What happens when Diablo, Monster Hunter, Castle Crashers, and Golden Axe get together and have a baby? Well, genetically I'm not sure exactly how that would work, but that's quite seriously how Towerborne felt, and the lasting impression the game has left on me.
I played Towerborne at Gamescom last month. The Xbox and Windows exclusive is on its way in 2024, day one with Xbox Game Pass naturally, and may be a Hi-Fi Rush-like opening salvo for what could prove to be another excellent year for the service.
Developed by Stoic Games of The Banner Saga fame, Towerborne is essentially a side-scrolling beat 'em up at the ground floor. But as you ascend further up the tower, you realize there's much more to Towerborne. Towerborne could become something of a trendsetter, modernizing and expanding upon the beat 'em up traditions it pays heavy homage to. As someone who has now experienced the game, and as a fan of the various elements that make up Towerborne's whole, here's why this is now one of my most anticipated upcoming Xbox games.
Towerborne: Fight with feeling
In our Towerborne preview session, we were treated to a single level and a brief glimpse at the game's social hub, known in-game as the Belfry. Towerborne's world is one beset by strife, as an unnamed cataclysm has beset the land with corruption, monsters, and roaming bands of raiders, leading to widespread panic and destruction. The titular tower is one of the few remaining safe havens in the surrounding area, where heroes have gathered to protect the refugees and commit to excursions into the nearby lands to take homesteads and villages back from the encroaching darkness. That's where you come in.
Stoic hasn't given too much away yet about the story and what life in the Towerborne world entails, but we do know a bit about how the mission structure works, and what players can expect.
With four-player local and online co-op (you can also mix both online and local co-op players too, if I recall correctly), Towerborne carries the traditions of beat 'em up titles like Streets of Rage that came before it. As such, it's incredibly easy to pick up and play from the outset for anyone familiar with the formula and should make for fun party gaming sessions with family or friends even in short bursts. However, Towerborne also hides beneath its colorful veneer a world of depth, both within its systems and its combat mechanics.
Stoic told me that Towerborne's design team has some Killer Instinct developer DNA within it, and it really shows — from the netcode to the heavy, tactile feel that gives your manouvers a sense of weight and impact. Even as I write this, I'm recounting how Towerborne felt to play with fondness, and a desire to get back into the action.
Similarly to games like Monster Hunter, Towerborne's combat system revolves around your weapon choices. There are no "classes" per se, no set roles for players to pigeon hole themselves into. Instead, Towerborne's equipment systems allow players to build up their gameplay profile to their unique playstyle desires. My character had some kind of pole with a shotgun gun attached to the end of it, which satisfied my inner Monster Hunter Gunlance user quite well.
This slow, weighty weapon pummled enemies as I built up its special gauge, which when maxed out, allowed for a powerful shotgun blast that could carve through groups of foes.
Towerborne is something of a combo-oriented game. While I only got to experience the pole shotgun, thingy, you can see from the trailer that there's a wide variety of weapons to choose from. There are also unlockable (and very cute) spirits you can equip, which will float behind you in combat and grant various buffs and bonuses. It's around these sorts of features that you start to realize that Towerborne has a lot more RPG angles than many traditional side-scrolling beat 'em ups, without sacrificing what makes the genre so popular in the first place.
In the preview level, we were treated to a showcase of Stoic's art direction for the game, which is heavily stylized and exudes optimism, albeit with a dark edge. The game operates on a side-scrolling 3D plane, complete with cel-shaded 3D enemies, although the background has a 2D hand-painted sheen with Ori and the Blind Forest-like parallax layering effects. In motion, it just looks stunning, but you mustn't let it distract you from the fast-paced combat taking place in the foreground.
The game does feel as though it has some rough edges. Even if combat felt precise and deep, complete with aerial juggling, combo weaving, and a strikingly physical feel, it's incredibly easy to lose track of your character in among all the chaos. Visual indicators to that end probably need a bit of work, especially when your character is stuck in a scrum of several models, and there's clearly still some optimization work going on. But the foundation of this tower has been laid: Towerborne just feels damn awesome to play.
Towerborne: A bold canvas ripe for expansion
The groundwork has been laid for Towerborne to be a success story. The gameplay loop is incredibly satisfying. I can see my friends and I jumping in and out of missions piecemeal if they all last the 10-20 minutes we saw in the demonstration levels. The loop and gameplay format also makes it seem like a great candidate for Xbox Cloud Gaming, which seems to benefit from fixed-camera perspective games from a video encoding perspective, coupled with the relatively short mission lengths and structure, I can see this being popular both for short sessions and lengthy marathons. There are a few question marks over the game's soft-service format, though.
Indeed, Towerborne is a service title at its core, too. Stoic said as much during our preview session, with the Belfry at the game's heart serving as a social hub of sorts. It's here where you'll be able to create lobbies, manage your gear builds, and project your power into a dangerous world.
Towerborne's mission board sports a hexagonal layout, with a fog of war mechanics that hides the various pathways through the story and to points of interest. Our mission was in a darkened forest full of crazed mushroom people, culminating in a surprisingly tough battle with a hulking fungal horror.
Right now, you get three lives per mission, but I got the impression that Stoic is still exploring how death and penalties for failure should operate. I died fairly frequently to the mushroom-mashing monster at the end of the preview demo, but a quick revive from a teammate allowed me to get back into the fight easily. The chaos I mentioned earlier of actually keeping track of my character among the overlapping models was the source of some of my deaths, and I dare say Stoic will probably improve that aspect of the game before launch. The boss itself was well-designed, however, with a rhythm of different phases and moves for dodging and jumping over. The game's dodge roll does come with some invincibility frames to accommodate those with the skills to make use of them, but giving enemy attacks a wide berth for guerilla-style drive-by strikes proved a totally valid strategy as well.
Stoic says it plans a live service for the game, with on-going updates, story content, new features, and the like going forward. Even though our demonstration was only 10-20 minutes long, I left the demo room with a spring in my step, excited for the possibilities of this Castle Crashers successor I'd long been waiting for.
Towerborne: An Xbox sleeper hit?!
Towerborne has every chance to be another success story for Xbox, whose bread and butter is often via games of a platform or service-oriented nature. The fact this game will launch directly into Xbox Game Pass for Xbox Series X|S and PC will ensure it has a ready-made audience from the get go, and its side-scrolling nature will make it an excellent candidate for Xbox Cloud Gaming on a phone or a device like the Steam Deck.
Many of my friends love games like Monster Hunter and Diablo IV, which can be played in short bursts, and often revolve around loot. If Stoic can stick the landing (and I truly think they will), I can see Towerborne being a bigger hit than many are likely giving it credit for right now. The team at Stoic was bristling with excitement for what they've put together — and after playing it, I can safely say that I am too.
Don't sleep on Towerborne.