Gemcraft Labyrinth Review
Spare on graphical charms, but superb breadth of content, slow-build challenge and tactics for a tower defense game.
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Bad games are everywhere. On the internet, only more so. Go to any number of game hosting sites, and week to week, the vast majority of their offerings are mediocre at best. And there's not really any shame in this. A web game is often the first step for budding game designers, where they cut their teeth on the basics that will serve them as they try and break into the industry, or where they get to experiment with new game mechanics and concepts without the pressures and risks of shipping dates and marketing budgets. But every once in a while, you come across a web game that is, for lack of a better word, complete. A game that doesn't feel like a one-hour distraction, or the hastily cobbled-together spare weekend project of some aspiring programmer. When I think about web games that I've truly enjoyed, spent time on, come back to more than once, I inevitably think of Gemcraft Labyrinth.
Gemcraft Labyrinth is the third chapter in the Gemcraft tower defense series by developer Game In a Bottle. Well, technically it's the "Lost Chapter", which was preceded by Chapter Zero, and Chapter One before that. Chapter Two is currently in development. So in case you missed it, the sequence is: Chapters 1, 0, Blank, and 2. At any rate, while Game In A Bottle may have funny ideas about counting, the developers have a good grasp of solid game design, resulting in a deep and complex tower defense game.
Unlike Plants Vs. Zombies or Kingdom Rush, the Gemcraft series takes a modular approach to the concept of Tower Defense. You still build towers and traps on the game board. But these serve as platforms for the real game pieces: the eponymous gemcraft. You have at your disposal eight types of gems, each with distinct abilities. The gems can be upgraded to provide greater tiers of range, damage and effectiveness. You can also combine gems of different types, broadening their abilities, though it's a calculated risk, as the combined gem will be less than the sum of its parts.
Gemcraft is fairly forgiving when compared with other tower defense games. When the invading monsters reach the their goal, instead of ending the game outright, the game deducts from your mana pool, which serves as both life bar and currency. At higher levels of gameplay, it is assumed that some enemies will get through. At this point the strategy changes from strictly holding the line to a war of attrition and managing an acceptable rate of loss.
Throughout the course of the game Gemcraft Labyrinth maintains this general formula and expands on it, adding layers to almost every element of gameplay. The previous titles sported 40 and 65 levels, respectively, while Labyrinth bumps this up to a whopping 169 levels. Controls have also been expanded greatly, with more hotkeys and single-button actions to speed your ability to respond to a changing situation.
While it may not be a direct ancestor, the Gemcraft series definitely shares some DNA with the classic Warcraft 3 mod Gem TD. Labyrinth moves a few cousins closer with its open floor plan. Many other tower defense games move the invaders along set, unalterable paths, leaving you with the simpler choice of how best to place your forces along the way. In Labyrinth, however, you can craft walls to alter the enemy's course, lead your foes down winding paths, and delay their approach while sending them round and round your carefully laid traps and firing lines.
Find the game is moving too slowly? Gemcraft will oblige you. In addition to the standard fast-forward button, you can usher in waves of enemies at any pace you like, be it one at a time or (if you're confident—or stupid—enough) all at once.
For leveling, Gemcraft uses a point system. Leveling up means more points, which you then put towards skills. Replaying levels with more skill and at harder difficulties is supported by the experience system, in which every level has a baseline reward, which is then increased by handicaps chosen by the player at the start of the level. The player is also awarded for successfully completing achievements.
You'll notice that I've spent most of this page talking about the game mechanics, and not so much about the art, story, and sound. For all its complexity, Gemcraft Labyrinth could most generously be described as aesthetically spartan. That's not to say that thought has not been put into the look at feel of the game. This is not a world of sunlight, green grass and blue skies. It's a world of stone, earth, shadows and marshes, punctuated by the colorful gems. There's no background music to speak of, just the soft sound of distant, howling wind, in keeping with the blasted landscape. The enemies come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and yet at the same time manage to be almost nondescript. A collection of top-down views of vaguely invertebrate beings that crawled out of a Lovecraft story.
Speaking of story, it is spooned out in extremely small doses. Defeating certain levels triggers brief cutscene exposition, and then its back to the gameplay. The basic setup is that you are a young mage sent to defend a small backwater village and wait to complete some kind of test. One day, monsters attack, and a mysterious path opens up, leading you deeper and deeper into a twisting maze full of goodness knows what.
Unlike its predecessors, Gemcraft Labyrinth contains "premium" pay-to-play content. For $5 you receive extra skill points, access to new games modes, new levels, and new skills to plug experience points into. Somewhere around the 20 hour mark, when I found I was still enjoying the game, I decided that the makers had earned the price of a sandwich from me, and sprung for it. In the end it was worth it. Many webgame premium rewards are the equivalent of handing the player a tactical nuke when before they'd had to rely on a butter knife. Labyrinth manages to walk a fine line between genuinely rewarding a player for their financial contribution and breaking the game. The extra skill points will help you crush earlier levels with ease, but later levels still demand careful attention to where and how you apply your resources, simply providing you with an enhanced array of options. The game remains playable, enjoyable, even winnable, without the additional content, though some level challenges cannot be accessed without the Premium Only game modes.
At the end of the day, Gemcraft Labyrinth (the lost chapter) is designed with serious gamers in mind, despite its casual gamer trappings. It's light on the visual flair that would hook more casual users, but has solid, engaging gameplay that allows you to fine tune how much you want to be challenged.