What do you get if you take the angst-fuelled mechs of Gundam, the side-scrolling feel of a dungeon crawling Metroidvania, the story of a sci-fi action adventure and the vaguely metal soundtrack? You get Defenders of Ekron — a game that pays homage to so many things at once, it almost doesn’t work.
In a nutshell, you’re an angsty teenage pilot called Eneas. Troubled yet brilliant, you’re top of your class. Your rival — because of course, you have a rival — plays the trope of your best friend until the unexpected (totally expected) accident at the end of your final exam (the opening of the game), at which point he becomes the standard frenemy character that all anime-style writing needs. Beyond that, you have token female pilot with pink hair (trope) who is one year older than you (sempai), your AI that looks vaguely like Halo’s Cortana, and the oldest person in the entire game, your Commandant, touted as one of the most famous pilots of his decade, at the ripe old age of 26. All of this will sound painstakingly familiar to anyone who ever watched anything resembling Gundam — or any similar anime for that matter.
Defenders of Ekron is, unfortunately, a short game. There’s a trophy for completing it in less than 2.5 hours, for those of you who like doing speed runs, but I took my time and finished it in under a day. I strongly recommend that you save speed-running for at least your second playthrough, however, because otherwise, you won’t have a clue what on Ekron is going on. The story isn’t bad — it’s just formulaic and only there when you literally go searching for it, scouring levels for data nodes you can scan for exposition. Compounding this is the fact that this game is riddled with typos; I will never criticise anyone or any game for trying its hand at another language. English is difficult — especially as a second language — and translators can be difficult, but that’s no excuse for not, at the very least, spell-checking the game.
Back to the story though — it feels tropey because everything it’s made up of is so heavily tried and tested. Despite that, Defenders of Ekron is still interesting enough that I would recommend it to anyone whose interest was sparked in the first paragraph. You shoot the baddies, train your pilot to upgrade your mech and shoot more baddies with a better weapon. My recommendation, however, comes with a fairly large asterisk and a few things you really ought to know before reaching for your wallet.
The biggest problem with Defenders of Ekron is that the story is pretty vague until about half-way through. There’s a terrorist faction that you fight using some Anakims (mechs), each of which has an Ishvara (special ability) — except yours, because of reasons. Unfortunately, the text is not read out to you but it automatically advances at an uncontrollable speed, so while you’re trying to get the vocab down the game has already moved on. Ironically, if English is your second language, this will probably be too quick for you. There’s a central hub that you visit between missions but you won’t find much exposition here; you can speak to a grand total of three people who don’t advance the story — they just hurry you on shoot the next terrorist.
The gameplay behind Defenders of Ekron is fairly interesting. As you play, you unlock your own special abilities for your mech that you can switch between at will. This is pretty cool, in theory, but the execution leaves a little to be desired. This goes for the entire control scheme — there is absolutely nothing to remind you which button does what. I got to the end of the game before figuring out how to use one of the abilities. On top of that, switching between your mech’s modes — navigation (flight) mode, combat mode and analysis mode— is painfully slow for such a fast-paced game. In order to make this more infuriating, Defenders of Ekron asks you to switch between your different combat modes for puzzle platform sections, and encourages you to scan your enemies to get their information in your database — something excruciatingly difficult to do while they try to suicide bomb you, or while your NPC allies gun them down. If you’re a collector like me — someone who is compelled to scan all the things and read all the papers — except a slight headache.
Fortunately, there is a special simulation room you can head to if you want to practice and hone your skills. This is something that you very much want to do, as there are no tutorials for your new weapons and abilities. Once you unlock something, you should head straight to the training room to see what your new capabilities are — the differences between the primary and secondary firing modes will be important as the game progresses. There’s even a cute little arcade game tucked away in this room, called Invaders of Ekron. Although the main game isn’t long enough for you to get bored (with the exception of the final mission, which is frankly painful), the addition of a game within a game is always a nice one. It’s worth noting that is one of three additions you’ll find in this definitive edition; the other two being additional difficulty settings and a ‘boss rush’ mode, where you fight all the bosses once more, one after the other, without health regen. Apparently, some people think that’s fun — to each their own.
Unfortunately, there’s not much more I can say that wouldn’t be a spoiler, due to the length of the game. Other than that there are some pretty game-breaking bugs that will have you on the verge of rage-quitting. In-between all the shooting you will find the odd puzzle solving section. Since all puzzles involve shooting, stabbing or exploding something, you’re going to be left with trial and error. While trying to figure this out can be annoying, it’s when the thing you’re aiming at — or worse, your mech — disappears from the screen, that you start questioning whether you want to finish the game. You only have two options here if you do — restart the level or reboot the game. Strangely, the latter is the better option, as this will load your latest checkpoint. Why the option for manually reloading a checkpoint isn’t an option escapes me. On top of this, scanning an enemy makes a little icon pop up that implies it has saved the data entry. It has not, and that is infuriating beyond compare. Just like with the typos, this lack of foresight is a huge detriment to the game. Defenders of Ekron feels like a labour of love, and yet it would have been that much better if the developers had been a bit more careful with their work.
Defenders of Ekron isn’t a bad game; it’s a fairly good one hounded by some awful decisions and terrible bugs. The story is an amalgamation of some of my favourite tropes growing up, and it’s compelling enough — the technocratic republic Eneas fights for seems an interesting dystopia but it isn’t explored well enough to leave a lasting impression. The music is pretty decent, but like the story, is fairly formulaic and exactly what you would expect. If you could pick up a copy for £5–10, it’s probably worth a crack, but any more than that and you will be kicking yourself.
*Code kindly provided by the publisher for review*
Defenders of Ekron Definitive Edition£9.99
- It’s a mashup of a lot of things that a lot of people love
- The aesthetics are great
- It feels weirdly nostalgic, playing it
- A mashup of too many things at once makes for a less unique game
- The story has a kernel of something really interesting, but you need to actively search for it to find anything, making Defenders of Ekron a less than memorable experience
- The bugs and the typos hold this game back