‘Cubemen’ Review – Strategy Squared
I don’t like tower defence games. There, I said it, now feel free to lynch me! I don’t have a passionate hatred for them or anything, It’s just that I can’t get much satisfaction from simply clicking a few buttons and then sitting back to watch the “game” part happen on its own. I want to be involved somehow, I want to feel like I’m more than just an engineer who pops in every now and then to make sure everything’s still tickety-boo. Also, it doesn’t exactly help that the Iidie community churns these things out at a rate that’d make an iPad sweatshop look inefficient. So in that context, Cubemen ended up being a rather pleasant breath of fresh air for me. It’s one of the few games I’ve played that tries to put a nice twist on the genre, or at least one that isn’t just a cosmetic palette swap or a half-assed tacked-on gameplay mechanic.
At its core, this game is a fairly generic tower defence title; the things you’re building all fit nicely into the industry approved archetypes: cheap DPS, AOE mortar thingy, “slow the hell down” freeze ray, flamethrower bro, etc etc. The big difference is that the things you’re building ain’t towers, they’re the titular Cubemen; little blocky dudes you can actually give orders to. They’re troops, units, infantry. Treat em’ like permanent structures and you’re doomed! That’s something learned the hard way after struggling to last even a few rounds on the easiest map in the game.
The little guys aren’t terribly sturdy fellows, and there’s no fancy upgrades to keep em’ in fighting shape, so hoarding up money like you would in a standard tower defence scenario is a surefire way to defeat. Instead you’ve got to be dynamic and spontaneous. If one of your dudes snuffs it, then you must be prepared to replace em’ A.S.A.P, and if the current formation ain’t working out then you gotta move them into one that does. It totally nullifies the “hands-off” approach that I normally find so off-putting; in Cubemen I was always part of the action and there was always something for me to think about.
The game is split into two distinct modes: the first is defence, which is your basic “build a defensive formation around your HQ then shout ‘COME AT ME BRO!’” type thing. Then there’s the two player (human or AI) skirmish mode, which is more akin to a cross between tower defence and ARTS. The basic gist of it is that each player defends their HQ from relentless waves of enemy “creeps” all the while trying to escort their own batch of grunts to their rival’s HQ. Skirmish also limits you a lot more on where you can place your Cubemen and how many you can build, so your decisions end up having to be a lot more long term. I personally enjoyed the Defence mode a lot more due to its faster pace of play, but both types have their own separate quirks and strategies that make each of them worthy timesinks in their own right.
If that wasn’t good enough already, the game also looks mighty fine! I’m always a sucker for some snazzy voxel graphics and Cubemen delivers that in spades; the maps in particular have a beautiful aesthetic to them that makes me crave some kind of editor post-haste. There’s a huge variety of them too, each one offering its own individual tactical possibilities that take a fair bit of careful study to divine. It actually got to the point where I’d spend a good minute or two staring at map layouts in the level selection screen, thinking thoughts along the lines of “hmmm yeah I think I’ll open up with two of these and put them here and here and… oh! that’ll be a great spot for one of those things, ugh but what if they use THAT?”. It’s the sort of thought process you’d normally expect to come from a hardcore RTS title like Starcraft or Warcraft and it was kind of exhilarating to experience it in a different context than usual.
*Please note: the following exploit has been significantly nerfed in subsequent versions of Cubemen*
So far so good right? Well, I was totally stoked when I first sat down to do this review of Cubemen. “Finally” I thought “a game I can give a straight-up positive review! No major flaws I have to dig into, none of that ‘I like this game except for the bit where’, no little caveats, no nothing!”. But sadly my dream was not to be. In a bout of of curiosity I decided to try something. Something I’m not exactly proud of, but it had to be done. What I did was this:
What you see before you is a good ol’ fashioned Zerg rush, a tactic as old as time itself. Basically I built as many Grills (the cheapest unit in the game) as fast as I possibly could and lined them all up. The result was in an impenetrable barrier of cube dudes that crushed any approaching enemy in a hail of gunfire. Even if one of the poor buggers died, I’d have probably gained enough points by then to build 3 more! With this “strategy” you can totally dominate every defence level across all difficulties (except in 8 Units Only and Rockets Only mode) as well as get pretty close to a bunch of the online highscores. While it probably won’t win you any skirmish matches against human players, it’s more than enough to best the AI.
Is it fun to play the game like this? Hell no, it’s super boring! So what’s the problem then, can’t you just ignore it and play the game “properly”? Well yeah, for some people that’ll be easy as pie, but for others it presents a bit of a problem. Chances are you’ll want to build some Grill units regardless of what your playstyle happens to be. But where do you draw the line? How many is too many? At what point are you “cheating”? Maybe you should just forbid yourself from using them at all? In essence, you end up having to establish your own personal honour system just to keep the game “fair” which, for me at least, makes Cubemen exceptionally uncomfortable to play.
Don’t get me wrong here, I still wholeheartedly recommend Cubemen for anyone looking for a hefty strategy fix. It’s a fun, clever title that puts a unique spin on an incredibly stale genre, and for that it should be lauded. But for people such as myself, the constant lure of an “easy way out” will be too much to bare and end up ruining the wonderful experience this game has to offer. I guess for £3.99 it’s not something worth pulling your hair out over, but before you take the plunge, I’d recommend you at least have a little think about where you stand on playing games “honestly”.
Cubemen is currently available from Steam for £3.99.
Review summary Pros:
Cool art style, large variety of maps, great twist on Tower Defence, lots of tactical possibilities.
Nothing to stop a Zerg rush on most modes*