I always had a soft spot for Neocore’s Van Helsing games. They are flawed, but fun action RPGs with a distinct style, sense of humor, and a certain outlandishness. They also feature some light tower defense elements, offering distraction from all that hacking and slashing. Deathtrap, Neocore’s latest release, does away with that and blows up the tower defense mini-game to full game proportions. While it was available as early access title for a while, the game officially launches February 4th.
As one of three classes – melee-focused mercenary, spell-slinging sorceress, or ranged weapon wielding marksman – your task is to prevent the enemy hordes from reaching each level’s portal. As soon as too many baddies make it through, it’s game over. Apart from directly taking the fight to the fiends, you can put an assortment of traps and towers on designated spots. Those range from your run-of-the-mill Gatling guns and lightning towers to more exotic devices, such as the monster-in-a-box, which unleashes a number of hungry werewolves on the enemy. My biggest grievance with the level design in Deathtrap is that you’re not free to put whichever trap you desire on any given spot. Considering that they all cost precious resources to place, this wouldn’t have impacted balancing all that much and given more freedom of choice to the player.
Not only do you unlock more traps the further you progress in the game, you also level up your character in typical ARPG vein. There are loot drops and a very simplistic crafting system, so a lot of problems can to some extent be solved by grinding. On the one hand, having your character develop this way is pretty satisfying. It is basically the main draw of the action RPG genre, and it works just as well here. On the other hand, it shifts the game’s focus away from the traditional tower defense gameplay so that it ends up between two genres, feeling completely at home in neither of them.
The gameplay further reinforces this: you cannot defeat all enemies with towers alone, nor can you stop them on your own. I do understand that this is how the game was designed, but I cannot shake the feeling that other tower defense hybrids like Sanctum were all the better for allowing the player to lean towards one of the represented genres, instead of equally having to value both. In my book, that makes Deathtrap slightly less compelling, unless you’re trying to work your way up the leaderboards. Barring that, you probably won’t return to a level and replay it just for fun, or to experiment with different loadouts.
Deathtrap is set in the world of Van Helsing, but the game’s narrative is basically irrelevant. It allowed Neocore to recycle a lot of elements, such as enemies, probably a lot of environmental assets, and of course the game engine. While not as aesthetically pleasing as Neocore’s other works, the mixture of bones, spikes, and thorns has a Gothic, menacing feel to it and fits the game just right. Your foes are still straight out of Slavic mythology, and while they are not the most inventive or distinctive bunch, it sure is nice to fight against something else than your everyday skeletons and orcs.
What makes the Van Helsing games stand out for me is their brand of off-beat humor, most notably your snarky ghost companion, who’s never short on sarcastic remarks. Unfortunately, Deathtrap has nothing of that. It’s a surprisingly somber and earnest affair, and it could have used a lighter tone at times. The trailers leading up to the game’s Early Access release hinted at some rather violent mischief at the enemies’ expense, but sadly Neocore didn’t follow through with that.
Balancing is another issue, with some of the character traits being more than questionably useful. In fact, a lot of your skills are nigh on useless, offering for example negligible trap discounts at the high cost of several hard earned skill points. A leaner skill tree would have been preferable. The same goes for the traps. With 25 different traps available, it feels like there is slightly more filler than killer. Sure, one man’s spike trap is another man’s poison gas, and it’s nice that you have a choice of customizing the trap loadout to your liking, but once again, less could perhaps have been more.
As far as game difficulty is concerned, I’d advise you to play the game on hard right away. Normal difficulty feels slightly slow paced, almost pedestrian. You won’t really have to think about strategy and trap placement all that much, and I never failed a level playing on normal. However, on hard the game truly shines. It will have you zig-zagging between lanes, brooding over ideal trap placement and loadout, and force you to change your tactics on the fly whenever needed. It’s engaging and rewarding this way, and there will be a lot of close calls and maybe even a few last minute failures.
The game’s 13 levels loop after you completed them all, offering four tiers of increasing difficulty in order to match your player level. At the time of writing, Neocore locked all tiers except the first one, so I cannot make any statements regarding balancing in the later tiers. The stages themselves are not terribly sophisticated. Usually you have two adjacent main lanes with a couple of branching paths to look out for. Teleporters on the map allow for quick travel, so that you can usually cover a lot of ground in seconds. The later stages shake things up a bit, with lanes that lead to your portal from opposing directions. I found those to be a lot more engaging, since even the tiniest mistake can deprive you of a perfect score. All in all, you probably shouldn’t expect mind blowing level design in Deathtrap, but the campaign stages are definitely par for the course.
The very simple to use editor allows for the quick creation of user-made content. In fact, the Steam workshop is already filled with new levels. Some of those are fun to play, even if there’s a general tendency to go overboard with the monster count, which led to the game literally running at 1fps now and then. Still, the editor’s ease of use and the busy map-making community are definitely worth mentioning.
Sadly, this can currently not be said about the game’s multiplayer population. You can play co-op and, contrary to what we stated in our preview last year, PVP. Due to a very low active player count, I haven’t played nearly enough of this, but I managed to fit in a few quick matches. Co-op is exactly what you’d expect: two or more players against the oncoming hordes, with the game adjusting monster count and even level size, depending on the number of players. Playing Deathtrap in co-op has definitely been the most fun, so if you find one or more friends to play with, that’s how you should approach the game.
The versus mode has one player on the defensive – and as such playing a normal round of Deathtrap. However, the attacker has to get used to a new set of rules. If you’re on the offensive, you’re able to possess and directly control monsters, allowing you to utilize their skills the way you see fit or try to sneak behind your opponent’s defenses. You can also drop totems that buff the other minions, thus adding a sense of unpredictability to the match. I didn’t experience any technical issues while playing the game in multiplayer, and I’d definitely recommend giving it a try.
Conclusion – Is It Worth Your Money?
All minor complaints aside, Deathtrap is an easy recommendation to every tower defense enthusiast, especially with the low price of $19.99. While the main campaign might get repetitive in the long run, the active map making community has got you covered. It’s a challenging and fun experience, provided you’re playing it on hard or with a bunch of friends.