CastleStorm

I’m always skeptical of a game that tries to mix multiple genres.  I picture they’re the product of a development meeting full of passive-aggressive types with no alpha-male to make the final decision.  “Let’s do a RTS!”  “No, a brawler!”  “No, shooter!”  “Tower defense!”  And then whoever is in charge just sheepishly says “whatever, just do them all.”  Often, those games turn out to be fairly mediocre.  Jack of all trades, master of jack shit, or something like that.  And thus with CastleStorm skepticism bells were ringing in my ears like someone had strapped me to a gong and smacked it with a wrecking ball.

Can you blame me?  It’s part tower defense, but you simultaneously call people to defend your castle while actively shooting the opposing enemies and their castle with a ballista, thus turning it into a gallery shooter.  But, sometimes you’ll have to take on enemy troops directly by calling your hero into play in a pseudo platformer-brawler.  Huh.  Plus, with the whole “knock over the enemy’s castle by flinging shit at it” angle, there’s a hint of Angry Birds in it as well.   And all this from a studio whose claim to fame is a few video pinball games?  I mean, I fucking adore pinball like you can’t imagine.  But pinball is about as relevant to gaming today as bloodletting is to modern medicine.  Not only that, but I had people on Twitter telling me they had played the demo and came away about as unimpressed from it as anyone could possibly be.  Thus I mentally prepared myself for a weekend of boredom.

Which happened.  When I watched Cloud Atlas.

Not when I played CastleStorm.  It was very fun.

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Full disclosure: early Saturday morning, I suffered a moderately severe seizure that pretty much put me out of commission for the entire day.  It almost certainly had some influence on the rotten time I had playing CastleStorm online, which I’ll be getting to later.  But the seizure also means I “lost” about two full hours worth of play time that I simply can’t remember.  I am told I was having a good time during it though.

We downloaded our copies of CastleStorm on Friday night.  The first thing that impressed me was how a game with so many play styles could actually tie everything together in a quick-to-learn package.  It never feels like there’s too much to juggle.  That’s the most common problem with these smörgåsbord games.  So without falling into that trap, it should be clear sailing, right?

Well, not quiet.  But the single player game is hugely satisfying with a wide variety of objectives and really snappy writing.  There’s also a huge assortment of weapons, spells, and bonus rooms for your customizable castle that can be upgraded.  Oh, did you say upgrade system?  You mean that thing I’m known to abuse?  Did I abuse it?  You bet your sweet ass I did.  One level involves “a frenzy” in which weapons don’t have a cool down time.  Here, I set the difficulty to hard, upgraded my Sheep (which acts like the yellow bird in Angry Birds) to its max level, and ended up clearing out the level in six-seconds a turn.  I just replayed it doing this for about an hour.  By time I was done, every weapon, spell, soldier, and room was fully upgraded.  Yea for abuse!  I then steamrolled the remaining game.  Well, until it forced me to switch over from knights to vikings.

D’oh.

In retrospect I probably should have seen that coming.

It doesn’t matter.  I still had a great time.  I haven’t actually finished the Vikings section yet.  I got my $10 worth just from the first half of the game.  Oh, I will totally finish the Vikings stuff at some point.  But I plan on saving it for a time when I have nothing to do and I need an activity I know I’ll have fun with.  That would be CastleStorm.

Graphically, the game looks pretty good, but I do have some complaints.  The backgrounds are pretty noisy, with lots of stuff to distract you.  Mind you, the game is beautiful, but I found this stuff to sometimes annoy.  Now, that pesky epilepsy thing normally means I can’t touch stuff in 3D, but I figured those noisy backgrounds were so noisy because of the 3D stuff.  Things that look like they could be in the foreground probably look further back if you play in 3D mode.  But that’s not something I should risk.  So I enlisted Bryce (who received the review code so that he could help me test online stuff) and Brian (who mostly just sat and gave Bryce advice, even when he was playing *me*.  What an asshole, am I right?) to throw on the 3D glasses.  They were both immediately blown away, declaring it the best use of 3D they had seen ever, movies or games.  They raved about it so much that I threw the glasses on myself for a quick gander.  They were right.  It was absolutely stunning.  More so than, say, Life of Pi or Avatar on 3D Blu-ray.  Granted, because of my condition, I haven’t been privileged to experiment too much with my fancy-schmancy 3D television.  I only had the glasses on for about two minutes and I wish I could have done more.

It looks a little Angry Birdsish, but the structures in CastleStorm take more than a couple shots to take down.

It looks a little Angry Birdsish, but the structures in CastleStorm take more than a couple shots to take down.

Onto the multiplayer stuff.  This is where the seizure bit comes in.  We didn’t play too much of the single-player stuff before we got into the multiplayer.  Bryce and I played a few rounds against each-other and had a swell time.  Your stats and upgrades from single player don’t carry over to online play.  You get a starting budget that you can use to immediately upgrade some of your stuff.  It probably wasn’t a good idea to spend that budget before I knew what I was doing, because once you spend it, as best as I can tell there’s no option to start over from square one.  So I was committed to using shitty upgrades that can’t possibly help me beat people.  That mistake was on me, but the horrible online setup is entirely on the developer.

And then the seizure happened.  Completely unrelated to CastleStorm or any other game.  I just have them every few days or so.  This was a particularly nasty one that put me out of commission for basically the rest of the day.  By the time I was able to play again, Bryce had put upwards of 15 hours into CastleStorm and I couldn’t hope to be competitive with him again.  But finding online matches against people of my experience level wasn’t smooth either.  I was a level one.  The game mostly saw fit to pair me against someone who was a level 155.  That’s not a typo.  I’m not even sure how he got up that high.  The game just came out on Wednesday for fuck’s sake.  As it turns out, many people who were attempting to play on Live (including Bryce) would get stuck with this guy all weekend long.  It felt like that World of Warcraft episode of South Park.  The dude absolutely demolished me in, on average, 20 seconds or less.  Fun?  No.  Annoying?  Oh yea.  Even worse, I never had a chance to make a single coin during these battles, which meant I couldn’t upgrade my stats.  And even when it wasn’t pairing me up with Jenkins, I was way more likely to get paired up against guys thirty or more ranks higher than me than someone on my level.  That meant quick losses and little if any earned coins to upgrade my stuff.  It’s a terrible online system.  Borderline broken.

There’s also a cooperative survival mode, which is a little more promising.  The problem here is one person gets to have all the fun by being in control of the ballista.  The other person assumes the role of the hero.  In the main game and during the online battles, the hero is a spell you can cast that puts you directly onto the battlefield to hack and slash enemies for thirty seconds or so.  It’s fun.  For thirty seconds.  But Survival mode lasts longer than that, and the hero has a limited moveset.  He can swing his sword. He can jump.  He can use a bow and arrow, though it’s slow to use and tough to aim with.  Or, if you want to be fancy, he has a charge move.  That’s it.  It’s simply not a play style that lends itself well to extended sessions.  Of course, Bryce was having a good time.  Of course he was.  He got to shoot things.  And trust me, no matter what mode you’re playing with, the ballista is hugely entertaining to use, and scoring headshots with it is extremely satisfying.  So he had all the fun while I got his sloppy seconds.

The game zooms in when you play as the hero.  For what its worth, the controls of this mode are solid.  It's just not very fun past the usual thirty seconds you normally use it.

The game zooms in when you play as the hero. For what its worth, the controls of this mode are solid. It’s just not very fun past the usual thirty seconds you normally use it.

I wish CastleStorm had some kind of casual online mode where two people can have the same attribute points.  Just have every weapon, character, room, and spell set to level 5 (out of 10).  I would play the shit out of that.  When the playing field is level, CastleStorm can be a great competitive game.  The problem is it’s next to impossible to find someone who isn’t going to throttle you in seconds.  As a result, games play out like a highlight reel of the Harlem Globetrotters versus Washington Generals, and you’re the Generals.

Regardless, CastleStorm is one of the most pleasant surprises I’ve had at Indie Gamer Chick in a while.  It doesn’t really do any one thing exceptionally well, but the sum of all parts is undeniably engrossing.  The online stuff isn’t so hot, but it wouldn’t take too much tinkering to get that right.  But really, the reason to own CastleStorm is the single player stuff.  It’s a fun quest, with a robust upgrade system.  If you’re into building things, the castle customization stuff is apparently well done and easy to handle.  I’m not into that kind of shit myself, but Brian took over for it and said it was intuitive and enjoyable.  I don’t know if I would have had more fun if I hadn’t lost my entire Saturday and thus my preferred playing partner, but I still highly recommend CastleStorm.  I went into it with my expectations set to “cautiously optimistic” and came away knowing that Zen Studios will never be known as just those pinball guys again.

Although I should probably mention that I absolutely LOATHED this level.  See that big, mushroom-shaped mountain-thing?  Yea.  It actually blocks your shots.  At first, I couldn't even tell it was in the foreground.  I constantly vomited curse words that my father didn't even know I knew when stuck here, which is where most multiplayer matches seemed to be set in.

Although I should probably mention that I absolutely LOATHED this level. See that big, mushroom-shaped mountain-thing? Yea. It actually blocks your shots. At first, I couldn’t even tell it was in the foreground. I constantly vomited curse words that my father didn’t even know I knew when stuck here, which is where most multiplayer matches seemed to be set in.

Oh, and one last thing: CastleStorm?  Really?  That’s the best you guys could come up with?  CastleStorm sounds like something a sitcom writer would come up with on five seconds notice when they need the name of a fictional video game for the characters to be shopping for during the holiday episode.  The actual game is oozing personality, but the name screams generic and forgettable.  If it bombs in sales, it will be because of the name.  Then again, the studio is called Zen Studios.  Given how the frustrations of being paired with a guy 154 ranks higher than me induced a state of being in me that was anything but Zen like, I’m guessing their name is purely ironic.

boxartlgCastleStorm was developed by Zen Studios

IGC_Approved800 Microsoft Points thought all the banter in the game actually sounded very pinball-like in the making of this review. 

CastleStorm is Chick-Approved.  In the near future, all indie games on all platforms I review will be ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.  If you must know, CastleStorm would fall somewhere in the 20s.

A review copy of CastleStorm was provided to Indie Gamer Chick to test online features.  The copy played by Cathy was paid for with her own money.  The review copy was given to a friend who had minimal feedback in this review.  For more on this policy, read this site’s FAQ.

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About Indie Gamer Chick
The most read Xbox Live Indie Game critic in the world.

10 Responses to CastleStorm

  1. nsorens says:

    Hey, Neil from Zen here, out of Oakland, CA. Thanks for the review! I have a housemate with epilepsy, so I know how debilitating and frustrating it can be. Kudos to you for creating a great site in spite of it.

    Your criticisms of multiplayer are perfectly valid – unfortunately with a very small multiplayer population, matchmaking will suck. And balance and such are things we will have to work on as we see how people play outside of the test environment.

    • Hey, I forgot you guys are local (Palo Alto here).

      Really, if you guys just add a “all are equal” casual mode to the Xbox Live experience where all stats are the same, the game would be accessible to everyone. With the current system, I shudder to think how it will be for people who pick this up months from now. By adding a casual mode, it means the game will always hold its relevance. I figured having all stats at level 5 would be the best because everything will create just the right about of damage to not cause overly slow matches, but not so powerful that they end too quickly. I played many rounds (and Bryce played many many more than me) and we both agreed this would make sense. Leave the ranked stuff for the hardcore players.

      Sincere congratulations on your game. I hope it does well. It certainly deserves to. I will undoubtedly give the DLC a try when it comes around. I’ll be following your careers closely from here out for sure.

      • Neil says:

        Thanks! By the way, the reason the game doesn’t fit neatly into any genre is that we didn’t want the game to be defined by its genre, but by its concept. So instead of “castlestorm is a (insert genres here) game,” we wanted it to be “castlestorm is a game about castle vs castle battles.” And we just picked various mechanics that we thought would best bring that concept to life, regardless of genre.

  2. AxelMill98 says:

    I didn’t really like the screenshots on the Marketplace, but after reading this review I should give it a try.

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