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Review: Savage Moon (PS3/PSN)

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In 2007, the web-based Desktop Tower Defense took a little-known RTS sub-genre and thrust it into wide-scale public acclaim, giving almost overnight rise to a plethora of follow-ons. Perhaps the most well-known of these in the console scene is Q-Games’ PixelJunk Monsters, exclusive to PSN. Unsurprisingly, other developers are looking to cash in on the popular trend. Savage Moon, developed by relative newcomer FluffyLogic, is PSN’s latest offering, and brings a few interesting tricks to the table.

Savage Moon puts a more serious spin on the tower-defense theme than the light-hearted PJ Monsters, replacing pastel-shaded cartoon visuals and zenlike ambient music with a sci-fi theme heavily influenced by Aliens and Starship Troopers. There’s a loose weave of story about mining for necessary resources, and living asteroids that generate bug-like “antibodies,” but what it comes down to is that you’re going to set up defensive emplacements and blow up progressive waves of relentless enemy bugs – lots of waves, lots of bugs. Moon’s presentation is solid for a downloadable title, with a forgettable “scary” techno soundtrack, but high-resolution skins on all its moderately detailed creature and tower models. Flame and smoke effects look a touch last-gen, but there’s generally enough going on, especially in later levels, that this is totally glossed over by the pure volume of mayhem on-screen. Refreshingly, despite the fact that Savage Moon is probably a well-compiled C# product, the end result runs seamlessly despite all the effects and carnage. Perhaps ironically, you may not get a chance to appreciate the graphical glitz – you’ll be too busy scrambling to protect your mining base, and even your towers themselves from attack.

As that last sentence implies, Savage Moon assays quite a bit more technical depth and management than the typical tower-defense game. Not only is the standard ground/air enemy dialectic in full force (with various tower types being best suited to deal with each, and only one weak type able to fire at both), enemies also come in ever-increasing varieties as the game’s levels progress. The player can of course upgrade existing towers as well as building new ones (often an important decision, as the amount of towers that can be deployed against each monster wave is limited), or spend funds instead on expanding the available technology for attack and defense. Often a specific type of tower is required to deal with the special abilities of a new enemy type, and the required tower is usually an unlock. In one example, some enemies will burrow underground, requiring a particular tower type to “thump” them out of hiding and into the range of more conventional weapons. Unlocking the more advanced tower types is paramount to surviving the game’s median and later levels; creatures will bombard your attack towers with corrosive projectiles, quickly destroying them if you haven’t emplaced Repair towers nearby for support. Too, Amp towers – which increase the damage and, more importantly, effective range of other types – quickly become a nearly required part of any successful arsenal. Fortunately the tech tree is viewable when you’re preparing to spend points for tech unlocks, so you can see the potential results and benefits of your choices. You’ll wind up having that tree memorized, though, since it resets after each moon is complete; you’ll be finding your way through it each time.

Another aspect of increased control available in Savage Moon is a three-toggle switch system which allows the player to vary the base attributes of their towers. The options are attack power, defensive strength and earnings per kill. Players can toggle one switch fully “on,” reducing the setting on the other two slightly (for instance, earn more cash by making your towers slightly weaker and less tough) or even toggle two switches “on” for more minor benefits in each of those areas with a major reduction in the one not enhanced. Knowing when and how to use this ability is also key to successful defenses. Lastly, and perhaps surprisingly for such a game type, is the ability to directly repair the mining base you’re tasked to protect. It’s not very expensive, either, and though you only get 10 points of health back per repair, it seems easy at first to keep full health throughout a level.

Unlike PJM, which featured a personified avatar for the player, Savage Moon employs the more typical mechanic of a multi-function cursor. There’s no lack of white-knuckle tension, though – the aforementioned menu system, which is quite complex and will take some getting used to, is accessed in real-time. There’s no pause to make decisions or tally resources – you’ll be making calls on the fly, as it were. This occasionally feels a little cumbersome, usually during the learning process, but becomes pleasantly intuitive after a bit of practice. Players maneuver the cursor with the left stick, rotate and pan the camera with the right stick, and zoom in or out using the L2 and R2 (yes, readers, contrary to what you might have heard elsewhere it’s quite possible to zoom your view out). Players can also choose to have a more free-roaming cursor type, losing the ability to rotate the camera in exchange for not having the cursor locked in the center of the screen. This second method is actually a little more precise for tower placement in most cases, but also less accessible at first. The camera controls are a very important part of the player’s command vocabulary, too; in another departure from PJM and most tower-defense games, the battlefields in SM are larger than a screen’s breadth. Trying to follow the action on several fronts can get quite demanding, and failing to do so usually means you’ll lose towers or let creatures through to damage your base.

The action usually will take place on several fronts, too. Each moon’s battleground includes several ingress-points for the enemy bugs, both ground and air-based. In a very interesting touch, the bugs display perception of their environment and learning behaviors. If they see you’ve placed a tower or group of towers where the ground-trooper types can get at it with their melee attacks, they’ll concentrate on it. If you place blocking towers along a certain path, they may simply turn around and choose a different route rather than accepting the casualties of being herded into a zone you’ve lined with attack towers. They’ll even change routes depending on how heavily defended each area of the map is, so if you try reloading the level to capitalize on the patterns you see, you might get surprised. The path-changes and behaviors are very simple, but really do a lot to add to the depth and uniqueness of the game, making it feel more like a game of strategy and tactics between two active opponents, rather than one player simply trying to find the most efficient response to a set pattern of enemy waves and attacks. This said, there are plans and tactics which are most effective, and dedicated players will discover them, but SM still feels more organic than most games of its type. That’s a good thing.

Savage Moon is also challenging. Despite the many options available to bolster your defensive arsenal, and the ability to directly heal your defense target, the game throws plenty of curve-balls your way. You will almost certainly wind up reloading some levels a few times, figuring out what you need to build, when you need to have it available, and where you need to put it. This level of challenge (which again runs contrary to what you might have heard elsewhere), plus the complexity of the menu system and the broad spate of available options, can make SM a little intimidating to the casual gamer. There’s no option to dial down the difficulty, either, so Savage Moon could justly be called a tower-defense/RTS hybrid for those willing to take a somewhat more hardcore approach to the genre. This said, it is a very strong production overall, and definitely offers plenty of enjoyment for fans of this type of game. As an added bonus, after each nebula of 4 moons is completed, players can replay the levels in Vengeance Mode, in which there’s no end to the enemy waves – they simply get stronger and more numerous until the mining base is inevitably overwhelmed. It’s more fun than it sounds like, simply because it’s a great opportunity to learn the tech tree and tower abilities a little better, as well as seeing the game’s trademark large-scale carnage played out to its fullest extent.

Though not without flaws, primarily an annoying camera auto-zoom when upgrading a tower (you have to manually zoom back out to your previous view angle – the game should have done this for you automatically), Savage Moon is plenty of game for your $10. In this era of high-quality downloadable games, SM still stands out as a particularly good example of its own little genre. In addition to the solid-for-DLC production values, it has nice little atmospheric touches like a selectable camera-view from inside your towers (unfortunately, this doesn’t allow the player to manually aim the tower, and that would really have been nice) and human soldiers standing on the mining structures, shooting ineffectually at the advancing insect hordes. This should be an easy enough platform to develop additional levels for as well, so FluffyLogic may well grace fans with more content down the road (no word on this yet). Either way, if you’re a fan of RTS in general and tower-defense in particular, Savage Moon’s well worth your time.

Final Score Grade A

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