Developer: Zen Studios | Publisher: Zen Studios | Played On: PC | Price: $9.99 | ESRB: Teen [Violence, Blood]
CastleStorm caused me a particular amount of discomfort. There are the obvious sources: the console-centric controls and the blunt gameplay. More than that, I really wanted to like CastleStorm… but I don’t. I’m sad to say it’s just not very fun. CastleStorm is like a friend that’s relaxed, funny, good with cars, knows a ton of awesome restaurants, but occasionally throws out casual racism.
And you’re like, whoa CastleStorm, not cool.
The concept is fantastic on paper. Any given match sets two castles against each other in a 2D battlefield. To prove victorious, either you destroy the other’s castle with your ballista or steal their flag with ground troops. It’s a combination of Angry Birds and Ronimo Games’ Swords & Soldiers, which sounds like a winning combo.
The premise gets even better. Flavors of Rampart work their way in by allowing you to construct your own castle. The particular rooms you decide to incorporate decide what troops are available and which buffs they get. For example, the recruitment center raises your ground army cap; the armory increases ground weapon effectiveness and so on. In addition, if those rooms are destroyed in a match, you lose access to that unit, adding some theoretic strategy to the layout of your castle.
That all sounds great, but there are no interesting tradeoffs between any of the mechanics at play. Sure, you can kit your castle out to be ground army-focused or prioritize your ballista attacks, but in the end you simply throw everything you possibly can at your enemy at all times. If you have the dexterity to cycle through all your cooldowns for your weapons and soldiers, you’ve instantly hit the depth of gameplay the campaign can offer you.
That’s a bummer too because I can tell Zen Studios tried very hard to mix up the gameplay throughout the campaign. One level removes your ground army which forces you to rely on your ballista, while another puts a large mountain in between the two castles therefore invalidating most of your projectiles. God bless ‘em, they tried, but in the end it just boils down to ability spamming, with the only X factor relying on the player’s ability to land headshots against the incoming attackers.
One would think online opponents would offer a more stimulating challenge, but as you’d guess, the custom castle ability makes online play just silly. The matches I played (there weren’t many, for want of opponents) usually involved a castle with only one functional room socketed deep behind wall after wall of protection. The common tactic seems to be just turtle hard and throw as many rocks as you can. It’s not the game the design implies it would be, which isn’t fatal on its own, but what emerges is just boring.
On a more fundamental level, playing the game itself is confusing and awkward thanks to bizarre control schemes. It’s obvious that CastleStorm’s PC controls are a dirty port from the console; the on-screen D-pad is the smoking gun. You have to switch between three modes: ballista, ground army, and spells, and each controls differently. For instance, you hit space to switch to ballista mode, pick your attack with the 1-5 keys, and then click to fire. However, if you hit shift to go into army mode, hitting 1-5 will automatically send out the related soldier, no clicking required. There’s no predictability with the controls, it’s like if “cancel” was assigned to the right click rather than ESC.
That’s doubly true for the editor, which is a confusing mess. Rather than use a familiar drag-and-drop interface, you have to click where you want a room, then select the type of room, then click on it again to place it. If the room you want doesn’t fit, you have to back out and delete rooms around it and try again. Even after fiddling with the editor for fifteen minutes I was still making control mistakes and misplacing structures.
After all that negativity, why do I still feel bad for not liking this game? CastleStorm is incredibly charming. Its art style is extremely colorful and fantastic, reminding me of Blizzard’s superlative work in the Warcraft series. Likewise, the music is amazing, setting the perfect tone for a lighthearted fantasy adventure. Even the cutscenes are enjoyable, reveling in cartoonish humor and executing slapstick gags with ease.
That’s why CastleStorm is an easy game to love but a very annoying game to play. In no way is CastleStorm a bad game, it’s just boring, which stings considering how wonderful all the aspects surrounding the core gameplay are. It’s a testament to the importance of that nebulous concept “polish.” With streamlined controls and gameplay mechanics tweaked to relevancy, CastleStorm would be a wonderful game. Instead, CastleStorm is a great idea that just doesn’t click.