When our Editor in Chief sent me the code for an XBLA title called CastleStorm the name had me intrigued, but also had me wondering what the heck did I get myself in to? After downloading the title I booted it up and was pleasantly surprised to see the Zen Studios logo prominently displayed on the introductory screens. For those of you not familiar with the studio they are best known for their work on Pinball FX2 and the many tables created for this great pinball simulator. As a huge fan of Pinball FX2, and seeing that Zen Studios was the developer of this latest XBLA title, I had high hopes for CastleStorm as it was a title that was made by a developer I had faith in.
The best way to describe CastleStorm in one phrase is, “Angry Birds meets Tower Defense in Medieval Times, with a bit of Monty Python-esque comedy to take off the edge.” The basic premise is to go head to head with your Knight and take down Viking Hordes with your troops, ballista, magic and hero. You must conquer your enemy in either a single player campaign, co-op action, or head to head in some online multiplayer. Winning is easy – destroy your foes castle or capture the enemy flag and return it to your base. How you go about doing that task is entirely up to you and ultimately your gameplay style.
There are four ways to attack your enemy and in turn to defend your castle. There are your troops such as archers, soldiers, knights and donkey riders that you can send out to attack or defend against the Vikings. There is not much strategy involved with the troops themselves aside from picking which units that you throw into the battle as they run on auto-pilot, but troop selection in itself can turn the tide of the battle as all of them do have strengths and weaknesses. Archers are personally my favourite as they sit back and stay close to your castle while picking off enemies in the distance. You can also use magic for offense and defense with spells like magic missile or a healing spell to give your troops just a bit more life in battle. Magic is easily used by selecting the spell and targeting where you would like it to be cast. You can also control your Hero to hop right into the battle and fight up close and personal. You can use melee attacks or take his bow and pick off enemies from afar. I preferred to head on into battle and attack with a sword when using my hero, as I found the bow and arrow a bit finicky and wasn’t at all the useful when compared to the ballista. Your hero also does a lot of melee damage and does it quickly.
Finally, there is the aforementioned ballista – THE main source of attack which offers things as simple as arrows to more complicated weaponry like explosives or sheep. Yes, you have sheep-a-pult which can be used for hilarious results. The great thing about the ballista is the variety of ammo which you can switch between on the fly to quickly take down some Viking troops, and then switch to ammo that is useful against taking down structures like the enemy gate or their castle itself. The one thing I can say about the ballista is it can be quite difficult to aim if you are not a patient person and don’t like to take the time to line up your shots and time them while most of your targets are moving. Not to mention the camera is not the best for zooming in and out to get the best point of view to make your shots. There is a lot of switching to get those harder to hit shots and and a lot of zooming back out to get a better view of the battlefield.
Luckily enough all of these game mechanics are taught to you in a cute campaign mode where you play as Sir Gareth, a boastful Knight who sets out to rescue a stolen power gem that has let the ruler of his land keep peace for many year, but to now keep the peace Sir Gareth has to rely on his wits, and of course sheep, to combat the Vikings to achieve success. Progressing through the story unlocks new troops, spells, ammo and castle rooms (to customize your castle) which all aid you in your battle against the Vikings. Completing levels also rewards you with some gold to upgrade your troops as well. The narrative is told via text and to be honest I was skipping over the bulk of it to just to get to the battle portions of the game. There were some funny one liners scattered throughout the dialogue but with the story being quite cliché the entertainment value fell by the wayside fairly quickly.
Multiplayer is a bit crazy because this time you’re going up against human players, rather than the AI. Battling fellow gamers offers a bigger challenge and a lot more strategy from the get go. Multiplayer however is not that much different than the campaign as you have to use your troops, magic, hero and ballista to take down your enemy. Although I did enjoy my time playing online it quickly became monotonous which could have been a result of playing through the campaign first and getting some good fun out of that portion of the game which detracted from the competitive multiplayer aspects of the game. In the end though the multiplayer just didn’t grab my attention like I hoped it would.
There is also a survival mode which you can play solo or co-op. It works like your typical survival mode where you battle against wave upon wave of enemies with each wave becoming stronger. I didn’t quite get into as much as I wanted to. This was mostly due to the fact that my partner in crime was my six year old son who didn’t quite take direction as well as I hoped he would; however, he did have a lot of fun controlling the ballista as I used Sir Gareth to take down some of the waves of enemies. This mode is what will bring me back to play the game though as I hope with a bit more time that my son and I can work out a better teamwork strategy, as teamwork is indeed important here.
I should mention that there is a castle editor where you can obviously customize your castle; however, after spending about 10 minutes playing around with it I became frustrated and never went back as I just didn’t find it fun at all. I am sure there will be gamers out there that will love having the ability to change around their castle, and I can obviously tell there is strategic value to moving certain rooms to the back of the castle while the stronger walls are to the front to take the brunt of the blows. Rooms can be unlocked that offer bonuses and other strategic values so this is where the editor takes a larger role. That being said, if you’re like myself and would rather spend more time gaming then skip over the editor as I found it didn’t play a major role in my overall strategy in the end.
Visually the game takes on a cartoon style that is appealing and fits into the mold of the game with the exaggerated and stereo-typical characters falling into their roles quite well. I found that this game’s strength is its mechanics and that is where the bulk of the work went into rather than the making the visuals realistic or stylized in some crazy way. The music and sound effects though could have used a lot more work as the game went on and on with the same boring background music, and due to the nature of using the same troops, ballista ammo, etc., you ended up hearing a lot of the same sound effects too. This is a game I would have no problem playing with my television on mute, which is quite sad as a better musical score could have created a better atmosphere.
In the end CastleStorm is a great little game that is worth the asking price if it’s a genre that you’re interested in. The mechanics work really well, even though the aiming is a bit sensitive and the bow & arrow is even worse. On the flip side the boring castle editor and repetitive multiplayer were definitely not shining moments and could use a bit of a spit shine. I found that this XBLA title is a great first attempt at a new IP for Zen Studios and I hope they take another shot and listen to fans/critics as their opinions or criticisms should make a sequel an even better game.