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Review: Djinni and Thaco: Trial by Spire Tasks You with Wielding Cosmic Power

Screenshot: Djinni and Thaco: Trial by Spire

Virtual reality is the gateway to what will probably the future of entertainment. We probably won’t get Ready Player One’s Oasis anytime soon, but virtual reality and augmented reality experiences will be a major part of interactive entertainment going into the future—or so I’ve been told. As it is right now, VR is fledgling, and only a few titles are able to break the crust of mediocrity to rise above. St. Charles based developer Dark Catt studio has tried their hand at it with their tower defense game Djinni and Thaco—a risky move, seeing as though the tower defense genre is one that has been explored thoroughly in VR.

In Djinni and Thaco you play as Djinni, a massive genie (jinn, djin) summoned by a wizard named Thaco. Thaco has tasked you with moving his massive tower across the lands, defeating each of the duchy’s champions, and otherwise wrecking the day of the armies of each of these areas you come across. To do so, you’ll have to use your magic to stop them, either by directly intervening with spells, or summoning towers to slow and shoot your enemies, as well as bolster your own magical abilities.

Screenshot: Djinni and Thaco: Trial by Spire

I have to admit right away that I’m not the biggest fan of tower defense games, but I’ve always been thrilled at their potential in VR. Games like Good Goliath allow you to catch projectiles thrown by attackers, and Castle Must Be Mine emulates a KingdomRush type experience in VR, to name a few. As Djinni, you can’t directly interact with enemies beyond a slam. You can’t push or grab, which is a shame. But you can slam with your fists, and summon spells to stop your enemies in a spell system that requires compulsory hand gestures—something that is hit and miss.

When a game forces me into motion controls, it’s a bummer. In virtual reality, most everything is “motion controlled” so you’d think it would be an escape from imprecise control schemes that have you waving your arms around hoping it works. Somehow, Djinni and Thaco has managed to translate that frustration in an entirely new medium. To do a lot of things in Djinni and Thaco you are required to make gestures. To use Djinni’s spells, start the next wave of enemies, or even enter into a level, you’re required to do some sort of motion-control-like gesture. Entering/exiting a level and starting an enemy wave requires a I Dream of Jeannie  type arm folded head nod, and while the Index controllers I was using provided haptic feedback for certain steps of it—like vibrating when my arms were folded—the head nod was hard to get just right. Unfortunately, this is something that invoked a bit of motion sickness as I repeatedly banged my head hoping to proceed.

Screenshot: Djinni and Thaco: Trial by Spire

If it was just the head nod causing me frustration, I’d almost not care enough to mention it. But the entirety of Djinni’s magical arsenal requires a novel gesture to function, each equally finicky and frustrating. You can consult the compendium to refresh your memory about what needs to be done, but even so, I’ve found that executing these spells is problematic. Spells require you to raise your fist up, pull your hands apart, or slam the ground—to name a few. I hate Djinni and Thaco’s spell system, and even when I’m getting the spells to work consistently, it never feels as powerful as it should.

Djinni moves around the battlefield with a blinking type teleportation movement system—no smooth movement here–which I don’t miss, because most versions of that tend to make me motion sick even in their smoothest implementations. Positioning yourself on the battlefield is important when using spells, though, but also for determining where towers need to be placed. Unfortunately, the only overview of the battlefield you get is when you’re first entering into a level. I wish an overview mode was available, as it would go a long way with towards strategizing tower placement.

Screenshot: Djinni and Thaco: Trial by Spire

It wouldn’t be a tower defense game if there weren’t towers. In contrast to the motion control spellcasting, building towers is easy to do and tactilely satisfying. You build towers by reaching into magical void to remove the crystal, and assign to it your desired setting. This is the type of emulated physical interaction that makes virtual reality games great, and it’s satisfying to manipulate towers, though it’s not required to be done as often as spellcasting.

Building towers, while fun, doesn’t give you enough information to succeed. There is no overview mode, as I mentioned, so you’re forced to have a genie’s eye perspective of the battlefield. That’s not that big of a deal, but the most egregious issue is the lack of range indicator when selecting a tower to build. It doesn’t tell you, or at least not that I saw, where your tower will starting engaging the enemy. This is something you just have to learn through trial and error, but it won’t take too long to get a feel for it–there just aren’t that many towers to choose from

Screenshot: Djinni and Thaco: Trial by Spire

The towers you can build are incredibly basic. There’s a tower that grants you mana regen that can be upgraded to give Djinni his arsenal of spells. There’s a ballista tower for single targets, and a catapult tower that does area of effect damage.  You can upgrade the towers into more powerful versions—to shoot faster, or do extra damage. Each of these towers has at least two upgrade paths—which you’ll need to utilize if you are to stop the forces of Crambone from toppling Thaco’s tower through each of the seven Duchies. Each of the seven maps in Djinni and Thaco have different potential tower placements, unique pathways to the tower, and different enemy types.

Enemies in Djinni and Thaco consist of two types: those that run, and those that support. There are slow, armored enemies—the largest of which do massive damage to your tower—and faster enemies, which threaten to zip past ill-placed defenses. Each of these enemies are introduced almost unceremoniously. I feel like some of the most problematic—like the pixie—should definitely not be debuted alongside the ally-shielding dwarf. But it is, and it proved to be a hard stop in my forward progression. Even on the easiest difficulty, I have yet to determine a configuration of towers and magic to get me there.

Screenshot: Djinni and Thaco: Trial by Spire

And for a tower defense game, each of the levels are paced strangely. It feels almost breakneck, the entire time. There are fast enemies, but also jesters that accelerate enemy movement, turning slow enemies into fast ones. It’s not clever difficulty, but difficulty that requires frantic spell casting and/or properly placed and upgraded towers. I found that you can have a strategy that is airtight through the entire level, only to fail during a specific wave, or right at the end. Since you can’t save between waves, you’re forced to go back to a checkpoint—usually around the halfway mark—or restart the entire level if you want.

The enemies all look great, though, with decent animations and good character models. The levels, too, look amazing. The fantasy setting is established well, and features detailed vistas.The entire production value of Djinni and Thaco is okay, and very much borders on good—even if it never quite gets there.

Screenshot: Djinni and Thaco: Trial by Spire

I’d be remiss to write a review of Djinni and Thaco and not mention its story, and the presentation thereof. You may have already caught a gist of the story: you are a genie, in league with Thaco, stopping the forces of Crambone from toppling your tower. I’d normally say that the story is just a vehicle to get you to the tower defense moments, but it seems like the tower defense moments are a vehicle to get you to the game’s interstitials.

Djinni and Thaco styles itself as a comedy experience first, a tower defense game second. The beginning of the game sets the tone, with a longwinded intro by Thaco the Great, a wizard with dialogue delivered in a way that makes me wish for deafness, followed by a strange parody of Ke$ha’s Blow. Thaco, unfortunately, is ever-present, and you’re forced to listen to his insistent wackiness even when trying to learn the basic controls. The rest of the cast of characters aren’t that much better either, and with long, drawn-out cutscenes that go nowhere treading on tired jokes with awful delivery, I skipped them on subsequent playthroughs.

Screenshot: Djinni and Thaco: Trial by Spire

Unfortunately, you can’t skip the in-game dialogue. While replaying each level multiple times to get the perfect combination of towers and magic I mentioned earlier, I was forced to listen to the announcer duo—Duke and Wolf– their lines so many times I probably have them memorized. That’s too bad, because that duo is easily my favorite part of the game. But there just aren’t enough lines to make their presence a welcome one. They get repetitive fast.

Djinni and Thaco is so close to being good, but never quite crosses into that threshold. I’m hoping the developer Darkcatt Studios continues to take community feedback, and tightens up their game. There’s a really good experience hidden under the wackiness. But in the already crowded VR tower defense market, Djinni and Thaco needs to find a way to stand out.

Djinni and Thaco is available now on SteamVR and Viveport

 

 

 

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