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‘Spice Invaders’ Review – Thar Be Freemium In Me Tower Defense

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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.

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