Some things will never change. Undefined's Protector series is clearly not one of those things. Little Protectors, the latest release, is still a tower defense game, but apart from the control scheme, that's where the similarities end. Ready to fight some Big Butts and Burny Men?
The game primarily uses the mouse, plus the [shift] to place multiples of the same unit and [spacebar] to cancel placement. You still face down waves of elemental-based enemies, hire your units with gold, and you have a set number of lives each level that decrease if an enemy reaches the other side of the map. Fend them off, and you'll gain treasure and ultimately a skill point to boost your unit abilities.
That's where the similarities with the rest of the series ends. Now, you have three basic units: the warrior, the mage and the archer. Little Protectors does away with the level system of its predecessors and replaces it with items, or toys as they're called in-game. Each class has their own specific weapons and equipment and all of the items have their own effects. In addition, most items add to the unit a buff that could slow enemies down, steal lives or teleport the enemy back to the start of the path. How do you get these toys? Well, that's Little Protector's biggest change.
Before you just had gold to worry about, now there's four additional resources: wood, metal, crystals and souls. Except for souls, which you earn by killing enemies, you get some resources to start out with, but they'll run out quickly, so you'll have to have units harvest them by attacking resource points on the map. When you have enough resources you can click on a unit, hit the craft item button and make yourself a new weapon or piece of equipment. In the beginning, there won't be a lot to choose from, but as you complete maps more and more blueprints become available and you get more and more options for customizing your units. Accessories can be looted from enemies, and you've even got a mana pool and some spells on hand to help knock them down.
Analysis: Gameplay is so different it almost feels like it's from another series, and luckily the changes are all fun and put a new spin on the series and the genre. This time around there are no flying enemies, which means there's no longer rounds where your warriors will sit there like lumps. Also, no more paving! You can put your units anywhere the grass is green.
In addition to all those new features, Little Protectors brings in a brand new aesthetic in the form of a top-down view and softer environments that are reminiscent of SNES graphics. The enemies are look cartoony, to be more suitable for the li'l killers, and instead of flying eyeballs and rats, you get pink elephants and snowmen. A lot of attention has been paid to small details, too. The weapon a unit holds changes to reflect the weapon you equip it with and the armors can radically change a unit's appearance.
There are a few annoyances. There's only a handful of achievements and they're very generic, most concerning how much of a resource you have or how many times a unit has attacked. A more gameplay-pertinent problem is if you equip an item on a unit, it's marked as belonging to that unit and can't be equipped on a different unit. This makes sense from a balance perspective. Since you can equip your units while paused, you could easily pass a damage boosting accessory down the line as needed. However, sometimes you'll get units with the same name on a map, so if you're switching equipment out you have to figure out which fire elemental spellbook belongs to which Jorrell. A bigger annoyance is the fact that only one unit can be harvesting resources at a time. This means you'll have to decide which resource you need more and you'll often have units out of enemy range doing nothing because the resource you need isn't near them. Finally, it feels like you never have enough mana to make it worthwhile. You'll get a few spells off, but then it's spent and the regeneration rate is so slow that it rarely works its way back up.
The biggest drawback to Little Protectors is difficulty. The game can be absolutely punishing sometimes if you're not playing it the way it wants to be played. You can get stuck on maps if you aren't using the "correct" strategy, and it doesn't help that there's a ton of variables that could be tripping you up. Are your skill points invested right? Do you have the right equipment for the map? Are your units placed in the best positions? It can be discouraging, but fortunately you can always reinvest skill points and try another method.
Fortunately, with so many ways to customize a unit it can be fun figuring out the right way to beat a map, since unlocking new blueprints is a great motivator. Even nicer, as we saw with Protector IV Undefined is very open to player comments. As a developer they've shown that while they want their games to be a challenge, they also want them to be enjoyable for everyone. If everyone seems to be in agreement about something in the game, it won't be surprising if Undefined gives it a little tweak.
The Protector series has always had this strange power. It can knock you down, endlessly beat you and call you stupid, but you keep playing it because it's a good game, and despite the punishment it's a lot of fun. All the new changes just make it more fun to feast on Little Protectors' knuckle sandwiches. Enjoy it and remember little protectors our are future, teach them well and let them lead the way.