I remember being entranced at a young age by building destruction animations in early RTS titles. Red Alert 2 included buildings exploding and falling apart in realistic detail, from your personal base structures to the random civilian buildings on the map. Similarly, tearing buildings apart by hand in Red Faction: Guerilla gave a massive sense of cathartic joy to watch as a building collapsed into dust from your well-placed explosives. Battlefield 4 and Rainbow Six: Siege have carried the mantle of not only allowing interesting fully destroyable environments but also letting players genuinely affect the shape of the battlefield after they've practiced their natural talent for explosives. Now, in the form of X-Morph: Defense, we have a top-down shooter and tower defense mashup to practice the powers of tactical destruction.
No indie game has the right to look as good as X-Morph: Defense, especially considering its dumb name. From the first moment your alien core lands, destroying buildings in a wide radius to clear a zone around it, you can tell this is a unique experience. When you fire a heavy bomb at a tank column and the trees wave in the wake of its path, you can't help but be a little distracted from the fighting to watch the lovingly rendered detail of a tree exploding. As amazing as those details are, nothing compares to a huge boss appearing and knocking over a civilian building to blow up your defense towers. Not only are the destruction physics top-notch, with buildings wobbling laboriously as they threaten to collapse with every chunk of its foundation being torn away, but each floor of each building is furnished. You can't imagine the immersion of watching a building fall to the street only to break into a few more pieces with detailed interiors of cafes and bedrooms within. I can grab screenshots to show you, but it's nothing like experiencing it yourself.
X-Morph: Defense has a simple story. You control an alien race set to take over the Earth and assimilate all its resources for their own gain. You do this by landing alien shards designed to terraform the Earth around it while setting up a "geodetic network" that allows you more access to the planet's core to manipulate it for energy. These shards transform into energetic, shielded cores that need to be defended long enough to get access to the network. Once stable and rapidly gaining energy, the core becomes practically immortal and you can move on to another core's defense. Each time you defend a core it's a separate earthly site, with cores landing in places like South Africa, Germany, Egypt, and Hawaii. Each map is populated with unique assets and amazingly beautiful decor. Mexico has you building turrets around a vast network of surface quarries and mines, each one realistic and fascinating. The way they dot the map gives you a sense of realism and immersion that's difficult to pull off, and I've yet to see this level of loving detail in other top-down games.
When you start each mission, your friendly alien advisor predicts the assault paths of the humans attempting to destroy your core before it can be established. This allows you to build defenses to destroy tank and troop columns as you wish When you've placed your turrets, you can link them together with a laser fence that allows you to alter the assault paths of your enemies with high precision, sending them around the entire map before they can finally reach your core. By then, either your turrets have taken care of them, or you have. You control an alien fighter with a whole armory at your disposal designed for different types of enemies. You can move around the battlefield with an agility no human vessel could keep up with, firing missiles, bombs, plasma, lasers, black holes, and electromagnetic pulses in a dazzling display of your nearly god-like race's ascension.
Your personal craft is easily controlled with a mouse and keyboard or a controller, which X-Morph: Defense is obviously designed for. Even when using a mouse, some of the button prompts are based on hitting buttons on a controller. I found it easier to use a mouse because of the intense precision with which you could place your turrets either in combat or not. Most of the time when you're placing turrets, you're in a non-threatening planning stage, giving you all the time you need to prepare. Precision turret placement isn't even that important, as much of the time, your small mistakes are automatically fixed by a small laser extension to nearby obstacles. Whatever weapons you use that actually need aiming also come with an auto-aim feature, most especially the highly precise laser cutter.
For the tower defense part of X-Morph: Defense, you can collect resources in the form of scrap left by fallen enemies, or by defeating a wave of enemies. When you collect the resource, a bar permanently expands, allowing more turret uses. Your unlimited turret materials can be sold and destroyed endlessly and it costs you nothing at all. When you build one, it uses up a bit of your resource bar, but that bar is instantly refunded if the turret goes away somehow. This way, you can instantly rebuild a turret that explodes, and you don't have to worry about being careful with your resources. Upgraded turrets take up an extra slot of resources, but they're very effective at fighting certain types of enemies. Flamethrowers excel at extinguishing infantry, and tanks cannot hold up to a laser that gets more powerful the longer it stays on the armor. When your turret appears, it terraform the earth around it to show you the range of your weapon (except artillery), so you can see at a glance what your firing line will look like. Each wave precedes a planning stage where you're given an unlimited amount of time to build killboxes by rearranging the paths of the pesky humans.
Not only can you rearrange the path of your enemies by building laser fences to block them off, but you can also blow up bridges and skyscrapers. By placing bombs in the right places, you can destroy a building and let it topple right into the pathway. You can even do this in the middle of an enemy wave, right on top of a line of tanks, which will be instantly knocked out of commission. Blowing up a bridge from beneath a line of super heavy tanks is immensely satisfying, but you have to be careful. In many missions, the map expands with new waves, granting the enemy new paths to your core in areas you might have severely limited yourself by blowing up. Knocking a building over into a highway might have seemed like a good idea right up until blocking the highway means a new tank column has a straight shot to your core. You're not allowed to block the "final path" of an enemy, so your fences will turn off and buildings will become ash to let the troops through.
If your careful planning ends up failing, there's still one thing you can count on: your fighter. Your fighter moves around the screen in a way that distinctly reminds you of an arcade shoot'em up, with enemy lasers and missiles flying around the screen and your craft being agile and speedy enough to dodge them. You can fill in for missing turrets or take over particularly weakly defended pathways for yourself at any time, and your arsenal is expansive, growing with each mission. At first, all you get is the classic plasma shots, a rapid barrage of speedy bullets you can aim with wild abandon because of its massive spread. Later, you get precise laser beams for fighting heavy armor, giant bombs, and anti-air fire-and-forget missiles to easily remove armored helicopters from the fight. You have a fairly limited health bar, but if you ever get into a tight spot, you can go into "ghost mode". Ghost mode makes you intangible, invisible, and ridiculously fast, allowing you to barge through map obstacles to easily fly to a corner of the map that might need your attention. Ghost mode is unlimited and there's no cooldown, allowing you to pop into existence just to toss an enormous bomb in the middle of a tank line, only to disappear again. When you pull off stunts like this with your expanded arsenal, appearing just to drop a black hole on a bunch of infantry and then blinking out of existence once more, you start to feel truly immersed. Never do you feel more like an overpowered alien overlord than when you zip across the map to drop a building on some artillery tanks that were messing with your defenses.
X-Morph: Defense is a relatively small game, but it knows what it's doing. Unlike some indie games, it knows exactly where to end before it starts to feel bloated, while also giving you a complete sense of having achieved something challenging. No matter how much of a powerhouse you might feel like, there's always an enemy wave that's a step harder, and the boss waves are incredibly fulfilling. I replayed a mission where you defeat a giant mechanical spider around eight times, just messing with the different ways I could tear pieces of the armor, legs, and weapons off it. When you fight huge waves of air units in Russian forests, or just fending off hopper infantry who can jump over your fences in volcanic Hawaii, there's not a single mission or map that feels like it was tossed in to be filler.
There's an added cooperative version of X-Morph: Defense that can only be played with a split screen, and it's the same storyline as the base campaign. There's not much of a difference between the two versions, except you don't have to collect resources. Instead of collecting them, each wave gives those resources to you for free, but they go to your co-op partner. The missions are slightly easier when done with a partner because they can run off and fill in for bad pathways while you take care of imminent threats. Annoyingly, the enemy fighters meant to try to hunt your alien fighter down only seem to target the second player.
The developers of X-Morph: Defense should feel proud of themselves, and this achievement should have more recognition than it does. Sure, some of the voice acting is cheesy (despite, or possibly because it's mostly done by Michael McConnohie), and the dialogue feels like you might actually be watching old anime from the 90's, but this only serves the silly story. This is showcased when you land among the pyramids of Egypt where the humans talk about how there must be ancient power in the monstrous colossi. Instead, your alien advisor points out how stupid humans must be to not realize they built the pyramids themselves. Later, when you're fighting a giant human mech that's literally punching its way through buildings to get to you, your immersion isn't broken because it makes sense within the world's ridiculous standards. Questions like "why hasn't this human commander been fired when he's done nothing but fail every battle against us" don't even come up until the game is done and over.
X-Morph: Defense is a marvel of physics, visuals, and that incredibly fulfilling arcade feeling. Mowing down humans with no remorse and your nearly unlimited alien power really leaves you wanting more. You want more maps where you can knock things down, more weapons, more enemies, and maybe even a third alien species who shows up to try to help the humans out. There are so many directions this game could go in future DLC, and the hint at the end of X-Morph: Defense fulfills that hope that more of the story is coming. X-Morph: Defense deserves any attention it gets, and we can only hope the developer plans to do more.
Our X-Morph Defense review was conducted on PC via Steam with a code provided by the developers.
X-Morph: Defense is what happens when you design and implement a modern arcade twin-stick shooter mixed with a tower defense from the ground up. The cheesy style of dialogue and story is mixed with a feeling of masterful power as you navigate a beautifully constructed game world. This is a highly recommended experience.
- Stunning Visuals and Physics
- Smooth Mechanics, Gameplay, Pacing, and Performance
- Live out Misanthropic Fantasies
- Possibly Too Short
- Cheesy Voice Acting and Story Could be a Turn Off
- Lack of Explanation of Some Mechanics