The Kingdom Rush games have been a constant mobile companion for me, bringing countless hours of strategic joy on long flights and layovers for years now. Kingdom Rush: Vengeance, the newest game in the series, adds some serious twists to the usual formula, serving as the largest update to the franchise since it began in 2011. But even among all this change, Kingdom Rush: Vengeance keeps all the charm and value that makes these games worth playing over and over again.
While Kingdom Rush, Kingdom Rush: Frontiers and Kingdom Rush: Origins all focused on the forces of good defending their lands against evil, Vengeance — the fourth entry in Ironhide game Studios’ mobile tower defense series — flips the script. In Vengeance, players take control of the resurrected dark wizard Vez’nan and his minions to battle the forces of good.
The four tower archetypes — ranged, magic, troops and artillery — still exist. But unlike in previous games, where players could choose to evolve their ranged tower at level three into a fast-firing magical hybrid or a long range, slow-firing single bowman, the towers don’t change much over the course of a single map.
Instead, players create a loadout of up to five towers before the match even begins. When the game first starts, only four towers are available. But as the game progresses, players will unlock seven other towers to add to their loadout, with five more towers being locked behind real-money purchases.
Unlike previous Kingdom Rush games, the towers in Vengeance start with their unique quark already in place. For example, the first artillery style tower you have is a goblin rocket launcher, where little goblins jump on a rocket and crash down on nearby enemies. It’s similar to a traditional artillery tower, with slow-firing, large area damage. The second artillery tower you unlock is a boiler that deals damage at a steady pace in its area of effect. Instead of only being able to hit a single enemy and its nearby compatriots, the boiler deals low damage to everything in the area.
Normally, you’d have to choose between those two types of towers at level three in the middle of the match. But Vengeance gives you access to the boiler tower at level one — assuming it’s in your loadout. This results in a more interesting tower landscape from the first wave of enemies.
For the first area of the game, this new change didn’t sit well with me. I missed the in-match decision-making that would come from choosing a tower’s specialty before its final level. But as I went on, I began to appreciate the tower variety and additional strategy that having specialty towers out from minute one provided me.
If I found an awesome choke point, I could put down the boiler tower immediately and watch as it dealt minimal damage in a full 360 degrees. Normally, I’d have to wait until many waves into the match to have that kind of efficiency. It makes the decision surrounding which tower to upgrade first a little more complicated. Where I used to simply pour money into one tower type until all of its units were upgraded, now I mix it up depending on what’s needed most.
At one point toward the end of the game, I found myself starting a match and jumping back out of it as new enemies came my way. I started tweaking my loadout and then restarting to make sure I had the perfect grouping of towers at my disposal. It wasn’t something that was necessary, it was simply my way of creating the most efficient defense system I could in the end game. Being able to then take my favorite tower loadouts into earlier levels was a delight.
But the system does come with some serious drawbacks. The tower upgrades are no longer individualized, and the tree instead consists of four groups: one for general tower upgrades, another for heroes, one for the reinforcement abilities — which allows you to call demons to anywhere on the battle field — and, finally, one for the magical blast that deals area damage on a long cooldown.
These upgrade points are made even less interesting by being awarded flatly based on completing a level, not on performance. One of the best parts of the old Kingdom Rush games was making yourself overpowered by completing a level, getting three stars — earned based on performance — to earn three upgrade points, and then completing the two mission challenges for even more points.
While the challenges still exist for each level, they seem to exist more for bragging rights and added difficulty than as functional ways to gain points. However, once the game’s 17-level campaign is completed, another, higher difficulty level is unlocked, giving the game some added replay value.
While I find myself disappointed in some of the changes to Kingdom Rush: Vengeance — as well as their decision to lock five cool towers behind a paywall — it’s still a game I found myself treasuring every new moment I spent with it. My biggest complaint with Kingdom Rush: Vengeance is that there isn’t more of it. While the game lasted me a good 10-or-so hours, I find myself always wanting to take on new challenges and earn new towers.
The map and enemy variety in Vengeance is stellar, and the overall experience of playing brings me back to Frontiers, my favorite game in the series. The boss levels are fun and varied, and each new adversary does a nice job of tasking you with new obstacles to overcome.
Kingdom Rush: Vengeance keeps the foundation of what makes Kingdom Rush my favorite mobile game franchise. Once I got past the admittedly jarring changes to the formula, Kingdom Rush: Vengeance grew on me and even surpassed my fond memories of a few of the other games.
For veteran Kingdom Rush players and newcomers alike, the charm and strategy of the franchise remains with Kingdom Rush: Vengeance, making it one of the best mobile games of 2018.
Kingdom Rush: Vengeance was reviewed on an iPhone X using a TestFlight code provided by Ironhide Game Studios. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.