In Vitro Games’ Defenders of Ekron, recently released on PlayStation 4 and PC, is a deceptively multifaceted indie game. The members of In Vitro Games’ efforts into bringing their vision of a single player, 360-degree shoot ‘em up to life is apparent in every facet of Defenders of Ekron. The atmospheric and aesthetically pleasing backgrounds, nonstop action, and scintillating music scores that are key aspects of Defenders of Ekron coalesce to form a video game that is definitely worth playing.
Once players embark on their in-game journey, they are thrust into the shoes of a young Anakim pilot named Eneas and are tasked with protecting a city from hordes of alien invaders. This opening level starts off slowly and gives players time to orient themselves to the game’s controls. I was surprised that, while being fairly intuitive, the controls allow for a wide range of expression in terms of playstyle: players can shoot away at the expense of accuracy or they can aim at the expense of quantity of shots fired, can decide whether or not to employ an energy-draining shield, can decide whether to use powerful attacks, quick attacks, or a combination of the two, and much more.
The difficulty level increases exponentially after the beginning of the tutorial, and this is most apparent in the boss fights that take place. Battling huge aliens that dominate a majority of the screen, boast devastating attacks, and take countless hits before perishing truly pushed Eneas, and through him players, to his limits. After defeating these hard-hitting adversaries, I always felt like I actually earned my progress in the game. This theme continues throughout the entire game, as the bosses prove real challenges that require serious thought in order to defeat.
Clearing the tutorial leads players to discover that the whole level was only part of Eneas’s training. Eneas is then transported to his final exam and, in my opinion, this area is where the game begins to shine. While the tutorial made me think that the game would not strive to be anything more than a replica of Space Invaders (albeit with a modern twist), the final exam level shows how In Vitro Games set out to meld genres.
To progress in this level, Eneas must utilize his Anakim’s powers to solve increasingly harder puzzles. I enjoyed figuring out the puzzles’ solutions and then using the specific powers required in the puzzles to defeat the bosses. I also found the subtle test of health management to be engaging, as in this level Eneas must defeat four bosses without regenerating any of his health.
The story begins to pick up after players defeat the final boss, as Eneas finds out that he cannot develop an Isvara. Eneas’s lack of an Isvara threatens to preclude him from becoming a full-fledged Anakim pilot, but he is able to sign up for an experimental program that enables him to access powers that other pilots cannot. Once the cutscenes – which are presented in the ilk of scenes in anime – run their course, players obtain access to 53 training exercises that enable them to recognize and fully realize Eneas’s abilities. Completing these exercises proves a serious boon, as players can level up certain aspects of Eneas’s Anakim as a reward.
The story takes off from here, as Eneas becomes embroiled in a civil war and attempts to defeat The Renegades. Without giving spoilers into the outcome of the plot, I found that while the storyline was interesting at times, it never drew me in completely. The puzzles, action, level design, and music made the game for me, while the story was only adequate.