I’ll start off with a bold statement – Cartridge Defense is one of the best tower defence games I’ve played in years. It also offers a unique spin on the genre by merging it with a collectable card game and deckbuilding side. As a result, everything is beautifully balanced in a way that means you can’t spam or grind to win, you have to be tactical.
Before getting into battle, you must build your deck of cards. Cards are the primary way you get towers onto the battlefield but they all come with different prices and sometimes with extras. You can have some cheap cards that offer low level towers or add in slightly more expensive ones that give you multiple towers or buffed basic towers. Then by the time you get to spend a few hundred of the game currency on a card, you are reaching level 3 towers right up to multiple level 5 towers, the maximum. Having a balanced deck of cheap simple cards and powerful expensive ones is key because the money you get to play with is fixed and delivered to you after each wave of enemies. This means if everything is too expensive, you’l be in trouble and crash out early in a level.
Once in game, your cards are shuffled and you start off with four at random, you can mulligan two of them out for swapsies if you want and then it is into battle. The battlefield on each level is divided up into squares and if it’s a square, you can place a tower on it. This brings in the maze element of some of the best tower defence games in the genre. You are then introduced to your command centre. Here, you can buy towers not in cards in your deck for slightly more money but it also controls your upgrade path. Upgrade your command centre (using cash) to level 2 and now you can pay to upgrade all level 1 towers to level 2. You can’t upgrade them to level 3 until you upgrade the command centre, so you can’t get carried away. It does mean if you have a level 3, 4 or 5 card to lay down though, you can get all that benefit without spending money upgrading the command centre. Again, this comes back to careful building of the deck and there are 571 cards to choose from at the time of 1.0 release. You start with just 15 but through playing, earning currency and beating challenges you’ll be able to buy card packs in the store, individual cards in the menus or win rare or sponsored cards via challenges.
As you play through the story mode, more things become unlocked. The ability to focus towers on priority targets is unlocked in area 2 but there are loads of options to choose from, locked away that you can win. You can only take 8 options into battle but the personalisation is there. Enemies can be randomised in sponsorship challenges to win special cards. Expert mode means you have to spend all your money each wave and nothing carries over. Endless mode is a 120 wave hellish battle that gives you the option to tag out every few levels and take some minor winnings with you. You take 100 cards into that battle – you’ll need them! Then there’s roguelike mode. Here you get given a specific deck of cards as a starter pack and you keep going until you die. It’s the extreme mode and I was overrun early on every time but that’s down to my tactics rather than being poorly built.
All of these different elements are so perfectly balanced, you win on tactics, a good deck and a tiny slice of luck if the cards deal your way. Even if they don’t you can still mitigate the problem using the command centre. It is so rare to have a tower defence game genuinely provide a tense battle every level and you never feel overpowered, it deserves huge praise. I haven’t even mentioned blocks yet, useful for plugging gaps in your tower maze or for raising towers higher to attack further. Status ailments and buffs? Yep, Cartridge Defense has those too. Poison enemies if you dare but even the enemies have fun traits. Chargers steam ahead. Guardians can’t be attacked from the front. It all plays into your deck, strategy and build of your maze. I also love the whole aesthetic of the game too. It’s as if it is taking part in a cyberpunk game inside an Atari console. If I were nitpicking, the explosion sounds are very low quality and so I muted them, and eventually the synthwave music too and enjoyed my own soundtrack.
If you have a vague interest in tower defence games or deckbuilders doing something different, you should absolutely check out Cartridge Defence. It’s the very definition of a hidden gem in video games and precisely the reason I run this website, to celebrate games like this. A superb achievement.
Review copy provided by developer.
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