Version tested: PC
It's the best of times and the worst of times for tower defence games. While it's a fine thing to have no shortage of choice, the App Store, Kongregate et al being flooded with clones of clones of clones of clones risks diluting the raw appeal of building a bunch of big guns and watching them automatically decimate a marching army of morons.
So Revenge of the Titans being nominally a tower defence game is going to send a fair few potential fans running for the hills. But to lump Titans in with its legion of apparent genre-mates would be a terrible shame, as its raison d'ętre is to break tower defence down and rebuild it as something new, fresh and intense.
Let's start with a key difference. Rather than marching past your towers and getting blindly shot to buggery, the titular invading Titans will instead make a beeline for towers in their line of sight and do their very best to knock them down. This can be heartbreaking. In seconds, a carefully laid and horrifyingly expensive array of Multiblasters and Blast Cannons, supported by gizmos to decrease their reload time, increase their rate of fire and lengthen their detection radius, can be stomped into the ground by a horde of pixel-art alien fiends.
If this were a tower defence game, your structures would be invincible. If this were a real-time strategy game, you'd be able to move them out the way before death's pixellated grip closed round them. Titans is, essentially, the worst of both worlds: the fixedness of tower defence with the fragility of RTS. This is also why it's excellent.
This isn't a matter of building a neat little maze of turrets until the level ends. This is a game of constant cultivation, the large, open maps filled with several dozen entities that need your protection. In turn, your base – the Titans' ultimate objective – needs their protection, or more specifically their charmingly retro zappy lasers.
So you spend your time and your resources (earned by building similarly fragile refineries and from occasional drops) desperately trying to set up a ring of defences and then defending those defences: building, reinforcing, reloading, selling, redirecting, nervously spending one of the all-too-rare drops that can temporarily repair, protect or overclock your creations.
Hundreds of Titans will die, but still they come. As levels creep towards their end, the apparently endless spew of chomping 2D horrors finally peters out, the frown will lift from your face, the sweat will be wiped from your brow, and you will feel good.
Losses on your side are also inevitably and terribly heavy, although bonus cash-earning Medals can be won if you're one of those beautiful minds who can build a wall of death so efficient that nothing gets trashed. Once in a while, I did hit upon initial set-ups which proved brutally effective. The game can seem to be viciously cruel to its player, but that is partly because the openness of the maps and the build tree mask quite how mathematically precise Revenge of the Titans is at heart. The levels like seem like absolute chaos, big open landscapes for space invaders to swarm across – but really they're filled with subtle choke points and knowing survival techniques.
This can be to the game's detriment. One of its finest features is a ludicrously sprawling tech tree, with each completed level offering you a choice of several upgrades, new buildings or iterative steps towards something über. The freedom is rewarding, but it can feel as though all upgrades are equal, but some upgrades are more equal than others. Ultimately, almost anything can kill almost anything given enough time, but dealing with certain types of Titan efficiently requires specific tools.
For instance, the spectral ones, evocative of Pac-Man's nemeses, can cause you a whole world of pain unless you've researched the Capacitor, an especially unusual turret in that you aim and fire its electro-death bolts manually. Trouble is, you need to have bought two or three particular previous upgrades in order to unlock it, and these don't offer especially meaty immediate benefits – and unless you've played through before, you don't know that you need the Capacitor until the ghosties are at your doorstep.
That said, I did make it through enough ghost-strewn levels without the Capacitor to eventually unlock it. Brute force can get you surprisingly far here. You'll make a dreadful mess, but you will make it. Even if you can't, failed levels can be re-tackled at lower difficulties at the expense of one of those willy-waving Medals. Revenge of the Titans can lean towards the frustrating, but in the event you simply can't man up and beat it, there's always a gentler path.
Titans has been continually honed during approximately 38 million years in beta, and it shows. It's fast and fluid and enthusiastically punishing, while forever offering clear, varied and rewarding ways in which you could maybe kick its arse this time, if only you just tried this, or this, or that. While the chunky sprite graphics might suggest something simple and straightforward, in fact it's elaborate and wound pocket-watch-tight.
The intensity rises at a careful incline, the various turrets and upgrades are tailored to be visually very similar yet immediately recognisable, and those damnable Titans behave in a spiky, murderous manner that's dramatically far from the silent, mindless march through certain death that so characterises tower defence.
Revenge of the Titans is a clever, huge and charming strategy game. While the puritanical focus on retro minimalism means it might not be as rich in visual variety as its contemporaries, the breadth of the strategy coolly grants it safe harbour from the grey reaper of rinse'n'repeat boredom. With a steady trickle of new enemy types, an evolving arsenal of combinable weapons and the persistent promise of yet more new toys on the horizon, it's likely to suck away fat globules of your time before you know what's happened.
While mainstream strategy largely continues to gnaw upon the desiccated husk of Command & Conquer, and so much indie strategy simply slaps new graphics on tower defence mechanics, Revenge of the Titans is, apparently quite effortlessly, doing its own thing.
8 / 10