In terms of hybridity, few genres have received as much variation, mutation and germination as the humble tower defence game. Beginning as relatively simple takes on real time strategy staple tactics, and through hybridity and the rise of the fast moving mobile market, moved into pretty much every other genre in the gaming world.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vPo5-9uBTvA
Playboom's Battle Ranch, released today on Steam, takes tower defence further, boasting a fusion between a farming and tower defence gameplay by way of time-critical puzzle mechanics, depicting the long standing, roughly historically accurate war between hogs and vegetables in a war over the player's ranch. The overall package sounds fairly intriguing, if only to see how farming and tower defence could co-exist, with a somewhat humorous premise to sweeten the deal.
In Battle Ranch, the main gameplay is a mashup of two simple, grid based and fast paced types of play which for the most part work in a roughly symbiotic manner. The first is the farming, which in the main set of missions involves the careful choice of vegetable seeds to grow and harvest in order to meet a quota at the top of the screen. This involves planting, watering, ensuring the seeds have fertilizer (No organic farming in this game!), chopping wood, mousing over the fruits to harvest them and digging up redundant plants.
These fruits and vegetables need to be protected of course, which is where the score earned from harvesting and most of the screen's real estate is focused. From time to time hogs of war will swarm in from the right hand side and using a variety of different offensive and defensive fruits, vegetables and plants it is the player's job to kill them before they ruin your harvest. You can choose a certain amount of weapons before each battle and preparation is key to ensure you have the right weapon to take on certain types of enemy. Some enemies will be increasingly troublesome, such as the skateboard boars who leap over obstacles, blow them up or even simply dig underneath them, each needing a different solution.
The actual defending part of Battle Ranch therefore is most interesting at mid-game, since an unexpected surprise can basically ruin a level more so than the somewhat pedestrian early game. Most levels however, by the late game you have more than adequate preparation to take on basically everything without any issues. There is an in-game strategy guide as well if you do run into problems, though it tends to be a simplistic set of images warning of a new enemy type.
From a technical standpoint Battle Ranch seems either rushed or the victim of inexperience, with the main logo, cutscenes and game map all in separate windows the game leaps between in a fluster. Added to this is the fact Battle Ranch is locked to one resolution (1360 x 768), with seemingly no way to change that. This seems an odd resolution choice since none of the assets seem to have been designed with that resolution in mind. The frame rate is particularly poor, presumably to hide the relatively limited animation, with the game seemingly designed to run at 17 frames per second, though with this sort of game that kind of frame rate doesn't necessarily matter.
Battle Ranch also looks somewhat amateurish from a graphical perspective, the cutscenes and character movement being rough and simplistic tween animation familiar to the Adobe Flash crowd. The animation, both in the main game map and in the various relatively poorly compressed video sequences looks somewhat choppy as a result, which while seemingly not a problem with a strategy focused game, does lead to some headaches in figuring out where certain enemies are in relation to the grid. The art style is very much a matter of personal taste, whether you like the busy boar designs or the 1990's attitude of the plants.
The interface is a bit of a headache though. Somewhat important gameplay elements such as whether the cool-down time for certain seeds has elapsed are not as explicit as perhaps they need to be, which often leads to frantic clicking to plant the next seed efficiently. It doesn't help that much like many games in this genre, the interface is designed with mobile platforms in mind in spite of the fact that this game currently does not have a mobile version and was designed for PC.
The music is a mixed bag as well, with an oddly inconsistent mix of bombast and incredibly muted MIDI tunes. There is little to cause offence, however it's not going to be a soundtrack to purchase alongside the game. The music has a particularly shareware vibe, with it mostly being quiet MIDI tracks that do not evoke the simple pleasure of farming, nor the horrors of the boar war.
There is however, a big problem with this game, one that did not immediately strike me until I saw a distinct similarity between Battle Ranch and a significantly more famous game: PopCap's Plants vs Zombies. Playing the two games side by side leads to the discovery of a somewhat large amount of similarities, from the weapon and enemy types, to the progression system of having one new thing every level, right down to the perspective of the playfield. It would not be true to call Battle Ranch an outright clone of Plants vs Zombies, however outside of the farming mechanic the similarities are far too explicit to be a coincidence. Even the side-game gardening feature is suspiciously similar to Plants vs Zombies' Zen Garden, triplicated with the addition of sheep, cows and chickens.
Does this make Battle Ranch a bad game? Not by itself. The gameplay, while certainly a derivation from Plants vs Zombies is competent enough outside of the choppy animation. The problem is that Battle Ranch sadly does not offer enough that is unique to really compete with the standard bearer of this particular subgenre. The ultimate price for Battle Ranch has not been revealed, but given that Plants vs Zombies is only $5 on Steam, Battle Ranch's fate is sealed amongst a sea of clones.
Note: The copy of this game used for review was obtained from the developer pre-release and was played on PC. A Mac version will also be available.
Battle Ranch is not a terrible game by any stretch of the imagination, but it provides little unique to add to the Tower Defence formula, let alone the established kings of the genre.