July 16th, 2012 | By Dominic Tarason
Blink, and sometimes you’ll miss something special. I did so last week, and Bonsai Defense slipped under my radar – a terrible shame, as it’s exactly the sort of game that makes me want to sit down and smell the roses. Or at least help them grow, defended against a variety of abstract menaces. Bonsai Defense is a graduate project from Moholy Nagy University of Art and Design in Budapest, and it’s a lovely thing to behold. It’s made using the latest Unity engine, and is free to download for Windows and Mac PCs.
At its heart, this is a tower defense game, but quite unlike any you’ve played before. Set on a procedurally generated tree, your goal is to sprout new branches, and then grow beautiful, blooming flowers at the furthest points in order to earn victory points. As new branches grow, passive ‘fruit’ develop. These can be turned into a variety of forms – some generate energy required for more growth, some act as defensive points, and one even prunes off unwanted or infected branches. It’s surprisingly complex and intricate stuff, and different every time, as the tree grows semi-randomly, and partially by your command.
As you can see in the screenshots, this is a lovely-looking game. The tree you’re tending to grows from roots floating freely in space, and the branches spiral outwards. You control the game from a free-floating first-person perspective. Essential, given how broad and tall the playfield can grow. You’re still empowered with a surprising level of information, including faint red lines drawn along the branches, indicating where the regular waves of invading creatures will spread to. If you don’t wipe these things out quickly enough, they’ll reach the roots of your tree and begin to infect branches. These can be healed through carefully managed growth, or pruned to literally cut your losses.
There’s some very clever visual touches, such as the grasping Tendril turret, which animates smoothly and impressively, extending rapid but somehow leisurely growths out to bat enemies off the tree. The soundscape is almost as beautiful as the graphics. A mixture of slow-paced piano tunes and mellow, ambient drones make up the music, but there’s no shortage of audio generated by the tree itself. As generated energy pings around the branches, you hear faint glassy tinklings, and something that sounds not entirely unlike wind-chimes as your various fruits and flowers grow to their full strength.
Being such a unique and unusual game, despite familiar origins, there’s a comprehensive tutorial that runs you through everything from basic camera control to some strategic tips. There’s a lot of replay value here as well. Despite being a univesity project – usually they tend to be fairly limited in scope – this one seems to have been put together with thoughts of long-term value. There’s a broad variety of gameplay modes and modifiers, ranging from how aggressive the enemies are, to how complex and gnarled the tree grows. There’s a victory state to work towards – a certain critical mass of active flowers that you need to aim for – but even this can be delayed or extended by picking a longer-form game type.
Bonsai Defense is a clever bit of design, married to professional production values, and the best price-tag of all: Free. All the more impressive, when you look at the credits screen and realize that this is a one-man project, with a second name included in a small Thanks section. If you’ve got a Windows or Mac PC, and like your towers defensive, and your games experimental, give it a try.