GameInABottle knows how to do tower defense, and they know how to do it quite well; just look at the GemCraft series and the trail of lost productivity and addicted gemsmiths its left in its wake. With its combination of strategy and RPG elements, GemCraft has always offered up surprisingly deep gameplay in one simple-looking package, apparently expressly designed to make you lose time. Now, GemCraft Labyrinth has just hit, and this latest installment promises to be every bit as engrossing as the previous titles.
Gameplay remains the same; monsters of varying types and abilities will approach the orb on the map by means of the meandering pathways, and it's your job to place gems, which attack and otherwise hamper progress, in towers and traps at strategic points along the way. To build, you need mana, which both replenishes slowly over time and with every kill; more powerful gems and structures like shrines and amplifiers naturally cost more to make, but don't ignore simple traps or the potentially deadly power of a Gem Bomb. Make sure to experiment with walls; they cost very little mana to build, but a few careful walls at key points on a level can turn a chaotic layout to your favour. If an enemy reaches your orb, it deals damage to your mana, and if your mana runs out, their attacks turn fatal and destroy the orb, causing you to fail the level. Keep your mana reserves at a high level and you can withstand a volley of attacks, but if you're unprepared one large foe can ruin your day with a single strike.
The core of things, as you might guess from the title, still comes down to your gems. Different colours have different abilities in addition to dealing damage; cyan gems have a chance to slow enemy progress, for example, while yellow gems have a chance to deal multiplied damage. While most stages only give you a few colours to use, you can actually combine gems to increase their potency and give them new abilities. You can stick with the gems the level gives you to begin with and think strategically, or you can spend mana to instantly unlock any colour you wish for the duration of the level. With each successful battle you'll gain experience points and level up based on how well you did, which grants you skill points to spend. (If you're feeling nervy you can adjust the battle settings before each level to do increase the difficulty in various ways to earn a bonus experience modifier.)
Note that while there is a "Premium Edition" available to purchase for approximately 5.00 USD, all it does is unlock a few extra skill points, abilities, and battle settings. While these might make nice bonuses if you feel like purchasing them, the game is still completely playable without them.
Analysis: Labyrinth doesn't really look or feel any different from the other games in the series, but for most of us that's a good thing; it's fairly easy to ruin a solid hit by trying to top what you did before with too many changes, and if you're already a fan, having more (a lot more) of the same is about as comfortable and relaxing as sinking into your perfect butt-groove on a recliner. It's just one of those things where you either love it or you don't get what all the fuss is about. At this stage in the series, GemCraft really doesn't appear to be trying to win over any naysayers (or neighsayers) and seems to be just concentrating on refining what it has. There are a few small changes and additions, but for the most part it's a return to form with a whole ton of new maps designed to eat up your time as you work to earn all the new medals.
Of course, a good chunk of that time is going to be spent choking back a big, heaping helping of grind. Before you sink a few dozen skill points into them, early mana cost for building towers and creating gems are so high that the farther you get, the more unlikely you are to win a level on the first go unless you go back and replay the others to get more experience first. For some people, this is just how the GemCraft series is, and we don't really question it; we enjoy the gameplay enough that it doesn't really bother us ( ... much... ) and we just take it as a given we're going to have to do it. But for other players, the initial need to grind out levels smacks of far too much repetition to be worth it, and we can hardly begrudge them for it.
In most stages, careful manipulation of the map winds up being the key to victory while slapping down towers and gems without planning is the key to shameful failure. The addition of walls is a welcome one, allowing you to block off more direct routes and force monsters down longer pathways that you can line with traps and towers. Since you can pause and place anything at any time, you really can go at your own pace and think strategically, adjusting your game plan according to how badly you appear to be losing. The high cost of shrines means you probably won't even get to use them for a long time, and while the amplifiers can be nice for bringing a level to a close early on, you might not find yourself using them that often in the beginning; while they can help you dish out large amounts of damage to huge enemies, it's hard to break yourself of the habit of just building more traps and towers, or improving on the ones you have.
If you've never played the series before, it might be a good idea to get your feet wet in the original game, though that's by no means a requirement. There aren't a lot of games I feel like I want to keep coming back to after I've finished writing about them, but despite the grind and the familiarity Labyrinth still lands solidly in that category. Nothing about it will really surprise you if you've been playing the series all along, but it's still a solid, enjoyable game that will keep you busy for a long time. So bid goodbye to your loved ones and dust off your tactician's hat; the labyrinth awaits!