I was never a huge fan of Tower Defense genre. It doesn’t mean that I dislike them, far from it, they just don’t pull me in like more narrative-driven experiences or big, grand strategies that can take be dozens of hours for a single game. Tower Defences tend to be number-crunching exercises — you need to manage your resources well, contemplate your damage output and make sure your coverage of the incoming enemies or lanes is as optimal as possible. That’s why, despite me rarely looking for a new tower defense to play, once I get my hands on one, I can’t stop playing until I find that optimal path of upgrades, pathing and guns to pick and place. It’s addicting, that’s right — to certain types of minds that like to get lost in the ‘I will tweak this now and see what will happen’ scenarios.
Lil’ Sherman was given to me by its developer, Dabster Entertainment, for which I am thankful — I am always looking for another distraction for the next few evenings, and the adventures of Little Tank That Could surely put me in a cheerful mood. The game is what I like to call an active combat tower defense — a subgenre of a genre when you, the player, don’t only plant towers on a map but have an active avatar that participates in combat, mixing up skill with strategy. In Lil’ Sherman, as the title suggest, you are a gosh darn cute Sherman tank who has a duty to protect your military bases from the onslaught of German Panzers which come at you with a tide of iron and steel and shells — all that happening in a pretty charming set of Switzerland valleys, rendered in a cute, chubby style.
The game… has potential. In fact, I’d go so far as to simply proclaim it to be Good. It has a lot of positives going for it that would be hard to omit in such a small project — additionally, as far as I know, it is the very first game that the developer released, and for a first this one is actually really well made. So, what exactly shines here?
Excellent controls! I was positively surprised by how snappy the Lil’ Sherman feels. And we are being spoiled by two control modes, one more realistic with turning by a thread and one more arcade with snapping left and right with the button press. Both are responsive, quick and driving the tiny metal box with a gun on top feels pleasant. If there is a singular nit-pick here is that the game doesn’t remember the setting we pick for the driving, so every time I start or restart a mission I need to remember to press that Y key on the keyboard to get into more comfortable for me arcade driving mode. Another great thing that is implemented well is feedback on the most crucial things! I like hearing when I hit the enemy, I do enjoy the little slow-mo closeup when we are walloped, and the calls of the sergeant are both funny and engaging.
Overcoming a level feels great. The waves are cruel. They come in with bigger and badder and faster threats and if you didn’t invest your gains smartly you will be very hard-pressed to both survive yourself and protect your base. The challenge, however, never feels unfair — it is more about how you use your resources. Sure, you can spam towers left and right, but if you don’t upgrade them properly and sustain your damage output, you’re gonna have a bad time. There is also a strong push into your own survivability and the first scant resources the game tosses at you I’d suggest heavily into investing towards your automatic repairs in the skill tree — you will need them, that’s for sure. Also, pay attention to the map geometry and layout — it is a proper 3D game and slopes and hills will play a role in the game — keep your elevation higher to reach further and be protected from enemy fire, just like a real tank would and should.
Despite getting very few levels, I never felt bored with them during my gameplay. Not only they ramp up in scale in difficulty significantly, not only they look really nice, but also after finishing a mission I the campaign you get it unlocked with a brutal endless mode, which offers a perfect way for you to grind them experience points to buff your trusty Sherman again and again before you tackle the next story mission which — trust me — will surely be way tougher than the previous one. The Endless mode also gives us a perfect challenge to really test out various strategies and systems — how to start, how to set up, which skills to take and in what order. It’s a blast!
There are however some nit-picks. Just as a preamble to this — none of them are damaging to the game core experience and they are just things I, personally, would smooth out and make more intuitive or just plain easier to make the experience just a tad more pleasant. The first and biggest for me is the User Interface. Sure, I get the garage few is well adjusted to the theme and it works from a presentation standpoint, but there are issues here that I’d like to tackle. Slow animation between accessing part of your cute tanks makes me a bit miffed. Mission hidden in the corners feels a little counterintuitive. And most importantly… Upgrading your gear. I seriously, for about an hour, though that the only thing I can buy with experience are a couple of new guns, better armor and engine. I didn’t notice that once you buy them you can keep upgrading them!
It was a major discovery for me. It instantly made the game substantially less grindy and overwhelmingly difficult when I finally found out that I can indeed make my tank tougher, faster, and hard-hitting. However, the fact that there is a chance that your hard-earned experience points will go to trash because the upgrade will brake is a peculiar choice that I don’t really get — if we want the upgrades to be harder to reach, why not just make them more expensive to buy?
And from smaller things that made me wonder. Enemy bullets — I don’t see them! Usually, them bullet hells go for bright shiny projectiles so you can try to actively dodge them. I understand that WW2 tanks didn’t shoot big shiny balls of energy, but maybe once again style over functionality proves a little tedious. When it is relatively easy to pick up the slower moving, huge shells of the big enemy tanks, the smaller Chaffe will pepper you endlessly without you noticing. Also, there is a little time between waves to collect your goodies and set up defense. It’s a minor nit-pick, but it feels that I must rush to do all stuff between waves, and the few seconds I am given are never enough. Why not instead give more generous time and let us just skip it once ready, like some games of the genre offers?
Lil’ Sherman is nothing new… But executed pretty well! Tower Defence games when you actively participate in the actual combat are not rare nowadays, but it still takes effort and a good idea to make it enjoyable, and Lil’ Sherman does it well enough, a pleasant, dynamic mix of a good theme, cute tanks and nice-looking levels where elevation plays an actual, real role in the flow of combat.