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.

Spelunky

Every once in a while, I need a break from XBLIG.  I love you guys, but a girl can only take so many punishers before she needs a vacation from that.  So, I’m going to review Spelunky, a recent punisher on Xbox Live Arcamuhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

Damnit.

Spelunky is a game made by assholes, for assholes.  Having put somewhere around ten hours into it since this last weekend, I’m wearing a jumbo-sized asshole badge on this one too.  I couldn’t help myself.  I’m pretty sure that I wasn’t even having fun, but at the same time I was practically hypnotized by what was transpiring on-screen.  A series of colossal dick moves, one after another, so random and so spiteful that I’m pretty sure this is a game designed to specifically take players down a peg.  I’m know people will say that I just sucked at Spelunky and thus I suck at games and life in general.  You know what?  Fine, guilty as charged.  But Spelunky is a bastard.

The idea is you’re a little explorer dude who has to go through a series of randomly-generated levels, looking for treasure, items, and exits.  The game plays out like a platformer, but the first sign that Spelunky shoots baby giraffes with bullets made from the ground-up hoofs of their own mother is the fact that it’s also a Roguelike.  When you die, you go back to start, and any progress you’ve made will be lost.  And you will die.  You’ll die from falling too far.  You’ll die from getting squashed by giant boulders.  You’ll die from being shot by arrows.  Annoyingly, you’ll die from dodging arrows, only for them to bounce off a wall and land on you.  You’ll die from bats.  You’ll die from trying to avoid bats.  You’ll die from trying to throw a rock at a bat, missing, and having the rock land on you.  Everything seems to want you dead in this game.  If Gandhi was in it he would probably spray you with bullets.

Oh yea, he’s fucked.

I didn’t make it very far into Spelunky.  Most of that is on me and a little thing called greed.  I’m incapable of doing a bare minimum to survive.  The game is filled with tons of treasure just lying around, and I wanted all of it.  But the game sends a bit of a mixed message, because Spelunky seems to actively discourage exploration.  You only have a couple of minutes to “enjoy” each stage before a giant ghost monster thingie comes to kill you.  Thus, you’re forced to rush through each stage, which has far more things to explore than you can reasonably hope to grab.  However, rushing means you don’t have time to check to make sure there isn’t something just out of sight that will immediately result in your death.  In a way, I like how you have to calculate the risk versus reward.  On the other hand, filling the game up with so much shit and forbidding a person from trying to collect it all makes me want to slowly insert a lit cherry bomb up the developer’s piss pipe.  Well, not too slowly.  I’m not trying to blow my own fingers off here.  In fact, maybe I should wait to light it until it’s inserted fully.

Honestly, Spelunky isn’t really that good of a game, mechanically at least.  The controls are kind of weird.  Jumping and movement are mostly fine, but I was constantly and unintentionally clinging to walls and leaving myself wide open for attack.  Aiming your throws is a bit clunky too, and not without risk.  If you try to throw a rock in the air, you’re just as likely to kill yourself doing it when it ricochets off a wall and hits you upside your noggin.  Items that are allegedly there to help you aren’t safe either.  I got a glove that allowed me to throw stuff better.  And by better, I mean the shit you throw just keeps going until it hits something.  This one time I threw a rock, and then about two seconds later the sound of the shopkeeper declaring his intent to murder me rang throughout the stage.  Well fuck.  Another time I bought a green glove, which allows you to climb.  Sounded great, but remember that “stuck to the wall” bit I was talking about earlier?  Multiply that by every fucking jump you make to get an idea of how useful it ultimately is.

Don’t let the cute graphics fool you. This game is evil.

I think the biggest problem is Spelunky relies too much on just plain old stupid luck.  This is mostly due to the random level design.  Fans of the game disagree with me, while others have said that Spelunky is only 25% luck.  I would suggest 1% is too much for certain games, but fine, it’s only 25%.  What does that mean?  Well, most of the “damsels” that you need to fill up your health will be right out in the open.  But sometimes she (or he, or a dog) will be stuck behind a wall that requires a minimum of three bombs to get through, and  those are usually in short supply.  Or sometimes the game will just randomly make a level dark and practically impossible to navigate.  For a while I tried to work my way through those, but after hours of failure after failure, I said “fuck it” and started to commit suicide as soon as those godforsaken things popped up.  I figured fate dealt me a shitty hand, and so fuck fate.  I won’t give it the satisfaction of watching me fall on a spike.

And then there are the fun random deaths.  I’m willing to concede that 19 out of 20 deaths were entirely my fault.  Having said that, in a game this brutally difficult, having just 1 of those 20 be something I had nothing to do with is just vile.  And probably hilarious if you’re a spectator.  This one time I got to level 1-4 and I was having my best run yet.  I had taken no damage, gotten my health up to seven points, built up over twenty bombs, ten ropes, and had enough items that I was better equipped to invade a small country.  I start the level, walk a little bit to the right, and then an explosion happens somewhere off-screen.  And then something that sent a shockwave down my spine occurred: the “TERRORIST!” splash that pops up when you “attack” one of the shopkeeper dudes popped up.  When that happens, they pull out a shotgun and open fire on you, and it’s nearly impossible to fight back.  Sure enough, we ran into each-other not long after and I was killed.  Fuck you, Spelunky.

Do you know what Spelunky really needed?  A video sharing function.  Without a doubt the most fun I’ve had from the game is swapping tales of my biggest failures with my fellow masochists.  They’re all over Twitter.  Spelunky is the new “Big Fish Story” game of choice.  Everyone that spends at least an hour with it walks away with stories of comical ineptness.  Being able to send your friends videos of your most spectacular deaths would have been a huge selling point for the game.  But alas, it’s not to be.  In fact, other than some lame leaderboards, Spelunky doesn’t take advantage of Xbox Live at all.  There’s a way useless death match feature that’s local-only.  It’s so badly done that I’m not sure why they bothered.  Matches last just a few seconds, and finding three other people capable of lasting longer will be tough even for those of you with an actual social life.  There’s also co-op, but don’t even bother trying it.  Save some time and stab your nearest friend in the knee with a screwdriver.  Trust me, this way is faster.  You’ll just end up wanting to do it anyway.

One of the most pointless modes I’ve seen added to a game in a long while.

Here’s a thought: combine the death-match with the co-op, remove any bullshit about working together, and put the fucking thing on Xbox Live where it belongs.  Make it a race/death-match where the four players are not anchored together on a single screen.  A race to the exit, or the last man left alive.  That would have been awesome.  Hell, it might have even justified the 1200MSP price tag.  Seriously, $15 for this?  Out-fucking-rageous.  This isn’t an XBLIG we’re talking about here.  This is an Arcade game, yet it lacks some of the fundamental bells and whistles of the service.

I can’t recommend Spelunky, because I feel doing so would make me a horrible person.  Any fun you have playing it slowly vanishes, yet you can’t stop playing.  It owns you.  God help me, I’m going to go play it some more as soon as I finish this review.  And then when I’m actually playing it, I have trouble tearing myself away from it.  One time I only quit because my battery charge went out.  This isn’t a game.  It’s a drug.  And not one of those fun drugs that rock stars overdose on in the grand suite at a five-star hotel.  Oh no.  This is one of those drugs that hillbillies cook up in their bathtub in Bumfuck, Wyoming.  One that’s sold to you by a ragged-looking teenager that’s missing half his teeth.  One that you should know better than to try, because just one taste will hook you for life.

Oh fuck it, just buy the damn thing.  Just make sure you cancel any plans you have pending in the coming weeks.  And absolutely no faking German Measles to get out of work.  I already did that one.  By the way, chances are you won’t have any more fun than I am having.  I’m just telling you to buy it in hopes that Spelunky is secretly running some kind of bizarre version of a video game Ponzi Scheme and if I convince enough people to buy it, the game will suddenly become magically easier for me.

Spelunky was developed by Mossmouth

Plug & Play is Chick Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

1200 Microsoft Points have never laughed harder than the time they spent a fortune on one of the helpers in Spelunky only to watch him jump up and impale himself on spikes only five seconds later for no reason at all in the making of this review. 

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