CastleStorm is a…well, I’m not entirely sure what to call this. I suppose the closest thing would be tower defense, but it does so many different and unique things that classifying it as a tower defense game doesn’t really accurately describe it. It does have elements of a beat ‘em up, but that isn’t the main focus of the game and there are times where you can ignore those aspects entirely. It is more of a “beat and destroy their castle by throwing sheep, but also defend your castle with swarms of soldiers ‘em up” but that would get tiring to type out over and over again, so maybe it would be easier to call CastleStorm what it really is: fun.
In CastleStorm, you assume the role of Sir Gareth, protector of the realm and all around good guy. The knights and vikings have had a longstanding peace, but being a protector of the realm during peace time would make for a dull experience as the ribbon cutting and baby kissing minigames would get boring quickly. As such, the peace inevitably goes sour and the knights’ magic gem of plot convenience gets stolen. It falls to Sir Gareth to rally the troops, retrieve the gem, and restore peace to the land. It might sound fairly generic, but the lighthearted approach the game takes to the story telling gives CastleStorm a unique feel and makes the plot very entertaining. Sure, you have the prerequisite knights and ogres and dragons, but you’re also dealing with soldiers striking because they’re tired of being used as fodder and sheep who won’t stop eating your weapons. There are a handful of laugh out loud moments, and it is nice to find a game that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
The core of the game is actually comprised of three completely unique game styles, mixing Angry Birds like destruction with tower defense and elements of a beat ‘em up. This formula seems like it would lead to confusion, with disparate styles muddying the gameplay and imparting a lack of real focus. However, somehow CastleStorm manages to meld all of this into one remarkable and coherent package, making the game feel like more than just a sum of its parts. At the core of this concoction is essentially a tower defense game, a genre has become so over-saturated over the past few years that even if developers stopped making them now I still couldn’t possibly play through all of the bad ones floating around the dark depths of the Internet. Still, while a Google search for tower defense games gives you only slightly fewer results than “Miley Cyrus sideboob”, the unique perspective CastleStorm offers prevents it from feeling like just another tower defense game.
You can spawn many different types of troops to help defend your castle and prevent your flag from being stolen by those no good dirty vikings, with better troops taking up more of your resources. In most instances, however, this is not enough because this isn’t just a tower defense game as you are expected to play tower offense as well. Your castle needs to be defended, true, but what about that big old ugly viking castle over across the map, sitting their all smug and making offensive gestures at your family members? Don’t you just want to smash it? Well, luckily in CastleStorm you can do just that. While your troops just go about doing their own thing, you are in direct control of a ballista that fires a wide variety of awesome weapons, including javelins, mind control potions, and gassy sheep. You can use these things to help your army take out smaller troops or directly fire your ammo at the enemy’s castle. Most maps require you to smash your opponent’s castle to win, and flinging everything you can find and watching the castle slowly crumble until you hit that last critical piece and the whole thing collapses is tremendously satisfying and entertaining to watch.
If the battle does start going south, you can jump into the action directly by taking control of your hero character and going out there to smash some heads. What is surprising is that each aspect I’ve described, the tower defense, the tower destruction, and the beat ‘em up direct combat all work very well on their own, and when combined form this incredible package that is hard to put down. It isn’t ever too complex to switch back and forth between what you’re trying to do, and after some brief introductory levels you’ll be juggling sheep launching, troop generation, and direct combat like a pro.
There is a surprising amount of depth here, and by using gold you accumulate in the levels you can power up your various units, improve the magic spells that you can use in battle, and even power up the rooms you have in your castles to give you passive bonuses. There are so many clever and interesting ideas here that it’s surprising that everything forms one coherent package, but it works and works well. If I did have any complaints, it would be that even at the highest difficulty the game never presents too much of a challenge and I do wish the single player campaign was longer and a bit meatier. Still, if my main gripe about a game is that I wish there was more of it, it is usually a good sign that the developers did something right.
You can even create your own castle in the castle editor, and as the design and shape of the castle have an impact in how strong your army is and how easy your castle is to knock down, coming up with ways to make the best castle possible is tremendously important. Of course, if you’re boring and no fun and were the kind of kid that refused to play with Legos because imagination made your brain hurt, this isn’t likely to appeal to you and you can just use one of the pre-made castles with no real negative consequences (other than the fact that everyone secretly hates you). While there aren’t as many options as I would have liked in the castle editor, there is still a solid foundation here and building up your very own castle and then coming up with all the best ways to knock it down brings back fond memories of Legos without having to clean up all the mess afterwards.
In addition to the strong single player modes, CastleStorm features some multiplayer options that are stupidly addictive. The best mode is the competitive battles, something that I am only not playing right now because I had to take time out to review the game. Both you and your opponent can build your castle and then set about knocking down the other person’s castle using all the features you’ve grown accustomed to in the single player game. Knocking down the other person’s castle contains all the fun of stomping sand castles at the beach without any of the judgmental, angry glares you get from parents afterwards. The cooperative modes are also great, and you can join a friend to take on hordes of enemies in one of two ways. Either one person will control the castle and the deployment of troops while the other is in direct control of the hero character, or both individuals play as the hero and try to survive as many waves of enemies as possible. There is an option for multiplayer matches via Xbox Live or local splitscreen, and while I always love the option of playing locally, the splitscreen here is simply not worth playing because of how small and cramped it makes everything look.
CastleStorm is also beautiful to look at, and the bright, cartoony visuals fit the game’s aesthetic perfectly. Backgrounds are lush and vibrant, and the various set pieces are very well detailed. The sound is limited to a few token phrases and grunts, but the music is phenomenal with each area having its own unique score that fits the environment well. Overall, the bells and whistles are far above what you would expect to find in typical XBLA fare and CastleStorm proved to be incredibly well put together and produced.
CastleStorm comes with an easy and complete recommendation, and it is one of the special games that can be enjoyed by just about anyone. I’ve never liked a game so much that I have been utterly unable to classify into any one coherent genre. It’s Angry Birds meets tower defense meets beat ‘em up meets crack cocaine levels of addictiveness in a hodgepodge amalgamation of stuff that absolutely should not work as well as it does. Tower defense is a completely saturated genre that most people have grown bored of, but there are enough unique and clever ideas here that everything feels fresh and innovative. I can safely say that CastleStorm is my favorite whatever the hell made up genre this is that I’ve ever played and it is that special kind of game that keeps you coming back over and over even after the initial novelty has worn off. It might not be the most complex or most challenging title out there, but it is unique, clever, funny, and, most importantly, genuinely and remarkably fun.
Platform: Xbox 360 (XBLA)