20 Minutes of Deathtrap for Mac OS X

20 minutes of… is a series in which I document my experience playing a particular game for 20 minutes. This should not be taken as a full review, rather a verbal “let’s play”, except without all the shouting and hyperactivity.

Deathtrap has been shamefully overlooked by the gaming press. It’s an action RPG, remixed into a tower defence game. That’s probably worthy of a yawn or two, but actually it works really, really well. You get all of the pleasure of a typical Diablo-alike, namely levelling up, loot and lots of critters and bosses, with the tactical planning of setting traps in preparation of the waves of death. Think of it as a top-down Orcs Must Die with RPG elements, and you’re on the right track.

Which reminds me, I need to give you some backstory. There’s a game called The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing which is an action RPG set in a fantasy Steampunk universe. It was released for Mac some time ago, but there were numerous problems with the Mac version that prevented me from reviewing it. In fact, the sequel got released on both Mac and Windows before they’d finished fixing up the Mac version for the first game. I believe both of those are now playable (though the performance isn’t great), but it was such a messy situation at the time that I didn’t review either game.

Anyway, the reason I’m telling you this (other than by way of apologising for not reviewing either of those games) is because Deathtrap uses the same engine and the same setting as the Van Helsings. Big deal, you might think, this is just a lame tower defence game. But you’d be wrong, because Deathtrap is much more interesting to me than the Van Helsings, even without the story and the exploration.

0:00

The menu screen has rusty moving cogs in the background, so you know it’s a steampunk game.

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There’s a level editor built-in (which as always I have not touched, but am impressed by nonetheless), and just like with Diablos, there’s the ability to create and switch between different characters. Mine’s a mercenary, which is the one that can smash enemies in the head, but there’s also a sorceress and a marksman to play with. It could probably benefit from a couple more, but I suspect they might be saving that for DLC.

00:18

The loading times are not great  in the Mac version, even playing from a fusion drive.

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But here we are– the overworld map. Importantly, character development and that sort of thing can only be done between levels from this screen, which is fine actually because you have too much to think about as it is during the levels proper. From here, you can upgrade hero skills, upgrade traps, buy and sell equipment, choose your next mission (including replaying a previous one at a higher difficulty) and even do some crafting.

Think about that! Crafting! In a tower defence game! Now look at this skill tree:

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Look at it! Two-thirds of it is still locked! I have no idea what sort of skills are going to be there! The bit that is available, I still haven’t put points into most of it, and that’s saying something because the game isn’t exactly stingy with its points. What I have now is a skill that temporarily buffs traps, a basic attack, a dashing ice smash (not its official name), a handful of passive abilities, and then something that temporarily makes everything on the map vulnerable.

The traps (which are your towers) screen is a similar story:

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I’ve just unlocked the one on the top-right, which is a cage that releases a monster to fight for me. The upgrades here work in the same way as the skills- you put points into something to make it better, but then there are also “battle upgrades” which you can unlock, which then let you upgrade the traps whilst in a level, akin to something modern tower defence games let you do, but here you can decide exactly which traps you want to be able to upgrade. I HAVE NEVER HEARD OF THIS BEFORE. Wonderful.

For the sake of completeness, here is the store:

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Granted, not quite as interesting, but still, remember this is a tower defence game first and foremost. You’re just unimpressed because you think the store in Torchlight 2 has more stuff. Oh yeah, but check out the time-limited special offer. Like in Borderlands. Borderlands is referenced in this article about a tower defence game. THINK ABOUT THAT.

I’m on level 3, with all this stuff available to me, but I’ve yet to unlock the crafting system. I have no idea how that works yet.

02:29

After spending all my points and cash, I’m ready to start the next map.

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This screen might subtly cue you in to yet more of the complexity and choice available. There are three gameplay modes (campaign, scenario and endless), although only campaign is available until level 20. The campaign though has three difficulties for each map, and each of those has four tiers (you have to have completed all maps on a tier to advance to the next tier). And this is on top of having single-player, co-op and versus modes (although the latter is unlocked until level 10.

Different difficulties will net you different rewards, although I’m yet to understand what the star ratings are for, seeing as the normal difficulty level caps the star rating to two. I’ve been playing on normal difficulty until now, but I’ve been thinking that increasing it will be a more comfortable fit (but not this time, I don’t want to risk embarrassing myself). There’s some background fluff which is nice if you’re into the Van Helsing games (or perhaps even if you’re not), and then– what’s this– a quest. Surely that’s just “defeat all enemies” and “don’t let any enemies through to the end”?

Quests are a singular stroke of genius in the design of this game. This single, unremarkable mechanic borrowed from every RPG ever, is what elevates this game into something special.

03:14

The loading times are long.

I’m narrated at briefly, and then presented with a tutorial message that there are flying enemies in this level that are immune to certain traps, and another that tells me that you can change the game speed at any time with + and -.

03:47

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When the level starts, you have as long as you want to get ready. This can involve setting up traps, but it also gives you a chance to check out the level. Pulsing red lines show the paths the enemies will take, and there are spaces where you can place traps. For my money, this is the weakest aspect of the game’s visual design, as it’s often unclear as to whether you’ve actually installed a trap or if it’s just a space for one. You only have a limited number of different trap types that you can install in each space, so on one you might be able to put a spear trap or an acid trap, but on another you might only be able to place a fire trap (in the image above, I have placed no traps at all yet).

Actually placing a trap costs some amount of “essence”, as does upgrading existing traps. In keeping with the genre, killing enemies gains you some essence. Although you can do upgrading and placement of traps during the battle, it’s usually a very inefficient use of your time.

There are “ink gates” dotted about the place, that serve as teleporters, with any ink gate allowing you to teleport to any other. The second problem I have is with the minimap, which only shows a small portion of the overall map (which is fine) but cannot be scrolled (which is annoying). The same is true of the larger map which opens in a window (and also shows you the composition of the upcoming wave of enemies).

04:15

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I have run outside of the central area of the map. I’m a long way from where the battle will take place, none of the red pulsing lines are anywhere near to where I am at the moment.

Right now, I’m sizing up a quest. Out here is a ethereal chap, a giant in “ghost form”. As with many things on the map right now, once the battle starts, they shift from ghost form (in which they can’t be interacted with) and become corporeal. Then I can kill them, and claim a reward or two. This is my quest. I make note of the ink gate nearby.

Time to get back to work, setting up the traps.

05:51

This map has two entry points, but for the most part the enemies will all pass through the same points. That’s where I focus my attention on the traps. I don’t really have much of a strategy as to the type of traps I place; I just try to ensure a good mix. Upgrading traps costs a lot less than building new ones, so I try to upgrade each one as much as I can.

I’m ready for the first wave, but I have another decision to make.

06:32

I exit the ink gate and click Start Battle.

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I am far from the action, and relying on the traps I set up to kill the enemies. This is what’s so brilliant about the optional quests. I can go and try to complete them, but in doing so I’m unable to actively defend the gate I’m supposed to be defending. I’ve found on the last couple of maps that the risk is minimised if you try to do the quests as soon as possible, as the initial waves of monsters are weak enough to succumb to decent placement of traps (this also makes me glad there are separate currencies for upgrading your hero’s skills and your traps, or else I feel it would be too tough to decide which to focus on).

06:39

This is why the minimap is so infuriating though. Out here I can’t see if the traps are effective or not. I need to be quick and dispatch the lumbering beast.

06:49

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Oops…

I’ve killed him but then died at the same time. He’s dropped a silver chest key, but I haven’t spotted a chest anywhere– on previous levels you’ve used the key to unlock a nearby chest, but I’m not sure if that’s always the way. This is also the first time my hero has died since I started playing the game, so I don’t know what happens now.

06:51

I’ve respawned at the home gate I’m supposed to be defending, with no apparent other penalty. I’m back up to full health which means that dying like that actually saved me the bother of backtracking.

I am a little paranoid about leaving that key alone though…

06:59

I reach the first of the flying creatures who resisted my traps. Bash. Dead. The second. Bash. Dead. Standard action RPG action. They are more interested in attacking me than they are in getting to the gate though, which is helpful. And this is the aspect of the game I’m a little unsure about.

Traps are never enough, because your hero is so bloody powerful. Your hero can chew through almost an entire wave without so much as batting an eye, at least until a miniboss shows up.

07:43

I take the opportunity to slip through an ink gate and go back for the key. It’s where I left it.

08:02

Just ugh! I don’t make it back in time to stop a couple of bats fly through the gate. I should have placed more traps by the gate. Live and learn.

08:35

The first wave is complete. Looks like I conceded 5 points of damage (out of 20) to the gate. I hunt around in vain for any evidence of a chest I might have missed but there isn’t one. I build some more traps.

12:26

Wave two begins. I resign myself to focus on the enemies rather than wander off the beaten path. Keep my eye on the prize, as it were.

14:05

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It’s generally a good tactic to position yourself such that the enemies are positioned near your traps when they stop to attack you. Stupid enemies.

14:44

Wave 2 completed (no additional damage to gate). Build more traps, rinse, repeat.

17:02

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For some reason I decide it’s a good idea to start off by attacking some wargs out in the forest that otherwise pose no threat. Somehow this pointless diversion doesn’t cost me any damage to my gate.

19:38

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There’s a champion at the end of the wave, but he doesn’t pose much of a challenge. Bashbashbashbashbash dead. I didn’t even need a potion.

21:09

I’ve gone over my allotted time limit, but let me have this ok? It’s just one more wave left, plus there are 5  points for enemies to spawn from and the music is all dramatic and everything.

21:31

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There are traps everywhere by this point, so the enemies are getting electrocuted, frozen and incinerated all at the same time, although the performance is pretty bad when the screen gets busy, and why did someone think it was a good idea to obscure everything with a massive tree?

24:44

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A boss arrives, signalling the end of the level. The bosses are really good in this game, with each have their own stock set of powers. This one summons more enemies. I get overwhelmed and have to use a potion, the first time since starting the game.

25:12

Victory! I get two stars. But I also get two chests, which burst with loot (the only time loot drops is at the end of the level or when you complete a quest, but when it happens you get a lot.

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And now I get to do it all again.

I can’t wait.

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