The tower defense concept is a difficult one to get right, with only the cream of the crop – like Plants vs Zombies – able to bring longevity to a generally repetitive game loop. Developers HugePixel, whom you may recognise from the Lord of the Click series, are looking to provide a tower defense with a slight twist. Could Road Stones deliver something new for a path well-trodden, or is it lacking direction and the ability to hook you in?
Let’s get the story out of the way first, which tells the tale of a magical kingdom in peril as forces of the undead are marching towards it. Only the mage can protect it through the use of crystals, and that’s your lot in terms of narrative for Road Stones. A mere five uninspiring storyboard panels, featuring bland artwork, that might as well not be present in truth. Nevertheless, the gameplay itself could be the saviour.
There are twelve levels in total, all of which see you assume the role of the mighty mage from an isometric perspective. The mage has the ability to roam each static woodland area, placing powerful crystals anywhere on the battlefield. Starting with a single blue crystal, it must ideally be in a position where it can target incoming enemies. Enemy routes are clearly mapped out, but it’s fine even if you need to make strategic adjustments once more crystals are in play as it offers complete freedom to pick up and move them at will.
The main mission differs between levels: either riding the storm as a number of undead waves come your way or defeating a boss-like enemy, while endless waves back it up. It is nothing revolutionary, however multiple threats are sure to keep you on your toes and ensure a challenge is to be had. At times it does feel almost impossible to deal with them though, especially when the toughest foes always emerge in the earlier waves. It also leaves little chance to prepare for them as earning upgrades and additional crystals is a chore.
In order to acquire such things, you must collect energy orbs which spawn on the map; as you collect one, another pops up somewhere else. Now, it’s not a bad idea in principle, but the number of orbs needed can hit the dizzy heights of twenty and the mage isn’t the fastest of characters. This limits the amount of upgrades you can earn during the periods in which they’re needed the most. I’d call it an unnecessary distraction, made worse by rogue enemies thrown into the mix with the sole purpose of damaging the mage. Surprisingly, the mage cannot fight back.
Sure, you can bring in knight and witch characters to tackle the wandering enemies, but it’s a waste of the orb acquisitions. Bringing in extra crystals that do greater damage, slow monsters down, and fire faster, are much more important. The options are limited in the early levels, offering a mere fifteen choices compared to the end-game where a whopping seventy are on hand. By that point it is cool to have bombs, mines, and crystals that attack multiple enemies with each projectile launched.
If you can luck out with orb spawns nearby each other, or draft in the orb helper which eventually unlocks, and resist the excruciating difficulty at the beginning of each level, then later waves are a breeze. It’s a bizarre difficulty spike that could put people off, followed by excess thumb twiddling as your contraptions take out the remaining waves of enemies.
In regards to enemies, the designs are fine without being overly exciting. Once you’ve seen one rat, troll or skeleton, you’ve seen them all. There certainly could be further variety throughout, which extends to the maps themselves too. It’s all very similar with an abundance of cartoon woodlands, each having slightly different path routes as a differential factor.
Ultimately, Road Stones is not a great tower defense game, but a cheap and slightly cheerful one. The freedom proposed by the gameplay is decent, with lots of upgrades eventually at your disposal to increase the joy of defeating monsters. The difficulty is completely skewed though, causing frustration when your resources are limited. Meanwhile, orb collecting becomes a chore, leaving you to try and keep an eye on the enemies as you gather enough orbs to get some help.
For under a fiver, Road Stones might give you something to do for a few hours, or you might want to give up at the first hurdle. It’s a risk.
Road Stones is available to buy on the Xbox Store