Thronefall’s been picking up considerable attention and positive responses since it launched into Steam early access at the start of August. This is deserved success, and I’m interested in where the game goes from here – though I have some reservations.
First off, let’s put the game in context. If you imagine a game that takes liberally from the Kingdom series and the tower defence genre, and garnishes with survival RTS like They Are Billions or Age of Darkness, you’ll be in more or less the right place for Thronefall. You directly control a hero character ala. Kingdom and invest your precious coins into constructing and upgrading buildings. Each night you come under attack from progressively more dangerous and numerous enemies. Some folks just want to watch the whole world burn, you know?
Ultimately you must defend your town hall, but for any measure of success you also want to keep your economy buildings standing – destroyed buildings earn no coin the following morning. Your character has a passive and an active attack but most of your defence will be handled by towers, troop-spawning barracks buildings, barricades, and walls. Most of these have different paths that unlock early on (e.g. choosing troop types at barracks) or later in the upgrade path (e.g. the final form of towers).
At night you can move your character around, bolstering defences where needed. You can also command troops to follow you and redeploy them – although without the right perks this can hamper their combat effectiveness. Oh, perks? Yes, as well as the upgrade paths within each level, you take a loadout consisting of a weapon choice, a number of perks, and optional mutators to make levels tougher.
As should be evident, there’s lots of interesting variety in Thronefall already. Even among the humble economy buildings you might be choosing between low but steady income, buildings that grow income over time but require a big initial investment, and buildings that offer a lot at first but decline over time. Barracks and towers have four options each – two of which are available initially, and others unlocked as you complete levels and earn XP. Yes, there is meta progression.
Thronefall’s not without rough edges. The first such serrated blade that ran against my tender fleshy bits was the audio: at night, when dozens of units are clashing, the game’s sfx can blend into a grating cacophony. On the visual side of things, some enemy types can be hard to read; during your early encounters you might be unsure what a particular enemy does in relation to what you’ve previously seen, and later on it can still be challenging to read the composition of a crowd.
The game can be quite frustrating as a byproduct of fundamental design decisions. You’ll often find yourself struggling during a run through a level. Taking damage to economy buildings early on, or failing to invest in them, can hobble you later. Certain choices, once locked in, can prove to be poor picks for the challenges that come later. Often you’ll know that you’ve lost and the question becomes: do you abandon the run, knowing you won’t succeed, or do you push forwards in the hopes of learning and experimenting more? The latter may feel less viable since most of your meaningful choices have already occurred, and there’s no revisiting them in the same run.
Different attempts at the same level can feel impossibly tough or perfectly manageable: a great deal depends on what upgrade paths and choices you follow in the level, and which loadout choices you make before you even begin. Each level features different enemy types and compositions. This means certain approaches work and others don’t, and there is no one size fits all loadout. You’ll need to learn through failure what to try. To make this absolutely clear, I’m saying that this isn’t a game where you can really adapt on the fly and struggle through – rather, each level should be seen as a puzzle to which you need to identify the correct pieces to bring. So, yes, you need to fail at least once – more likely, many times – in order to understand what you’re up against, and figure out what might work as a counter.
None of this is an inherently bad thing. The solutions to levels aren’t singular, and there is still room for variety and expression. Although the game has frustrated me at points, what usually helped was trying something quite different – or, sometimes, waiting until I unlocked new troops that helped a great deal with certain challenges (for example, the Hunter troop).
I imagine Thronefall will spend considerable time in early access. Right now there are just three levels beside the tutorial, although these offer good replayability – both in how challenging they can be, and in the optional mutators that can increase difficulty along certain axes. Personally I’d love to see some quality of life features like an index of enemies, and information on waves and wave composition accessible from level select – once you’ve beaten a level, of course! Beyond that, I am curious to see what new levels might bring. The game already packs a lot of variety and neat ideas, and the boss fight that awaits at the end of the third level is a clear sign of what may come.