Gemcraft Chasing Shadows doesn’t look like anything special on first glance: A tower defense game of holding back waves of monsters from reaching a specific point. But there is a lot more under the surface here with some very smart mechanics that developers should be taking note of.

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Treasured Defense:

Gemcraft Chasing Shadows from the title screen is obviously the second game in the series and the first one on Steam, but while there is a story present, you don’t need to follow it to enjoy the game.

The basics of the game involve slotting magic gems into towers that you either build or come preinstalled on the map. The different gem types come with a unique affect like poison damage, slowdown, chaining attacks etc, and can be summoned at varying grades. The grades themselves determine the cost of the gem while progressively raising the attack and affects of said gem.

You can also combine gems of various types to create a mixed gem; this gem will do more damage but at the cost of weaken special affects due to the gems being distilled. Besides setting up towers, you can place walls down to corral enemies, traps that increase the special affect chance or strength but lower the damage and deal with map specific situations.

Mana is both the game’s resource and your health on every map and is earned as you kill enemies. Every action that you can take during a play will cost you mana and whenever an enemy reaches your defense point or orb, will drain your mana based on the strength of the enemy. This creates a push and pull as you want to use mana to increase your gems’ grade or set up new defenses, but you don’t want to leave yourself in a position where a stray enemy could kill you.

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Your talisman is just one of several systems designed to show meta-game improvement

As with any TD game, your job is to hold out over X number of waves in order to win and unlock the next field and so on and so forth.

All this is standard stuff for a TD, but Gemcraft Chasing Shadows takes things further as one of the most customizable TD games I’ve seen.

Raising the Stakes:

The basic gameplay of Gemcraft Chasing Shadows would have been enough for a solid but limited title; however the additional mechanics and systems to the game dramatically increase the replayability and options for the player. You have a wizard level that goes up as you complete maps which in turn will increase your mana rate and you can unlock passive traits that can be improved. A Meta Game mechanic in the form of a customizable talisman allows you to boost certain aspects of the game as you find components for it, and said components can be upgraded.

With the maps themselves, you have several ways to increase the difficulty and rewards. As you play through the game, you’ll unlock special modifiers that you can attach to a level, increasing the difficulty and rewards along with an adjustable difficulty setting. During a level, you can call waves early for an experience boost and sacrifice your gems to enhance waves to further increase the rewards.

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A lot of the growth occurs through leveling up the meta-game, with limited new tools and tactics

After you beat any level, you can extend the map by going into endurance mode: Where the level will go on endlessly until you die as the enemies and rewards progressively increase. I haven’t seen a TD game with this many ways to personalize the play experience and was a very smart decision by the developers.

In this regard, Gemcraft Chasing Shadows is as long as you want it to be: You could just play until you’ve beaten every field, or go the distance and keep raising the difficulty and wizard level while going after the game’s many, many achievements.

As time go on, the meta-game upgrades of skills and the talisman will become more prominent, along with spells and more direct means of interacting during a level. Gemcraft is definitely a game designed for long run play thanks to continued replayability from customization, but this does present a few issues.

Flawed:

Gemcraft Chasing Shadows’ design definitely had some thought put into it and what they wanted from the player in terms of customization. However, relying on the player to keep pushing forward does present some pacing issues with the game. The early game of Gemcraft is somewhat on the boring side due to the limited means of interaction and the lack of the meta-game having a huge impact on play. It took me a few hours of play before I unlocked my first direct means of interaction and my talisman was still woefully incomplete.

This is a game that was very much built for mid to late game play; where the as mentioned meta-game and unlocks shine the most. But this means that new players will have to rise to the occasion to get to the good stuff. The game doesn’t push or guide you to accept these challenges, but simply leave them on the table for the discerning player to pursue.

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There are a lot of levels to unlock…

In terms of the actual TD mechanics and design, Gemcraft is somewhat basic in this regard. The nine gems that dictate special effects and  so on, don’t come anywhere near the variety seen in games like Orcs Must Die or Defense Grid in terms of attack variety.

In five hours of play, I’ve only ran into five enemy types with only one showing any real difference in terms of movement patterns.

One of the elements that make up great TD games is the ability to turn each field into a puzzle, as you try to create the best means to deal with the waves given the limited space and tools. Gemcraft’s reliance on meta-game and RPG progression prevents the game from reaching that level of critical thinking.

It doesn’t matter how great you design your defenses are if you simply don’t have the tools or the mana to deal with the enemies. Fortunately, the balance in terms of playing a level is set for people without making use of the meta-game. This means for new or novice players, they won’t be stopped by difficulty curves due to the meta-game from getting progress and having to grind out levels. Instead, all that extra challenge and content is there for expert players to step up their game and at the same time be rewarded for their efforts.

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… and a lot of achievements to obsess over

One last problem that I want to point out is that I found the UI to be a little bit cumbersome. It didn’t feel natural performing some of the commands and the game really wants you to learn the hotkey system.

Trying to understand enemy stats was also a little confusing starting out; as it’s hard to tell just why the enemies will go from dying quickly, to shrugging off your attacks. Without this feedback, it makes it hard to learn what you’re doing wrong on any levels that have you stumped.

Magical:

Gemcraft Chasing Shadows is a great example of a developer with a well thought out design. For fans of TD games, this is definitely one to get. And for developers looking to understand just how useful it is to let the player define their own experience, this is a game to look at, as evident by my recent video on it.

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