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Whenever I mention Kingdom Rush — say, via social networks — someone usually responds with some sort of reverence for the tower-defense game. People just seem to love it. Need more proof than a few remarks from my circle of online buddies? As I mentioned before, nearly 25,000 players gave it an average five-star rating on iTunes. Hey, I can relate. My personal addiction has led me to finish every stage and every challenge in Kingdom Rush — three times over.
Now the follow-up is out for iPhone and iPad (no word yet on PC/Flash or Android options). And while Kingdom Rush: Frontiers still has the same strategy-based gameplay where you plop down defensive buildings to stop waves of enemies, the new additions will consistently surprise you, level after level.
No doubt about it — this is an excellent sequel. But to properly explain why, I’m going to reverse our normal reviews format and start with the negative.
What you won’t like
That initial same-y feel
Wait … is Frontiers a sequel? Or a glorified expansion? The developers at Ironhide Game Studio don’t help their cause by offering the same base towers that the original Kingdom Rush has. The basic buildings haven’t changed: barracks (for enemy-blocking foot soldiers), archer towers (ranged attackers), mage towers (ranged magic), and dwarven bombards (explosive-lobbing cannons) — see our preview for more details.
A first glance shows a lot of the same old stuff, and that will probably lead to some early mutterings of disappointment from fans of the original.
Pricey premium heroes
As in the first Kingdom Rush, Frontiers features heroes — powerful individual characters that you can position around the stages to help bolster your forces. Three free ones come with the game. Unfortunately, the developers saved the best for your wallet. Sha’Tra, an alien who can summon UFOs, costs $4.99 — as much as the most expensive guys from the last game. Ashbite the dragon is huge and looks impressive flying around the battlefield, raining fire down on your foes. But you’re going to have to dish out $6.99 to see him in action.
Of course, these are all optional purchases. But to see the coolest units that Frontiers has to offer, you’re going to have to pay.
What you’ll like
Great new towers
Of course, the stars of any tower-defense game are those quick pop-up structures that you set up around the map to ward off invaders. Frontiers’ start off old-news. But once you upgrade them past a certain point, you’ll find the new options that will force you to make some interesting choices.
Do you go for the crossbow fort, which can increase the range of all towers around it? Or the tribal axe-throwers, which can plant magical totems that greatly weaken enemies and stop their spellcasting?
Do you go the route of the archmage tower, which can charge up explosive bolts or spin out deadly whirlwinds? Or the necromancer tower, which can revive fallen enemy units and turn them into allied undead?
Each of the new towers is uniquely powerful. They provide such vastly different strategies that I’d often pause the game to think through which upgrades I’d commit to on the limited real estate that each level offers.
And they all work together rather well, too. I can’t deny the small thrill that I get when my assassins decloak just in time to stop a squad of lizardmen near the epicenter of my firey-earthquake maker while my necromancer drops health-zapping pestilence over the area.
Little surprises to discover
In the last Kingdom Rush, you could find little secrets in each stage — a fish to catch, a mushroom from the popular Plants vs. Zombies game, or a small cameo from the Ice Age films. For Frontiers, the developers must’ve decided that they needed to show a little bit more nerd cred because it’s packed full of sci-fi movie references, none of which I really want to spoil for you here because they’re such a joy to discover.
A lot of them are interactive, too. Solve the puzzle for a certain fedora-clad adventurer, and he can help you squish certain alien threats before they hatch.
You might see a miniboss carve a new path through the jungle, creating a new, now-undefended lane for enemies to march down. You might bribe a couple of drunken pirates to shoot their ship’s cannons at a spot of your choosing. You might stop an evil tribal warrior from throwing a virgin into the volcano in order to stop him from receiving a god’s blessing, which greatly powers him up.
It didn’t take long until I was as excited to see what was in the background in each new stage as I was to play it. Even return visits to previously beaten levels (to complete extra challenges) would show some subtle changes. The game knows you’ve been there already, and the art reflects that with loving detail.
I have every reason to be tired of this series (beating the first game three times can do that to you). And for the first few levels, I was afraid I had reached that point where I wasn’t experiencing much new. But as new maps opened up, and as new tower-building options became available, I fell in love.
I will say, as one final negative (or maybe positive, if you’re the masochistic type): I think the toughest stages here may actually be more difficult than the toughest stages in the original if you can believe that. As of this writing, I still haven’t defeated one of the final bosses, who is a dirty rotten cheater.
But I’ll keep going back for more punishment because Kingdom Rush: Frontiers is just that damn good. It’s not only worthy of carrying the title of “sequel to Kingdom Rush,” it’s one of the finest tower-defense games you’ll find anywhere, regardless of platform.
Kingdom Rush: Frontiers is out June 6, 2013 for iOS. The developer provided GamesBeat with a prerelease version for the purpose of this review.