There’s a neat joke at the centre of Steampunk Tower 2. This is a tower defence game where you play… a tower. But push the joke aside and there’s a good idea underneath. Playing as a single tower means everything fits onto a single game screen, removing the frustration of scanning backwards and forwards, searching for that enemy or that tower.
Steampunk Tower 2, for the most part, does what it says on the tin. It’s set in a steampunk world where a fascistic regime called The Cult (subtlety is consistently fired out of a Howitzer) is overrunning Europe. This is, effectively, the Third Reich and the Second World War, but with additional pistons and cogs. You’re a commander within the rebellion, looking to topple The Cult with a trump card: the One Big Battle Tower (fired out of that subtlety-Howitzer again). This hulking thing is dropped from a helicarrier into battlefields, and the turrets on the various levels of the tower take it in turn to fire volleys at the enemy.
The main gameplay is focused on the One Big Battle Tower in the centre of the screen, with four slots (rising up to ten as you get to the latter sections of the game), where you can nestle in a turret. Enemies appear in waves from the left and right-hand side of the screen, and your turrets automatically fire, as you would expect from most tower defences. These enemies take the form of troops, cars and tanks, all the way up to zeppelins, tripods and helicopter-dispensing battlecraft. If you let the enemies get close enough to your tower, they will chip away at its health, which will reduce the reward you get at the end of the battle or worse – causing you to fail the mission entirely.
You do have some influence on proceedings. Each turret has a special attack bar, which fills up over the battle. Select the turret and press X and you’ll be able to take manual control, aiming a bombastic attack at the enemy. There are several different turrets, so the flavour of these attacks will change: there are saw launchers that plough through lines of enemies; lightning guns that stop enemies in their tracks; and heavy cannons that are particularly effective against ground units. You’ll be called into action to help reload these turrets, as they barely go a wave without emptying their magazines. If you leave them be, they will reload themselves, but you’ll want to bring them into the tower’s central spine so that they reload when things are quiet rather than overwhelming.
You can have impact on the battle through your tower’s eye, bonuses and super weapons. The eye is the Sauron-like decoration at the top of the tower, and it can be activated to give you a reticule and some time to zap the bad guys. This costs ‘steam’, which you gain by triggering waves of enemies early. Bonuses and special weapons can be bought before the mission starts, and they’re subtly different. Bonuses give you a cheeky headstart, like activating all turrets’ special attacks from the get-go, while super weapons are more devastating and require you to time them right. You can call air strikes on one side of the tower, or send an EMP pulse across the battlefield, slowing everything down and taking chunks out of life bars.
Supporting the action is an absolute metric ton of resource management. You have a base of operations that can be upgraded, generating you passive gold, increasing caps for your resources, and unlocking the ability to build new turrets. As you’d probably expect, there are multiple ways of upgrading your turrets, while the tower itself can also be jazzed with armour, additional tiers and faster generation of steam.
Zoom out of the base and you’re at a European view, and there’s even more fluff to consider. You’ll accumulate territory from missions, but it soon falls under attack, so you’ll need to win it back. You can take control of factories to generate details that make turrets; you acquire commanders and then send them on their own missions; and you can switch on an ‘auto-battle’ feature if you can’t face taking on any more tower defence battles. As you progress, you purchase maps that expand your fog of war to take in more missions, factories and commander missions, so it goes on and on and on.
It borders on the ridiculous, as the depth of all this resource management stuff eclipses the tower defence. Of the twelve-or-so hours that we put into Steampunk Tower 2, less than half featured any tower defending. Instead, we were occupied with auto-attacking cities and grinding resources so that we could upgrade a turret. If you’ve come for the action in Steampunk Tower 2, then there’s going to be inevitable disappointment as you’re attacked more often by interfaces than troops.
If resource management is your jam, though, it’s actually well-presented and engaging, if a little nagging. Sure, there’s no real strategy to it – it’s effectively UI whack-a-mole as you put down rebellions and harvest resources, pumping it all into progression for your base, tower and turrets – but it does a good job of making you feel like you’re accumulating an increasing pile of gold and components. We’d have dialled down the constant attacks, as it feels like a desperate attempt to keep attention when a shorter game would have been absolutely fine.
The resource hoarding distracts from an otherwise glaring issue: Steampunk Tower 2’s tower defence is too mindless for its own good. If you’ve played your share of tower defence games, part of their joy is upgrading towers mid-combat. That balance of short-term defence versus long-term upgrades is kind of cool, and integral to virtually every one we’ve played. In Steampunk Tower 2, that stuff is stripped out to take place before a battle. It means that the moment-to-moment stuff that Steampunk Tower 2 wants you to do is… reloading. Call us cynical, but we want to be doing more in a Third World War than running from cannon to cannon with armfuls of cannonballs, and you’ll soon get tired of hokey-cokeying turrets into the central parts of the tower. It’s a step up from cleaning the Tower’s toilets, but not by much.
We’re being a little facetious, as you can still activate the turrets’ special attacks, but it’s rarely more than ‘fire at the enemies’, which stops short of actually being fun or interesting. You’ll often out-level everything around you (aside from a steep end-of-game curve, this is an easy game), so it can feel pointless activating these attacks. So, back you go to reloading or, better still, just automating the whole experience so you don’t have to do anything.
We ended the game by automating 90% of the missions, and that’s an indictment of how fatiguing the missions can get by the end. It also shows how fun the resource management stuff can be, as we opted to play in that side of the game more and more.
If the battles were anywhere near as playful as the base-management, then Steampunk Tower 2 on Xbox would be an easy recommendation. Instead, the scaffolding is better than the game it’s supporting, and that’s probably not where you want your game to be. It’s a fascinating experiment for sure – making a console tower defence game that’s both vertical and only on one screen – but ultimately it doesn’t quite succeed.