Cartridge Defense — A collectible cart game?

Could this be the cart of war?

Plug in protective powers with Cartridge Defense.

There was a time not so long ago when every other game released would be some sort of tower defence game. I was quite a fan of them at the time, as they were often quick and easy to dip into. There haven’t been so many recently, but Cartridge Defense wants to fill that gap with a combination of tower defence and collectable card game.

If you aren’t familiar with tower defence, you have enemies moving from an entrance to an exit, with your job being to destroy them before they reach there. You do this by building towers to attack them or generally slow them down. There are various nuances to the genre, such as including hero characters or creating mazes, and Cartridge Defense makes use of the latter for its general gameplay.

You seem to be a person working at a computer with the job of protecting various city districts from invading robots in a cyberpunk setting. You do this by installing cartridges that cause defensive structures to appear, before holding off the invaders over the course of between five and fifteen rounds. Should ten enemies make it through, you lose the level and need to start over. Between rounds you’ll be able to build new towers, extending your maze and making it more difficult for the upcoming, more challenging enemies.

Cartridge Defense
The layout of most stages have a few environmental objects to block your towers line of sight.

So far, so regular. Cartridge Defense tries to set itself apart with a few different systems. Firstly, your available towers are based on a deck of cartridges, each with their own cost in money that you earn by completing rounds. A simple machine gun tower will cost very little, whilst a level 5 plasma turret will set you back a lot more. Before a stage, you can set up your deck of cartridges that you’ll take with you. The number you’re allowed varies, but you always need a balance of cheap cartridges and more expensive, but high power ones.

Cartridge Defense could keep it as simple as having a cartridge for a machine gun and another for a flamethrower, but the different cartridges have a variety of benefits. Some allow you to place multiple towers, or towers of different types at once. Others can create blocks to raise towers and improve their line of sight, or boost all towers of the same type. This means that deck building can be a lot more in-depth than simply picking the towers you like.

I really enjoyed this aspect of the game, as the huge variety of cartridges — over 500 in fact — means there are a lot of different ways to build your deck. More are acquired through winning preset ones through the campaign, whilst others come from random packs that thankfully can only be brought with in-game currency and not real money. You can also buy specific cards using power cores earned during play if you want.

Cartridge Defense
There are hundreds of cartridges to use when building your deck.

The main part of Cartridge Defense plays like a lot of other tower defence games, but with a couple of twists. Placing your towers to create an elaborate path is as you’d expect, but you cannot move or delete your towers one they are placed. This forces you to plan from the very start, as early mistakes can cost you later on. You can also spend your resources to draw additional cartridges if you don’t have a good hand, but this is often a waste.

Being forced to place your towers in this way is certainly interesting, but forward planning can be difficult. When you put a tower on the field, the path the enemies take is updated. It’s useful at this point, but if you have placed some hard-hitting towers near the exit it can be annoying to find that placing a new tower elsewhere completely changes the path they take. There are a few cartridges that allow you to move your towers, but it is a big undertaking late in a level.

Speaking of late stages of levels, each one has a boss during the final wave. No matter how many lives you have left — you lose one for each enemy that makes it through — should the boss reach the exit, you immediately lose. This is so frustrating when getting through every other wave on a long stage, only to have to start from scratch. Simply having the boss remove more lives could be a way around this. I appreciate the challenge of it, and there is a lot of challenge here, but it’s incredibly galling to have that happen.

Cartridge Defense
More open levels require you to think carefully about how the enemy’s path will change.

With those complaints aside, I’ve enjoyed playing Cartridge Defense a fair bit. As an Early Access game there are some bugs present, including some bizarre UI ones when playing in windowed mode that forced me to quit. The developers are releasing regular updates — and by regular I mean every few days — to address these bugs and deal with balancing, so they’re clearly invested in this being a good quality product.

In spite of there being some generic aspects to it, the way Cartridge Defense is put together is quite solid. It’s got a neat aesthetic and some fun mechanics as well as scope for deeper than average strategy for the genre for those that want it. I’d like a slightly quicker and easier to navigate UI, as well as some more interesting looking enemies, but on the whole, I’m happy with this and I’m going to keep coming back to it to see how the game develops.

Cartridge Defense is due for release on Steam Early Access in Summer 2020. You can follow updates on their Facebook.

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