Gemcraft Zero: Gem of Eternity
In mid-2008, we featured a game called GemCraft, which immediately went on to become one of the most well-received tower defense games of all time. Now, strategy fans can rejoice, because GameInABottle has released Gemcraft Chapter Zero: Gem of Eternity, and it's even bigger and badder than the original.
Acting as a prequel to the original, GemCraft Chapter Zero tells the story of a wizard who has become so entangled in his search for the fabled Gem of Eternity that his colleagues have cast him out. If the story doesn't compel you, that's to be expected, because GemCraft's muscle lies in it's incredibly addictive gameplay.
Prior experience with GemCraft isn't necessary, since the game provides you with tips and explanations throughout. At its core, the gameplay is deceptively simple; place magical gems atop towers to attack the monsters that arrive in waves and head towards your base. Enemies arrive in waves, and you can see when the next one is coming by keeping an eye on the bar at the left side of the screen. If an enemy reaches your base, it does damage to your mana, which you use to create your defenses, and if your mana reaches zero, you lose the level.
But there's a lot more to GemCraft this time around, as your first encounter with the map screen should tell you. Now winning a battle grants you experience which increases your level. Gaining a level allows you to purchase a wide variety of skills to help in the next fight, and even unlocks new battle modes for each area. For achievement fans, there are also an enormous number of amulets to try for, awarded for everything from defeating a particular number of monsters to using an ability to win a battle. GemCraft Zero is here to pull you in for the long haul.
Analysis: I was a little overwhelmed the first time I opened up the game and saw the sheer number of options available for everything, which makes the game appear much more difficult to pick up than it really is; Gemcraft Zero is as difficult as you want it to be. At first glance it appears a virtual hydra of a game, with so many spells, battle options, and tactics that it may scare off people expecting a strictly casual gaming experience that fits neatly into a coffee break.
The truth is, however, that GemCraft Chapter Zero manages to be one of those games where you can sit and play a few rounds when you have time, thanks to the save feature, but it will also cheerfully suck out your brain for hours at a time if you let it. The addition of levels and skills to buy means there's something more to strive for beyond simply staying alive, and customisation freaks will be able to tweak their army to their heart's content. There's something immensely satisfying in seeing the serpentine enemy advancement vaporised by your carefully laid plans, and since each level has multiple battle modes that can be unlocked the stronger you get, it lets the difficulty scale with your skill. It is possible to finish the game by powering through on the vanilla setting, but being able to test your mettle against other difficulties keeps the game from becoming tired as you go along.
GemCraft Chapter Zero is impressive for a variety of reasons, but the simplest is how it manages to take such a simple objective as the tower defense genre usually presents and make it so darned appealing. And this is coming from someone who can't usually play these games without zoning out after five minutes and wondering what's on Discovery Channel. One of my only real complaints is how largely silent the game is aside from its sound effects. A few simple music tracks in the background of the battle screen—where you spend the lion's share of your time—would have been nice, but honestly, I got so absorbed in what I was doing that I forgot all about it before long. Any fan of tower defense games shouldn't miss this one, but even those who may not normally be interested in them should at least give it a try. It's made me a convert, and should sit comfortably as king of the hill for a long time to come.
UPDATE: GameInABottle has released an update to GemCraft Zero, 1.01, which fixes several issues with the gameplay and addresses the difficulty in some levels.