While not as big of a fan of the genre as I once was, the tower defense genre has always been one that I have enjoyed. I really got into the genre when it started to become a big genre for custom maps in RTS games. For a long time I have been curious about what a tower defense game would play like if you had the opportunity to gather the resources that you use to build towers. This is what first intrigued me about Ancient Islands as I really wanted to see what this type of tower defense game would play like. Ancient Islands has some interesting ideas and has some elements that fans of the old games from the genre will likely enjoy, even if it has its own share of issues preventing it from being anything more than an average tower defense game.
In many ways Ancient Islands is what I would consider an old-school tower defense game. Anyone who has played a tower defense game before will have a good idea of what you need to do in the game. You basically will build towers in order to defeat enemies that are closing in on your city. The game has predetermined locations spread around the map where you can place towers. The game has a number of different towers which deal different types of damage and have other effects on enemies. The towers can also be upgraded to deal more damage along with other beneficial effects. If an enemy reaches your gates, they will begin attacking it. Should your gates be destroyed, you will lose. If you survive all of the waves of enemies, you will receive a reward based on how much damage enemies were able to deal to your gates.
One unique thing about Ancient Islands is that it introduces a resource gathering mechanic into the tower defense genre. Inside your town area you can construct a number of buildings which will regularly acquire the corresponding type of resource for you. The more buildings of a type as well as how much you upgrade them will increase the rate in which you will acquire the corresponding resource. Some of the levels will not have deposits of one of the types of resources so you will have to trade in one type of resource to acquire the resource that you are lacking.
When you complete a mission you will receive stars based on how well you did. These stars can be used to purchase abilities from the skill tree which improve things such as acquiring resources to improving the damage or other abilities of your offensive towers. Between levels you can also create specialized tactics which you can then apply to specific towers. Tactics basically allow you to tell towers what they should prioritize when attacking enemies.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, the thing that initially intrigued me about Ancient Islands was the ability to actively gather resources. Anyone who has read one of my RTS reviews will know that I have always been more of a base builder than an attacker. In particular for some reason I have always really enjoyed trying to make a well functioning resource gathering operation. Because of this I was really interested to see how it would work in a tower defense game.
I found the resource gathering mechanic to be pretty interesting. The game creates an interesting dynamic as you have to balance the use of your resources to build resource gathering buildings with towers that will defend your village. Early in the game it is beneficial to build a lot of resource gathering buildings as they will provide resources to you throughout the game. You can’t invest too much into gathering resources though as you have to actually build yourself a defense. You need to balance both needs well in order to keep yourself safe while also gathering enough resources to help defend against the last waves.
This is interesting and adds a unique mechanic to the genre. Unfortunately it didn’t have as big of an effect as I was hoping. For one thing I wasn’t a big fan of levels that didn’t have access to specific resources. All this does is force you to trade resources for others. I found this to be kind of annoying. The trading mechanic is interesting and I like that you can trade resources you don’t need for others that you need. The problem arises when the game forces you to trade for a resource as there is no other way to get it.
Outside of the resource gathering the other somewhat unique mechanics in the game involve the skill tree and the ability to apply tactics. The skill tree allows you to spend on abilities that best fit your playstyle. I think you pretty much need to spend upgrades in all areas though as I don’t think you can solely focus on one area if you want to succeed. I like that the tactics allow you to specify exactly how you want a tower to treat approaching enemies. There is a decent amount of control over choosing how a tower should act. I think the mechanic could have been a little more polished though as it is lacking a sort of elegance which would have made it easier to use.
Otherwise the game plays a lot like your typical tower defense game. Basically build towers in such a way where you can defeat the enemies before they reach your gate. With there only being specified areas where you can place towers, how you choose to place towers becomes really important. Trying to create the right combinations of towers becomes really important as each type of enemy has different strengths and weaknesses so you can’t just focus on one type of tower. If you don’t take advantage of these combinations, you are going to have a hard time doing well in the game.
This brings me to Ancient Islands difficulty. Ancient Islands takes to heart the fact that it takes inspiration from a bygone era of tower defense games. While the game has a sort of tutorial teaching you the basics, the game doesn’t hold your hand in any real way. Simply put the game is hard. I don’t play as many tower defense games as I used to, but the game kicked my butt where I failed early levels several times before I was able to beat them. This was on normal difficulty as well so I can’t imagine how hard “hard difficulty” is. Some people might appreciate the difficulty since if you want a challenge, the game will provide it. I found the game to be a little frustrating though.
I think a lot of this is due to the fact that the game relies on a lot of trial and error. In a way the game really feels like it has a specific way that you have to play a level in order to have a chance of winning it. If you try to approach the level in a different way, you likely won’t succeed. At least for me I had to play many of the levels several times before I figured out the best way to approach a level to eventually beat it. I really wish the game gave you more flexibility instead of feeling so set in stone. I think part of this problem is due to the fact that the locations where you can place towers are pre-determined. I usually prefer tower defense games that actually give you some choice in where you want to place towers.
The other major issue I had with the game had to deal with the controls. I ended up playing the game on Nintendo Switch so I can’t comment on how the game plays on PC. There are limitations for playing a game like this with a controller, but I found it kind of frustrating. The biggest problem is just selecting the location you want to interact with and switching between placing towers, building resource gathering buildings, and using magic. To select a location you basically need to use the analog stick to highlight it which usually works, but there are times where I had to try over and over again to get it to select the right location. Trying to place a building inside the town where I wanted it was also kind of frustrating at times. For this reason if you are interested in the game, I would recommend picking up the PC version of the game unless the controls on Nintendo Switch are improved.
I ultimately had mixed feelings about Ancient Islands. There were things that I liked and others that I think could have been better. The idea of adding resource gathering to a tower defense is an interesting addition which forces you to divide your time and resources between defending and gathering more resources. It just feels like the game could have done more with the mechanic. Otherwise the skill tree and tactics are decent additions that fans of the genre will appreciate. The game is quite difficult as it tries to replicate the old school difficulty of earlier games in the genre. The game’s controls, especially on Nintendo Switch, could have been better as well.
Ultimately your opinion of Ancient Islands is likely to depend on your feelings towards old-school tower defense games. If you don’t really care for the genre or prefer more modern games from the genre, I don’t think Ancient Islands is going to be the game for you. Those who want a real challenge though and are intrigued by the resource gathering mechanics will likely enjoy Ancient Islands and should consider picking it up.
We at Geeky Hobbies would like to thank Avernus Software, and Art Games Studio S.A. for the review copy of Ancient Islands used for this review. Other than receiving a free copy of the game to review, we at Geeky Hobbies received no other compensation for this review. Receiving the review copy for free had no impact on the content of this review or the final score.