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Protect your base and return home – Lesson Learned – Review

It’s been a while since I’ve played a tower defence game, but once I saw the art style of Lesson Learned, I knew it was time for a resurgence.

While sleeping in class one day, the player character was sucked into a strange world. Equipped with only a slingshot, you must now fight your way through this world, collecting lost children and defeating monsters.

lesson learned - a paper note introduces the story with a small comic
lesson learned -  a tutorial says "send your friend to gather wood"

Lesson Learned is a tactical, tower defence game where you and your fellow children face off against waves of enemies. These enemies are coming for your base, and it is up to you to defend it by any means necessary. To help you, there are five main tools with different AoE and damage types, plus several upgraded models to unlock.

The tools are all useful in some way or another. Some shoot down flying mobs, others slow them down, with each costing different amounts of wood, stone or goo to build. Placing them in the correct location is the key to success, but as enemies destroy your defences, resource management becomes your primary concern.

lesson learned - a busy map with towers and a base on legs as children hunt for resources

You direct the other children by assigning them tasks. They can collect dropped items, chop wood, mine stones and repair/erect defences. Both you and the children can only carry one item at a time and have to walk it back to the base for it to be counted. Now here’s where things start getting interesting.

For every enemy you defeat, your base will gain the energy to move along the path, until reaching the end of the map. A simple strategy in defence games is to mount your defences around your base, but since this one moves, you have to balance protecting the base with thinning the coming wave before it gets there. The further your base gets from the frontlines, the harder it becomes to repair the defences placed there. Similarly, any resources become less efficient and often dangerous to collect, leaving you to make some tough decisions.

lesson learned -  children on a sparce landscape carrying resources

The player character is not entirely defenceless either. He has a sling-shot which can slow down enemies and dropped ammo gives you a temporary upgrade. These upgrades include poison and fire damage to stop larger enemies, but being on the frontlines brings its own issues.

Directing the other children is a very hands-on task and you need to walk up to a rock or tree to set your minions going. They will usually try and accomplish similar tasks within a small range of the original task but will come to find you once they are done. This means that if you are in the trenches holding back an active wave, your minions will come and join you, putting themselves in danger. This is where Lesson Learned starts to get really involved.

lesson learned - four children on a map with several towers

Juggling resource collection and defence integrity rapidly gained in difficulty as the game progressed. Where earlier levels would take only a few minutes, the later levels have much longer road maps. You then have a much greater distance between you and your minions, leaving gaps in resource collection as they traverse the map to get your attention.

There are ways to lessen this blow, but largely I felt that I had to micromanage the other children and hope for the best as I returned to the base. As I unlocked additional children, it did feel less painful, but there were still times when I had to abandon my forward defences and draw back to the base.

I think this departure from the traditional tower defence game strategy sets Lesson Learned apart. No two levels are the same and the enemies will often devastate your constructions, forcing you to react and remain engaged. You can even rush earlier waves to get bonus upgrade materials for a stronger start, adding even more strategies to play with.

lesson learned - the player character getting ready to drop a new tower on a muddy map

The art style reminds me of Don’t Starve Together with a Tim Burton-esque, gothic, hand-drawn inks design. It has a real charm about it and feeds into the absurdity of their situation with a Howl’s Moving Castle base.

Similarly, the music dances somewhere between the cosy and the macabre with themes reminding me of the 90s Casper movie and several Burton classics. The tracks are often overpowered by the sounds of enemies attacking/being attacked and your kids garbling phrases, which kind of emphasises the difference between preparation times and waves.

The controls are pretty intuitive. It only works with a controller on PC, which I’m not complaining about as someone who struggles with mouse and keyboard, and flicking through your pop-up menu to choose a build is super easy. There is a tutorial at the beginning which takes you through the basics, but there are some things added later for you to discover for yourself.

lesson learned - the player character stood by the base ready to go

I found the design of the UI worked well within the overall themes. It’s something akin to haggard wooden boards and crumpled pieces of paper that gives a general sense of being hastily constructed despite the crisp artwork, which blends into the world perfectly. The map screen, child status, and even the wave timer blends to create one really cohesive design.

While I don’t believe this to be a developer issue, this review was delayed by a game fault which forced my anti-virus to eject the exe file into oblivion, along with my game save. As such, I was then forced to replay up to the same place to continue my progress for this review, which brings me to the point of replayability.

There are three objectives for each level. Don’t have a minion take damage. Don’t KO your player character. Take zero base damage.

These sound pretty simple but can be difficult to achieve. With the steep difficulty increases you will have to return to earlier levels to complete these tasks to unlock your machine upgrades. Because of my game-save-loss, I rushed early levels and found myself facing a slew of very hectic levels. So, while you don’t need to do them all, it certainly helps.

lesson learned - picture of the various tower upgrades

I enjoyed the different bosses as they parodied different historical figures, but aside from the ability to become enraged and attack faster, they’re not really different from the regular wave enemies. Each zone adds in a new type of encounter, but with six tower types, their variation is mostly cosmetic and how much damage they can deal/take. Still, I never felt like I was ever winning, and completing a level felt more like a gruelling survival challenge.

A part of me wonders if this feeling of “only just” surviving is intentional. The lack of victory fanfare as you walk back to your base to complete the level felt somewhat lacklustre and could have been streamlined. I only ever became aware I was nearing the end of a level when a boss appeared, and the rest of the time I was surprised when the “complete the level at the base” pop-up signalled the end. Perhaps this was by design to make finally returning home more prolific. Maybe I’m reading too much into things. Maybe, but the consistency of the design choices leaves me open to the possibility.

lesson learned - monsters lay dead on the floor with broken machines as a notew says "you won! go to your base"

Lesson Learned is a twisted spin on the tower defence formula. It takes no prisoners and demands your attention in ways few tactical games do to deliver a polished, challenging and engaging experience.

8/10 star rating

Platform: PC
Developer: MadGamesmith
Publisher: Gaming Factory





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