Defend the Rook Review: A Solid Foundation in Need of More Bolstering
One thing that I’ve always found particularly cool about video games is just how much potential there is to mix and match genres. From sims to racing games to platformers and beyond, the possibilities aren’t endless—but they are plentiful. However, even within the world of cross-genre gaming, there is one particular genre that’s always done particularly well; roguelikes. We’ve had roguelike dungeon-crawlers, roguelike deckbuilders, roguelike simulators, and many, many more. But you know what we haven’t had, dear reader? A roguelike dating sim! But, uh, that’s not what Defend the Rook is. It’s a roguelike SRPG—and, hey, I can’t really recall any of those offhand, either!
Sadly, this game ends up falling a little bit flat—and it might not be for the reason that you’d expect it to, either. In all honesty, it’s got the makings of a nice game. The premise is neat, the divide between the roguelike and player-controlled elements is (mostly) fair, and, of course, the game itself is fun. So, what does this game do wrong? Well, not much actually—but that’s only because we’re not working with too much here in the first place.
Of Monarchs and Mages
So, Defend the Rook does something kind of strange with its story. At least in my opinion, anyway. The game begins with a powerful mage known simply as the Magister (that’s you, by the way), speaking of wars with a gold-clad queen named Jezebel. Having just hired the Magister to work for her, Jezebel explains that she fears that terrible things are stirring and that she feels that only someone as powerful as the Magister can stop them. So, they go on for a little bit more, then discuss payment, the Magister sends her away, and… that’s basically it. Like, for the entire game.
Technically speaking, Defend the Rook doesn’t spoil its whole story in the very beginning—but it does give away about 90%. While I don’t necessarily expect every single roguelike out there to have an amazing storyline, a lot of them do. This game kind of seemed like it was going to be fairly heavy on the narrative as well. But, for it to just set everything up like that and not really have much payoff in the end (other than some very generic closing statements that hint at future events that never seem to actually pass) is very strange.
All the World’s a Game Board
When it comes to playing through an entire run of Defend the Rook, things are surprisingly simple as far as roguelikes go. Each run consists of five different battles. The first, fourth, and fifth battle are always guaranteed to be against a particular army, but the second and third are randomly chosen from a pool of around 4 – 6 enemies. Each battle consists of five progressively more challenging waves and, not surprisingly, a boss battle at the end. In between each battle, players can use gold and EXP accrued through battle to upgrade their units and towers (more on those in a bit) and, after that, it’s off to the next battle. On paper, there is nothing wrong with Defend the Rook‘s formula. It’s cohesive, it flows well, and, most importantly, it works! Were this a normal SRPG, I honestly don’t think that I’d have a single problem with how any of this is set up. This, however, is a roguelike SRPG—and that’s a whole different ballgame.
“Variety is the spice of life” is probably one of the the most apt colloquialisms that I could apply to the roguelike genre. Because you’re constantly starting over, it’s generally expected (and with good reason, in my opinion) that things are constantly changing. Part of the challenge is being able to get good enough at the game to adapt to whatever situation that might be thrown at you. But, like, aside from the Ascension mechanic that doesn’t do anything outside of make runs harder, there’s really not a whole lot going on. I know who I’m going to be going up against for 3/5ths of the run, and that takes away from a lot of the thrill.
The way in which the game handles upgrades, on the other hand, is almost too random (and this is the only time that I’ll be saying this about anything). Rather than letting the player pick and choose how they’d like to upgrade their units and structures, every skill that can be acquired outside of the battle is pre-determined from the beginning of your run. And I can’t help but feeling like a lot of these upgrades are either lackluster (small HP upgrades, etc.), or are outright bad (like the one that reduces the number of deployable barracks you can have on the field in exchange for giving it a lot of HP). I 100% understand that you can’t just hand the player ever possible upgrade as that would ruin the roguelike-ness, but there’s already an ability that lets you choose one of three spell sets per run—why not extend that to other things as well?
The Pawns of War
Actual combat is where Defend the Rook shines through the most—and that’s good because that’s what a lot of the game centers around. As I’ve already said, this game is an SRPG—but it’s not exactly a normal SRPG. To start, you only have four units. Each of these units revolves around a specific archetype —the Warrior, the Rogue, the Mage, and the Rook. As far as how these units work, I’m sure you you know what those first three are. But I hear you saying “what the heck is a Rook?” Good question! The Rook, at least as far as this game goes, is what tethers the Magister to the battle and allows him to control his units from afar. The Rook itself has a lot of HP, and low… well, everything aside from HP. And, as I’m sure you’ve realized, if the Rook dies then it’s Game Over. Additionally, players are also able to set up a handful of offensive and defensive structures as they battle, and can even cast a handful of spells to help them turn the tide. With this not being a tower defense, none of these are anywhere near as powerful as the units themselves—but they sure are handy!
All-in-all, there really isn’t a lot that I feel that I have to say about Defend the Rook‘s actual combat. As with other parts of the game, it looks good on paper. Unlike with other parts of the game, however, this is actually put into action fairly well. It’s just too bad that the replayability’s so low, you know? I’m all for fighting the same baddies multiple times, but there’s got to be some kind of progression system. I want to feel like I’m fighting toward some kind of goal! And, sadly, there just isn’t that feeling here.
Build Up, Build Out!
Defend the Rook is a great example of what happens when you have a really solid foundation but ultimately don’t end up doing much with it. While I enjoyed my time with the game I couldn’t help but feel as though I was playing some kind of extended demo. Yeah, it was fun, but it got same-y really quickly. And that is definitely not good when it comes to roguelikes. Would I recommend Defend the Rook? I’m not sure, honestly. I guess I wouldn’t steer you away from it if you wanted to buy it, but, unless they start adding content (which they should because what they have is fun!), I don’t know that I’ll be chomping at the bit to suggest it to people that I talk to.
Final Verdict: 3/5
Available on: Switch (Reviewed), PC; Publisher: Goblinz Publishing; Developer: One Up Plus; Players: 1; Released: April 14, 2022; ESRB: N/A; MSRP: $17.99
Full disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher.