Square Enix makes its debut on the App Store with Crystal Defenders, a noble attempt to carve out some space in the increasingly crowded tower defense genre. Crystal Defenders is based on the decades-old Final Fantasy series of role-playing games, and fans of that series will find plenty of recognizable characters and music to stoke their nostalgia. Fortunately, the game goes beyond mere fan service to sprinkle some new tricks onto what is otherwise a very solid defense clone. Still, the game is held back from greatness by a poor control scheme and a lack of content.
Crystal Defenders borrows most of its look from the Final Fantasy Tactics series of games. Familiar units such as the Dragoon, Black Mage and Archer fill familiar tower defense rolls, each providing some combination of damage, range and elemental attacks that have more or less effect on the variety of enemies that the game throws at you. Crystal Defenders decides to confine all of the enemies to preset paths, so the challenge comes from efficiently placing your defenders, rather than constructing a maze. Standard mechanics for upgrading and buying new units do not deviate much from the standards of the genre.
Crystal Defenders mixes things up a bit by adding “power crystals” to the game. They are built like any other unit, but provide stat boosts to the units near them rather than doing any damage themselves. These can be used in powerful combinations to have a profound impact on the game. Also, the “Thief” unit is an interesting addition that does no damage himself, but instead doubles the amount of gold dropped by a slain enemy within his range. You also have the option of sacrificing five of your twenty life crystals for a magic spell that can either damage all the enemies on the screen, or temporarily boost the effectiveness of your units.
We found Crystal Defenders to be very challenging. The very first level took many plays to beat, even for those of us that have played a number of similar games. This is probably a good thing, considering there are not that many levels. The game provides no progression or storyline, but rather lets you jump into any of the twelve levels in the game right from the get-go. These levels are broken up into three groups that each have slightly different sets of units and power crystals for you to use. It’s too bad that many of the levels feel pretty similar and many of the units that differ between the three groups play identically and are different in name and appearance only.
Crystal Defenders’ biggest misstep is its control scheme. The developers decided to ignore all of the good examples of how to control this type of game with a touch screen. Instead, the entire bottom half of the screen is occupied by a four-directional touch controller that moves a cursor around the top half of the screen. This makes the visible play area much smaller and cramps the board. You can turn your device sideways to watch a wave using the full screen–in fast motion if you wish–but this ends up being awkward if you do need to tilt your device back quickly to build a unit or cast a spell.
Crystal Defenders is a strange package overall. It faithfully reproduces the look of the Final Fantasy Tactics series, but is totally devoid of the storytelling that Square Enix is famous for. The game nails the basic Tower Defense gameplay, and even tosses in some novel ideas, but the ungainly and amateurish controls damage the experience. So where does it fit? Well, it’s easy to recommend to Final Fantasy fans, or to anyone that simply can’t get enough tower defense clones. However, it is probably not the best place for beginners to jump in, nor is it the best value at $7.99. A few more levels and a redesign of the controls would make it much easier to recommend.