Steam Just Revealed a Brilliant New Spin on the Tower Defense Game

All along the watchtower.

artwork from Cataclismo
Digital Sun

Tower defense is about as thoroughly explored as a game genre can be. After countless browser and mobile games built on its foundations, it might seem like there’s little room for a tower defense game to be truly innovative. But as one of the standout demos of this year’s Steam Next Fest shows, even the most well-worn paths can have some surprises on them.

The updated demo for Cataclismo, which has appeared at Steam Next Fest before, strikes a perfect balance between tower defense and real-time strategy, with some fascinating building mechanics on top of it all. In Cataclismo, you follow the magical Lady Iris as she searches for a sanctuary from the shambling horde of monsters known as Horrors and a deadly mist that hangs over the land.

You’ll want to keep a wall between you and Cataclismo’s horrors.

Digital Sun

At the outset of Cataclismo’s demo, you control a bowman with an urgent message to deliver to Iris, who’s quickly joined by another bomb-lobbing soldier. You control the duo like you would units in a typical RTS, by dragging a square around them or selecting them one by one, then clicking the terrain to move. When they’re in range of a Horror, they’ll attack automatically. Each unit type has different height advantages, so some are better from a high perch while others thrive on ground level.

It’s all fair enough, but things really get interesting when Cataclismo introduces its building system. As long as you have the resources or pre-built components, you can place ramps, stairs, and barricades throughout the world. Whether you need to reach a distant place or get some cover from the Horrors, building feels snappy and intuitive. Lining up your steps and platforms just right to get you where you need to go is a satisfying puzzle, but it’s never so fiddly that you’re stuck adjusting building parts to get them to fit together right.

Cataclismo’s building system is flexible and easy to pick up.

Digital Sun

When the dynamic duo reaches Iris, Cataclismo reveals an entirely new side of itself. Now with three units to control, you find yourself in the courtyard of a keep surrounded by crumbling walls. Rather than continuing to wander, your job becomes to protect this central building by finishing the walls and using your soldiers to fight off the waves of Horrors that come night after night.

There are light city management elements to Cataclismo, as you’ll need to build sawmills and quarries to gather resources while outfitting your town with air purifiers to clear out poison mist. In typical RTS fashion, you’ll also need to house citizens and train them up into soldiers. But the minute goings on of your town aren’t your main concern — keeping it safe from Horrors is. Time is constantly advancing in Cataclismo, so you need to act quickly to reinforce your walls, build paths for your defenders to reach the top, and build back structures destroyed in attacks each night.

Defenses are built brick by brick, from an interface that gives you plenty of control over their placement while still letting you lay down a whole wall just by dragging where you want. That quirk gives your walls two properties you’ll need to master to survive.

The Horrors are an intimidating sight no matter how well prepared you are.

Digital Sun

A simple line of stones is fairly easy for Horrors to break through, but the higher you build your walls, the longer they’ll be able to resist attacks. Every structure also needs support, with stone needing more support than wood to stay standing. If Horrors knock out an essential part of your wall, everything on top can come crumbling down — as I learned when I lost a handful of archers to a collapsing wall shortly into Cataclismo’s demo.

Even if tower defense and real-time strategy are genres as old as time, the way they come together in Cataclismo brings new life into both. Add in a layer of exploration as you travel between building sites and search for supplies, and Cataclismo feels like it belongs in a genre all its own. It doesn’t have a release date yet, but it’s one worth adding to your wishlist for now.

The Cataclismo demo is available on PC. Steam Next Fest runs through October 16.

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