Defend the Rook mixes the tactics and tower defense genres with roguelikes. As a fan of all three of those things, I had to take a look at this port. The title was originally released on Steam back in October of 2021 and was seemingly lost in the shuffle. Is it worth checking out if you’re a fan of one or all of these genres? Yes, and no.
You are the Magister. Through your powers, you’ll assist an obviously evil Queen as she attempts to steal everyone’s gems. Your super cool powers allow you to fight enemies from afar. The game takes place on a 9×9 square board. The perspective has it diamond shaped from the player’s point of view which is an issue we’ll get into it in a bit. A full run will see you clearing out five levels in five areas. The roguelike nature of the game sees your three heroes gaining power-ups that you choose one of after each completed level. The metagame is a small series of unlocks across your various pieces and I would find this treadmill of upgrades to be passable for the genre.
Each level begins with you moving your three hero pieces and placing down turrets which you can slowly customize and power up over each run. The main piece is the eponymous Rook, which is a fully mobile piece that can also deal damage in a limited range. It’s a tower that you must defend, that can also fight back. Your three starting heroes are the Warrior, Rogue, and Mage. Each has its own health pool, move set, and upgrade trees that you can level per run. The turrets and other spellcasting abilities you get are, much like the heroes, static at first but offer up greater variety in choice as you gain gems for the metagame leveling system. It’s all pretty bog standard for a roguelike, which means your enjoyment will come down to the difficulty. Too easy and it gets boring, too hard and progression feels meaningless.
I beat Defend the Rook the first time on run 6, which is far too soon for my liking. This isn’t the end of the game as you can set higher difficulties as you continuously complete runs but it was far too easy. Another issue is the orientation of the board and how the game controls. As it is a square diamond grid up doesn’t mean up. Up means moving both up and left, and down is down and right. Right is up and right, and left is down and left. It felt really damned confusing at first. After a few hours I was used to it, but I never liked it. Just having the board straight on and letting cardinal directions be what they should be would have been more enjoyable.
The game loop for each level finds you always going first. You’ll set up where you want to bottleneck enemies going for your rook by putting down turrets, barrels, and other unlocked spells in strategic positions. Each of your heroes will have passive and active abilities that benefit from their positioning, and it leads to some fun builds that felt overpowered at times. Difficulty spikes were an issue where one level would be a cakewalk and then the next one would be insanely tough. The following mission then went back to being far easier and I never felt like it was a gradual rise in danger.
Controlling your pieces can be a pain as well with a system that requires you to slowly move in between each piece, click it, choose where you want it to move, and then if necessary press again to have it attack. If you are only moving it and not attacking you need to make sure to end that piece’s turn or else you can’t move any other pieces. This feels like a game that would work great with a mouse and simply requires too many repeated presses of the d-pad per move on a controller. Outside of a perspective shift some way to quickly jump to each character and enemy would have gone a long way to cutting down on the time needed for each basic move. To place turrets down you’ll see small platforms that act as blockers for movement on the board.
Figuring out which turret to use where is key for the mid to later levels. Enemies will spawn at mostly set points on the board each turn. After defeating all current enemies in that wave you’ll get the choice between three upgrades, one each per hero. I tried the upgrading everyone approach, and it worked well. Focusing on just one hero inevitably led to the others dying early in a fight and my Rook becoming easy pickings.
Graphics and Sound
Graphically the game looks ok. It’s a painterly animated look using a high fantasy theme. The backgrounds and board are static, and each piece is a good-looking 3d model. They’re low in definition but it works well with the pulled-back perspective. They’re fully animated for their attacks and abilities at a thankfully high framerate.
The sound design is minimal with no voiced dialogue. Sound effects are passable, and the music followed suit. It’s not as memorable as something like Slay the Spire, though few games are. I did have the game hang up on me one time, the very first time I opened it. After that, I didn’t run into a single bug-related issue of any kind.
Another issue is the potential price. At the time of this review, the game isn’t available on the Xbox store. It retails for $15 which feels fair for the amount of content. A full 100% clear should take in the 20-30 hour timeframe, but I see most completing a few runs and getting their fill which would be 3 or 4 hours at most.
Wrapping Things Up
Defend the Rook is a solid roguelike-tower-defense-tactics game. It’s a unique spin on a handful of genres that I like, but it has some control and difficulty issues that hold it back.
Defend the Rook
Xbox Series X
- Looks Good
- Fun Build Potential
- Decent Meta Game
- Too Easy to Start
- Random Feeling Difficulty Spikes