Dungeon Defenders review: A mage, squire, huntress and monk walk into a bar

The old jokes are the best.
Stop me if you've heard this one. Four heroes walk into a dungeon. Together, they set up an intricate series of traps and barriers, all of them cleverly placed so as to dictate a precise flow of traffic, and ultimately designed to slaughter any possible invader. With the floor plan of death put in place, the heroes summon a horde of goblins, wyverns, kobolds and ogres – and go to work.

In short, Dungeon Defenders follows the formula of the ever-growing tower defense genre to the letter. What sets it apart is the fact that it gets damned near everything exactly right.
%Gallery-100371% The tower defense formula is pretty simple. Study the map, create an impenetrable maze of death-dealing defenses, and await the enemy onslaught. Dungeon Defenders opts for the more active approach, in which players control a character, as opposed to simply placing towers from an omniscient perspective.

My favorite class is probably the Huntress, who can lay down traps like the exploding proximity mine and the electrifying ethereal spike. She can also turn invisible, which is very handy for assassinating enemy mages that can heal and revive their allies. Meanwhile, the Squire focuses on barrier defenses and dealing heavy attack damage, the Mage drops magically infused elemental turrets, and the Monk summons auras that debuff enemies or empower his allies.

Each class has its own specialty and difficulty curve, with the character selection screen even going so far as to rate each class from "Novice" to "Master." The ratings aren't to be taken lightly, either. The Huntress and Monk in particular will take quite a bit of upgrading before they are formidable enough to take on many missions.

Thankfully, upgrading is half the fun of Dungeon Defenders. Every character has a myriad of stats to upgrade as experience is earned, ranging from melee damage to health or the effectiveness of defenses. And beyond the characters themselves, every single item can also be upgraded, from the lowliest leather boot to the mightiest sword and even a stable of combat-ready pets -- all of which contribute to overall stats.

As a result, the Huntress' explosive traps may begin as small, almost disposable distractions, but they soon become massive, screen-filling bringers of death, capable of felling dozens of enemies in a single blast. In concert with the defensive measures of each class, they combine to create a grisly Rube Goldberg machine of devastation.

That brings me to the greatest strength of Dungeon Defenders: multiplayer. In lieu of a dry explanation of modes, how about a word picture? Imagine an encroaching horde of hundreds of goblins and orcs, and now imagine that all of them are are exploding, impaled, electrocuted or on fire -- in many cases simultaneously -- all thanks to a meticulous setup of proximity mines, inferno traps, bouncer blockades and lightning turrets. And I haven't even touched on the Squire's whirling blade trap (which we affectionately refer to as "Mr. Spinny"), essentially a steel-bladed ceiling fan conveniently located at neck height. The (very sharp) point is that crafting an immaculate defense with friends is some of the most fun you can have online.

Unfortunately, that serves to highlight one of the only flaws in Dungeon Defenders, namely its single-player offering. It's clear that Dungeon Defenders was designed from the ground up to be a multiplayer experience, and frankly many of the game's later missions seem impossible to finish while using a single class. In fairness, players are allowed to switch classes at any time during a mission, meaning it's possible to utilize the defenses of every class even when playing alone. But there are a number of things that make it difficult.

First, every character maintains their own experience and upgrades, making it difficult to progress if you only want to play as one class. Put another way, your level 23 Huntress might be ready for the later missions, but your level 5 Squire may not have unlocked the abilities needed to build the necessary defenses.

Second, while one can switch classes to set up different defenses between rounds, it requires a lot of extra leg work to do so. This includes running to the forge (where classes can be switched), dropping mana for your new class to buy defenses, running around the map to build said defenses, switching back to whichever class you prefer to fight with (don't forget to drop your mana first!) and finally starting the next attack wave.

Now, if you want to replay levels multiple times in order to level each class, apply individual upgrades (from a shared currency pool) and spend oodles of extra time on each mission, you certainly can. Personally, I'd rather stick with a favorite class and have a specific responsibility. Fortunately, that's not too difficult, as it's easy to find or host an online match that allows players (other than the host) to drop in or out at any time.

While you wait on friends, you can always hang out in your own personal tavern, which acts as a hub between missions. You can also purchase items from the witty tavern keeper (he had a fear of hurdles, but he got over it). The tavern is decorated with trophies of your in-game accomplishments, and also allows you to trade your items, make upgrades and decide on which mission to tackle next.

And that's probably the best summation of Dungeon Defenders: a great (virtual) place to hang out with your friends. Some specially tailored single-player missions would be nice, but I certainly can't fault developer Trendy Entertainment for a lack of content. There are scads of loot to collect and thirteen missions to try out, each playable in several different ways. Beyond normal mode, each map can be played in survival or "Pure Strategy," a mode that disables melee combat and only allows players to place towers. Each map also offers a unique challenge mission, like protecting an NPC Ogre ally or completing a mission without using any towers. Oh, and each challenge mission rewards players with (yet more) unique loot. And if you get tired of that, there's always PVP.

If you can wrangle up a few friends on the couch or online, Dungeon Defenders will handily scratch that co-op itch (and burn it, electrocute it, slice it, etc).

If you're still waiting for the punchline:

This review is based on The Xbox Live Arcade version of Dungeon Defenders, provided by Trendy Entertainment. Dungeon Defenders is available on Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network and PC for $15.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.