Protolife is a minimalist take on the tower defense genre by Volcanic Giraffe, a Russian team that took the core of a Ludum Dare entry from last year and polished it into something remarkable.
You’ve been tasked with clearing out a planet of an infectious lifeform to make it suitable for habitation. In the first few stages, you spend your time learning how to place blocks together to utilize the weapon configuration system. In each new stage your builder robot will gain access to ever more powerful weapon configurations to battle the growing arsenal of your enemies. The difficulty curve felt quite nice in this regard until spiking in the last quarter of the game.
Resource wise, you start each level with a set number of green energy cubes. You can collect more during the round or build a collector that becomes available later on. Weapon configuration is determined by how and in which direction you place your blocks. Weapons can be further modified by placing special orange crystals inside the configuration. There’s no dominant weapon that makes you abandon your previous configurations. I found a use for even the most basic types right through the final level.
Defining the core loop, each stage has a fixed growth and rest period for the purple ichor that threatens to take over the map. The rest period lasts just long enough for you to build out the next buildings in your plan before you’re thrust back into the action. Protolife mostly keeps you on your toes, but near the end of a few stages felt like you already knew you had won and were just checking off boxes.
Keeping the tension fresh, you have to rotate your focus between weapon spacing, diving recklessly into enemy territory to cut off enemy spawners, resource management, and making sure the path to your home base remains protected. This core loop was delicious and worked well - baring one cheap survival level towards the end of the game where I encountered enemy spawners I couldn’t eliminate. I was disappointed in that level since the invisible spawners felt like they were an ungainly way to force the player in playing a turtle strategy.
I did run into a few problems throughout that game that held Protolife back. In the more crowded levels, I found myself wishing I could lock certain weapons in place. As you try to place different weapons next to each other in tight confines, they could morph into a different configuration than you intended. Very frustrating. The music was thematically appropriate to the game but after an hour of the same track I found it grating and soon turned it off. Lastly, I’m not 60fps purist, but I was surprised that such a lo-fi game chugged as the screen became a bit crowded.
Despite the weird difficulty spikes at the end and the small hodgepodge of issues I came across, I’d definitely recommend checking out Protolife for any tower defense fans. Volcanic Giraffe took the simple concept of “placing blocks makes weapons” and iterated on it until it became robust and memorable.
Score: 4 out 5 (Recommended)
Protolife was developed by Volcanic Giraffe. It is available on Steam for $11.99.