different soldier types that are more or less effective against each other, but because you can't predict which will come from each direction, there's no way to strategise around this and you'll quickly forget it's even a feature.
Additionally, beyond referencing battle names and the opposing forces involved, there's no Chinese history here whatsoever. Don't come into this expecting to learn much – the only ones who will get anything out of this feature are those who know their material quite well already. It adds some personality to the experience, but only on a superficial level.
After the initial confusion of attempting to decipher so many elements, and then realising that it's just not worth the trouble, the game is fairly easy to control and navigate save one hiccup – clicking your men to bring up their re-supply/ upgrade menus. The problem is that you must tap the tile on which they're standing, not on the person themselves, which is invisible unless you opt to turn a distracting grid on via the start menu. Even then we had trouble, some of our men dying because we couldn't stock up their health bar fast enough, frantically clicking to accomplish this. It's hard to select the correct individual when they're vertically close together as well, and even though the top screen says the commander's name and shows his or her face, you'll forget who's who in short time, especially if you're not experienced in using Chinese names regularly. You'll likely end up re-supply the wrong person many times, which can prove fatal. Another issue surfaces when setting up troops on the very top row as their health bars end up off-screen and you have to wait until they're near death before a caution symbol pops up to let you know to re-supply them.
You're awarded a rank at the end of each match, and before long you'll regularly score a C or higher. It adds some replay value to try to reach the God ranking for each battle, and anything to keep gamers sticking around is good as the similarity and simplicity from stage to stage can get old before long.
The graphical style is quite cute and charming without becoming distractingly cartoony, and the sound effects work quite well while the music repeats a catchy warlike tune.
Defense of the Middle Kingdom is a decent tower defence title that's fun and engaging once you get past the somewhat confusing interface and before the tedium from simplicity and repetition sets in. It also won't teach you a thing about Chinese history beyond the names of battles and forces. In the end, this is worth a try and not a bad way to pass the time, but far from a deep experience or an innovation on the genre.