When I think about possible themes for tower defense games, a tale about space pirates attacking a futuristic Earth in search of highly sought after ‘Spice’ is probably the last thing I’d think of. Yet, that’s exactly the premise of Spice Invaders [Free], a new freemium title from Chillingo. While the game itself is a nice take on tower defense, the bulk of the conversation unfortunately turns to its freemium elements which distract greatly from the actual game.

As a tower defense game, Spice Invaders plays similarly to Fieldrunners [$2.99 / HD]. Players are charged with defending one (or more) bases in open-field maps. Enemies come in waves from a variety of different entrances, forcing you to build towers in such a way as to prevent them from taking out your base. Since the maps are open (with some featuring random barriers littered throughout the map), you can do this by surrounding your base, forcing the baddies into long paths made of towers, and so on.

The core gameplay isn’t particularly innovative, even the tower types are pretty standard (machine gun, missile, anti-air, e.t.c.). The game does have a pretty mean difficulty streak, since the AI adapts to tower placement and tries to find the path of least resistance to your base. The end result is a game providing a decent challenge for folks that aren't used to complex tower defense strategy.

Where Spice Invaders differentiates itself is in its overall presentation and execution. The visuals are crisp and vivid and do an interesting job portraying a futuristic (and bleak) Earth. This is also reflected in a good level design, as Spice Invaders takes you through a tour of the various continents. The music is catchy and adequately sets the mood. Even the menus, in-game tutorial and story cutscenes are done well. In fact, based on the above I’d argue that Spice Invaders has all the core elements of a great tower defense game. That is, until you get to the pay wall.

Yes folks, after seven missions in South America (the first continent in the game), you are unceremoniously informed that in order to move to the next continent you must either reach level 20 or pay-up 42 spice. When I reached this point, I was barely level 13, so you can imagine my surprise at making the level cap that high. Also, since I was upgrading my towers on a regular basis (as I was taught), I had very little spice to try and get past the level cap using that method.

I understand the strategy of utilizing freemium as a revenue source, and as far as I’m concerned if it’s done right I’m all for it. I thought Spice Invaders did an adequate job balancing spice rewards with tower (and upgrade) unlocks. I even thought their idea of making costumes for your avatar cost tons of spice wasn't a bad idea, as it was purely cosmetic and didn’t change the gameplay much. I was even fairly tolerant of the screen-filling ads that you’ll randomly get when starting levels.

But, putting a pay wall into the game after only seven levels forcing players to either grind out for a while on already completed maps or pay up in IAP to access enough space to pass is not a good idea and just seems to go too far.

Now, before we all get our pitchforks and chant about the downfall of freemium, there are a few things you should know. First, it costs only a dollar in IAP to purchase enough spice to pass this pay wall (if you shell out for the $2.99 pack the ads even go away). Furthermore, if you read  this review, you now know you can simply keep 42 spice in your inventory for when this first pay wall hits so you can continue right on playing (you’ll earn more than enough with just leveling).

Finally, while grinding to level 20 does take a decent amount of time, it’s not too hard to simply save up the spice you earn from redoing missions and leveling up to move on (that’s how I did it). If you’re willing to put a little effort into grinding, these sorts of barriers aren’t horrible.

However, in this instance it’s really the principle of the thing. Artificially restricting progress in this manner is not my preferred way of implementing freemium mechanics. It would have been far better to add more towers/upgrades/perks and expect players to eventually shell out spice purchases to explore those (the game does this as well). I have no problem with encouraging players to spend some cash on premium items that are not necessary for normal gameplay. The restrictions in Spice Invaders do not fit that example, especially since all these design choices are solely made to encourage folks to spend money (rather than designs that encourage fun).

It really is a shame, because other than the freemium issues Spice Invaders is a really great addition to the tower defense genre. While the gameplay didn’t offer anything particularly new, the artwork, music, and all around presentation and gameplay implementation were well done. I just really wish there was a way for players to just pay one hard fee that would get rid of all pay walls and basically treat the game as a normal paid title. Unfortunately, that’s not the way freemium typically works.

If you’re in the mood to explore a new, tough TD game and you don’t mind the freemium grind (or shelling out cash), then check out Spice Invaders. If not, well, I already know what you’re going to be doing.

TouchArcade Rating

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  • Anonymous

    There's a couple of other objective critiques you missed: the no-ads thing? It's linked to Crystal, there's no guarantee it will work on another device, and you'll have no recourse with Apple if it doesn't work on another device. Additionally, the Crystal backup/restore does not work 100%, so trusting your IAP purchases to whatever sort of half-baked server system they've implemented at launch would not be recommended.

    Additionally, don't expect this to run stably on a 4G touch with iOS 5. Like too many recent releases it wasn't tested and it routinely spikes above the threshold where iOS 5 will kill the process. Due to this, I've had dozens of crashes, some of which prompted a re-install because the local data was corrupted, which is where I've had the joy of testing first hand how the server backup does not work properly.

    As the review says, it's an above average TD, but wait for a patch or two and then go in planning to deal with the "sales" model.

    • http://twitter.com/back2this Sean Yuan

      Agreed, this is the worst of the iAP issues with the game.

      @back2this:twitter 

    • http://www.toucharcade.com Eric Ford

      Thanks for mentioning the Crystal issue. That is another flaw in this specific freemium build. I'm not sure if the devs were forced to use Crystal (most likely), but it doesn't make it any better.

      As for the stability, I try to mention in my reviews what hardware I use, so I appreciate it when folks chime in with their own impressions on their iOS devices.

  • Anonymous

    I'd rather instead of  playing this freemium grind, to enjoy a much more innovative, charming and fun TD game as Kingdom Rush.

    • Anonymous

      Yeah, as soon as the update goes live for Elf Defense Eng, I'm going to give them my $2.99 instead of On5/Chillingo.

      With a straight up $0.99 to remove ads, a re-balancing of spice rewards, and then having the freemium spice purchases (along with properly functioning server storage of your data), this would be a perfectly fine freemium title. As it stands, though, bleh.

  • Dr. Mark Lipschitz

    I don't understand how key elements of this game were left out of the review.  Its like the first few pages of the forum were read and that is what this review was based off of.
    There is an excellent multiplayer component of this game.  The matches are very fun and there are a lot of players online.  The multiplayer matches last from only a few seconds to at most a couple of minutes.  You get awarded spice for every win.   I am ranked a colonel level 34 with most of my towers upgraded and I have spent $0.  There is no grinding in this game if you don't play with yourself.

    • Anonymous

      The multiplayer was an oversight, I'll give you that, and it is one of the more unique aspects of this game. However to say, "if you choose to focus on 1/3rd of the available game, then the IAP model ain't so bad" seems a bit of a reach. You should be able to play with yourself all you want and never touch the multiplayer in this genre, and if you're going to twist people's arms to play MP just to ameliorate the IAP issues, that's actually worse in my book.

      • Dr. Mark Lipschitz

        I think you are being a little ridiculous.  You get a full game for free.  Nobody is telling you that you need to play the multiplayer but if you decide to ignore that 1/2 of the game then you will have to lightly grind.  With the amount of spice being double for a board it is a very important part of the game. 

        When was the last time Microsoft or Sony let you download a game for free with these stipulations.  They don't, you get a demo, you play the available content.  You see if you like it and you buy it.  Has Fisher Price sent your daughter any toys lately?  Please don't reiterate the Crystal thing again.  If you don't want to deal with them there are plenty of other tower defense games that will be happy to take your money.    This game is great.  Stop complaining and start enjoying it!  

      • Anonymous

        I think the confusion here is that you're assuming "free" is actually a desirable trait in a TD game. I don't mind paying money for a game, even for so-called "free" games (I've paid for the majority of my "free" games as well), it's that the system used for Spice Invaders is simply a bad deal for those who would otherwise pay:

        See, if you attack this game like you have with the "Haha! I have played 2/3rds of all the content and didn't pay a dime!" attitude then the fact that the RMT for spice system, stability, ad removal, online security of your game data, etc. are ALL flawed well, sure, for you, it's a *free* game.

        Me, I don't want a free game ever unless the fact that it's free doesn't harm my enjoyment, and that's not the case here. I want to be able to remove the ads with an IAP that is secure and not tied to a Crystal account. I want to be able to play more than 10 minutes without a crash because they didn't bother testing on 1 of the 3 current iOS devices. I want to progress and earn spice without taking part in their multi-level marketing schemes (add Crystal friends to increase damage, yeah, that belongs in a TD game).

        So, save the, "...but it's FREEEEEE!", counter argument, it means nothing. A "free" game with this game's production values is not free, and was never intended to be. Its intent, like all games, is to make a profit, and somebody at On5 or Chillingo wagered they'd make a larger profit with this sales model than a straight up purchase price or a less intrusive freemium approach. Time will tell if they were right, but had they opted for a more polished launch with a better designed freemium approach they'd already have my money as opposed to having me arguing with the handful of people who actually defend the game all the while boasting how they didn't pay for it, yeesh.

      • Dr. Mark Lipschitz

        I have had no problem with stability on any of my devices.  As per the forums you are a small percentage of users that are having stability problems and you should check your device.  Honestly the ads don't bother me.  It is a reminder that I need to take a break.  Online security of what?  They have none of my personal information and honestly if you think your information is secure online on ANY site you are being foolish(Sony, Citibank, Symantec).  I don't look at anything as just being "FREE"  The way I look at it is this app has given me many hours of enjoyment, let me progress through the game and it cost me nothing.  I have paid for apps that have failed to provide that.  I have bought many iap in TowerMadness, if I felt like there was anything to substantial to buy in this game I would shell out the coin.  This game is so ridiculously easy and every aspect of the game is obtainable that there is no reason to buy anything other than remove the occasional ad which to me is like a commercial. 

        Your rational for being able to progress at the same level without multiplayer mode is ridiculous.  I have patients all day that need to lose weight.  I tell them to increase their protein and decrease their carbs to lose weight.  They come back complaining they have not lost anything.  They increased their protein but didnt decrease their carbs.  If they want to be successful they need to do both.  Same thing here. 

      • Anonymous

        This game will crash repeatedly on any fourth generation iPod touch running iOS 5 because the game's memory footprint, something out of the control the user, routinely exceeds the memory footprint allowed by iOS 5 on a 256MB device and the process is preemptively killed by the OS. If this were an older configuration, your blithe dismissal might hold water, but it's the current, shipping configuration of an iOS device; so this is all on the develope.
        Then, because the process is terminated ungracefully by the OS repeatedly and the programmers didn't see fit to make the game handle such exceptions properly, the local data becomes irretrievably corrupted quite often (happened twice to me already and there are numerous reports of similar occurrences out there).Then, when you reinstall it and it fetches your progress from Crystal, it turns out that it doesn't fetch all of it, which is why I said their server backups are insecure, because they are not, period. Who in their right mind is going to buy spice or disable ads when the only place it is stored doesn't actually restore the data correctly?

        I won't even waste my time trying to explain that in a genre where multiplayer isn't anything close to standard, that limiting the usual TD player base to 20% of the speed of spice earning as those who do take part in MP is going to result in grumbling, particularly when you're holding out the tip jar and the only people not complaining are the two people who never have any intent on paying anything anyhow.

        It's a remarkably odd fan base to be building, those people who will make the devs no money. Meanwhile their actions alienate those who would pay them money. That you somehow see this as a good idea is puzzling to say the least. If you were my doctor, I'd look outside if you told me it was raining.

      • Dr. Mark Lipschitz

        "If you were my doctor, I'd look outside if you told me it was raining"  I think that is supposed to be funny but I am not a weatherman so again I fail to see your point.   If you were by patient I would tell you that you need to learn some relaxation techniques, stop obsessing about things you cannot control and enjoy the more important things in life.  Its only a game. 

    • http://www.toucharcade.com Eric Ford

      Hi Mark,

      Thanks for your comments. I played a bit of multiplayer and it didn't strike me as anything worth writing about. However, I should have at least mentioned it in some form or fashion so apologies on my end.

      • Dr. Mark Lipschitz

        Really? My experience with Tower Defense is a little limited.  I have played TowerMadness split screen.  I have been looking for one online, this is the first one I have found.  Can you recommend one you like?

      • http://www.toucharcade.com Eric Ford

        Mark, check out Defenders of Ardania (we reviewed in Dec) for what I think is a nice implementation of multiplayer in TD. Apologies for the delay in response (it's sometimes hard to check this site at work).

  • http://twitter.com/gamander gamander

    This game is just a horrible money grab. Deleted.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/4CZCDI4UUGGECG5FSOO67JQKSA Hansy

    Aside from the ever present desire to unlock more and more stuff, Spice Invaders
    has a bit more going for it. It looks great with lots of colourful
    imagery, plenty of visual upgrades to each tower and these adorably
    goofy little speech bubbles that pop-up from time to time to show what a
    given unit is thinking.

  • Anonymous

    The only thing i can agree is, that the IAP-binding to my Crystal-account is a bad thing. But I have to say, that I enjoyed what I've seen so much, that I enjoyed giving On5 and Chillingo my 5$. I got the ads removed and with tha amount of spice I got from that purchase it feels like a regular "premium" game to me. So for me it would have been the same to me if they had released Spice Invaders as non-freemium for 5$. I like it.

  • Anonymous

    I too think that this review is rather superficial, even the screenshot is taken from somewhere else (right Eric? surely you didn't take that screenshot with $18749). Did you even beat Morumbi, the most challenging map unlocked before you hit that "paywall"?

    As anyone who have followed the official forums thread on this game will know, CHannum is on a crusade witch-hunt.  Seems like he is eager to see this game fail, and the developers go unrewarded, because he is so fed up.

    For anyone else who wonders, I have finished the game, unlocked the 50+ maps in total, without spending a dime.  This doesn't mean the developer made no money though, there are ads in there.  TD is a crowded space, and I applaud the developer/publisher for trying something different (time will tell if they end up making more money this way).  I think the main criticism seem to be with the "paywall" that appears after the first 7 maps.  I have not encountered another "paywall" after Africa though, so maybe it will be a good idea to remove this restriction altogether.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sutrisno.sukendy Sutrisno Sukendy

    It is an amazing game. However there are many flaws. For one, it seems to crash a HELL LOT in Ipad 1. I turned off all programmes and it helps only a little. It seems to occur when there are alot of enemies on screen at one time being shot/spawning. This doesn't happen much in Iphone4. Still does a bit, but infrequent. And doesn't happen at all on Iphone4s, maybe. Crystal seems very buggy, I have 2 brothers who own the afore mentioned Iphone 4s and Iphone 4, while me the Ipad1. We friended each other, gave gifts, and... It registered as only 1 of my brother that i have sent the gift to.

    So i couldn't get the 'free gift if you send 3 free gifts' and neither can my brothers. What more I only properly received 2 free gifts of 15 spice. I think. Anyways, great game, ruined somewhat by crystal.

  • https://me.yahoo.com/rekzkarz#a0df5 rekzkarz

    I played it.  I don't like the IAP aspect, BUT...
    I got a good taste of the game (many levels & upgrades) before the next continent.  I played a few levels multiple times.  I don't mind this method of IAP, but it'd be much nicer to the players to say "you either grind OR pay to get to the next part".
    Frankly, I really don't like the ads which take over the screen & pop up on my phone -- I see that as quite invasive.  I don't mind the annoying banners alongside games quite as much.  But taking the whole screen over & making you wait -- weak sauce.

    As to my review -- the game has nice graphics, the gameplay is smooth, the upgrades are nice (altho typical military 'TD' faire), and the audio isn't horrible.  BUT it's nothing particularly amazing either -- and I don't know why games need to have 'load' screens anymore where nothing happens.  Hasn't modern programming figured a way around this?

    Missing the multiplayer in this game -- which works better than *any* multiplayer I've done on a phone so far -- seems like quite an 'ooooops', similar to reviewing a MUD and forgetting to say it's text only.

  • http://twitter.com/FLPC filipe cavalcanti

    how the hell did you guys unlock the air attack mode?

Spice Bandits Reviewed by Eric Ford on . Rating: 3.5