While the Tower Defence genre might not be quite as big as it once was, there’s still room for more additions if a developer can bring something new and innovative to the mix. Or, at the very least, do the job competently enough to represent its compatriots on Nintendo Switch. Hell Warders, from Hong Kong-based developer Anti-Gravity Game Studios, certainly doesn’t tick the former box thanks to some clunky controls and a general lack of originality, but it does offer an entertaining way to kill waves of mindless enemies with friends.
Following a similar template to the likes of Orcs Must Die! and Pixeljunk Monsters 2, you’ll play one of three Gothic-styled heroes as they attempt to stem – you guessed it – the hordes of hell from taking over a suitably fantasy-themed world. Your goal couldn’t be simpler: erect a series of defences in a series of small arenas and vanquish systematic waves. Most Tower Defence games tend to rely on a top-down view as you monitor your units, but Hell Warders drops you into the middle of the action, a la a third-person shooter.
In-between waves you can choose to place units at certain points in the map by flitting between them, or upgrading them to make them more effective (and increase their chances of surviving). The more enemies you kill, the more glowing orbs you can collect and upgrade your AI-controlled units when that wave is finally slain. You start off with just a handful of lance-wielding knights, but the further you progress the more types you’ll unlock. Archers are your classic long-range griefers, while sorcerers are ideal for slowing enemies down, making them easier to dispatch.
Each arena has a different layout, and the real strategy comes not so much in what you do when a wave is initiated – chaos tends to be the main theme when hell is quite literally unleashed – but how you prep beforehand. If you’re willing to stick with it, Hell Warders offers a lot of reward for the tacticians who learn which corners suit which units, and how placing a certain type in a certain locale makes them most effective. Considering lost units take all the upgrades invested with them to the grave, that placement really makes a difference.
Most arenas have multiple points of entry for your demonic foes, so each wave is often a matter of jumping between multiple funnel points as hordes of demons in various nightmarish forms trundle towards a floating blue crystal that represents your base. You need to keep said glowing abstraction intact, and the better shape it’s in when the final wave is destroyed, the better your score (and your rewards) at the end of a match. It’s your classic Tower Defence set-up, just with you mindlessly mashing the attack button.
The thing is, if you’re going to base your game around an action setup, you really need to make sure those mechanics hold up to constant use – and Hell Warders' really don’t. Whichever character you settle for, you really are just relying on your basic attack and a handful of special moves. Whether you’re playing as a knight who didn’t get the Dark Souls gig, a burly and bearded heavy who may or may not have accidentally wandered in from an audition for The Elder Scrolls Online or a gun-toting dandy (who presumably gets all of his attire from a tailor in Bloodborne’s Yharnam), there’s very little strategy or nuance to be found when you’re actually in the thick of it.
Enemies come in various shapes and sizes, but most tend to just rush your base so it’s more a case of rushing in to smash them or hanging back to pick them off with ranged fire, depending on your choice of character. A handful of types do actually require actual thought to dispatch them, such as dark sorcerers that deal heavy damage and healers that buff their fellow demons as they surge forwards, but most are just variations on a monstrous theme. There are some quirks to certain maps – such as grates that periodically set alight and burn anything running across it (including you) – but most are just corridors and stairways that lead to your base.
Despite the odd mix of tactical prep and completely chaotic wave control, Hell Warders simply isn’t built for solo play. You can play the entire game in single-player, but the whole thing is clearly designed for multiple players and it’s near impossible to stem flows of enemies on your own. Thankfully, you can play locally or head online and batter the denizens of hell with some company; with friends or randoms at your side, Hell Warders can be quite fun, mainly because with four players it’s quite easy to overstock on orbs and max out every unit at your disposal. It’s odd that with an extra month of development, Anti-Gravity still didn’t address the vast differences in difficulty between either of its modes.
Hell Warders isn’t the prettiest of games you’ll play on Nintendo Switch – even in docked mode its visuals really struggle to shake off that last-gen sheen – but look past its unoriginal Gothic aesthetic and there’s a competent (if uninspiring) Tower Defence game to be had. If you’re planning to tackle this alone, it’s best avoided, but if you want to hook up with the admittedly small number of people playing online, the occupants of hell certainly won’t slay themselves.