Castlestorm Review – Making War Fun Again

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The growth of digital distribution networks such as Playstation Network, Xbox Live, and of course Steam has led to some very unique games getting released that would probably never see the light of day as traditional retail releases. Castle Storm is one of these games. Brought to us by Zen Studios, this is a very interesting offering in a number of ways.

I am sure one of the first things you are going to notice is the look of the game is the cartoon feel to it. Despite all the blood, mangled bones, bombs, and soldiers experiencing the horrors of war, this is a lighthearted game. They accomplish this with over the top characters, crazy weapons, and an overall lighthearted story despite the seriousness of it all. Zen Studios tugged a fine line here and they pulled it off with brilliance. I found myself getting quite engrossed in the story and this wasn’t necessarily due to actual depth of the story. It had more to do with the fun dialogue and the interesting characters. I really wanted to see if the cowardly king ever grew a pair or if the overly brash and arrogant Sir Gareth would ever experience some horrors himself.

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The music adds to the lighthearted feel of the entire package with some very fun and upbeat tunes. This is a theme throughout the game as even darker levels, such as the one where you are being ambushed by dire wolves in a dark forest, keep the mood light and it never seems to transition into being too dreary or edgy.  The game also adds in a number of pop culture references from series such as Game of Thrones and The Elder Scrolls.  I know how some people feel about this kind of stuff, but it didn’t seem as if Zen Studios overdid it although that certain joke from The Elder Scrolls did manage to find it’s way in here.

This game is interesting in the fact that it is a molding of three different genres. We get one part action game, one part Real Time Strategy, and one part Tower Defense. The action part of the game comes into effect when you are controlling your hero character, who you can call onto the battlefield at any time.

Your hero unit is an accomplished soldier named Sir Gareth and as soon as you start using him you will notice how much more powerful he is than any other unit you may have. You can mash the attack button for combos, charge a super attack, and even fall back and use your bow for some long ranged attacks. This guy can really do it all and you will mow through the enemy troops faster than they can spawn.

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Naturally using him all the time will make the game way too easy so, just like any other powerful weapon in the game, his use is limited. Sir Gareth as well as powerful projectiles all have cool down periods between uses and your hero unit can only stay on the battlefield for a limited amount of time.

In addition to the powerful hero unit, the action segment also comes into play with your ballista. This is, for the most part, the main focus of the game. You start off with just being able to shoot arrows to being able to fire things as absurd as rocket propelled sheep. Along the way your arsenal will continue to grow with things from apple bombs, spiked balls, and even potions which can charm the enemy into fighting for you.

The ballista is also crucial in destroying the enemy castle and this is where the tower defense portion of the game comes into play. Most major stages in the game will have the objective of destroying the enemy castle or knocking down their gate and capturing your flag. Obviously bombs and rocket propelled animals are very useful for knocking down walls. Wrecking their castle is also a good strategy even if you aren’t required to do it since if you, say, destroy their barracks, they can no longer spawn that particular kind of solider. Destroying a barracks that contains a powerful unit can all but assure victory.

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The ballista controls will take some getting used too however.  Basically how it works is that you can’t just move your analog stick around to aim the thing.  You kind of need to draw it back like a bow and then aim.  So if you are aiming to the right side of the screen, you need to pull the analog stick to the left, hold it there, and then move the stick up and down depending on where you want to aim.  The bow and arrow controls work much the same way when you are controlling your hero character.

Realistically, you would not be very successful in combat with just a hero unit and a ballista and this is where the real time strategy aspect of the game comes into play. You can spawn your very own soldiers to do your dirty work for you ranging from lowly cannon fodder all the way to majestic armored knights on horseback and everything in between. Just like any good RTS though, soldiers require resources and in this game they consume food. You have a limited amount of soldiers you can spawn and the more powerful the soldier the more food is required to spawn him.

The good thing about this is that just about everything in this game is upgradeable. You can increase the power of each individual soldier unit as well as increasing the total amount of food you can hold in your castle and how fast you replenish your supplies of food. This way you can really pile up the powerful troops and a good thing to do early in the game is leveling up the basic solider, increasing your total supply of troops, increasing your food, and creating an army of these individually weak units to mow through the enemy. You can worry about the more powerful units as the game goes on and gold becomes more plentiful.

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Yes, naturally you require gold for upgrading anything and this is where you get a chance to really show of your skills. The game has a star rating system based on how well you performed in the mission. It ranks stuff such as total time taken to complete the mission, total kills, rooms destroyed, and whether or not the bonus objective was completed. You also get extra gold for things like head shots with your ballista and kill streaks. Gold may seem very plentiful at first, but as you acquire more and more units, projectiles, and rooms for you castle, which are all upgradeable, it can get quite overwhelming and it will always seem like you are out of gold.

Luckily you get quite a bit of money if you successfully complete the bonus objective, and if you did manage to fail it, you can always go back and replay any mission in the game. So while it can be a pain managing your gold you can always go back and grind previous missions to get all the gold you want, and believe me, you will need it.

The game also offers up side quests from time to time where the goals can be something like defeating a flock of turkeys before they kill you. Side quests are usually quick missions which offer you a chance to acquire even more gold and since they are usually very quick, it is these missions that I personally grinded a bit to build up my gold reserves.

One very important thing to keep in mind, unless you want to grind for hours on end, is to not spend all of your upgrades in one place. A great thing about this game is that the missions vary greatly and offer up all kinds of different challenges. So, if you spend all of your gold upgrading soldiers and then go into a mission where the soldiers are on strike, well, you will be kind of screwed. It is best to balance your upgrades so you will be prepared to take on any task.

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In addition to the main game, Castle Storm also offers up Skirmish Mode, Survival Mode, and Hero Survival Mode. These modes are great because they offer you something to do outside of the campaign mode but they are also great for a much more important reason. They are great sources of gold and the gold you earn in these bonus modes does carry over to the campaign.

Skirmish mode is basically a quick campaign mission. Survival mode has you fending off waves and waves of enemies, seeing how long you can last until they capture your flag or destroy your castle, and Hero Survival has you controlling an overpowered hero character as you fend off waves and waves of enemies before they either kill you or capture your flag. I found the Hero survival mode to be particularly good since you have a very limited amount of time to control your hero during the actual campaign skirmishes and the action mechanics are a blast.

The game also offers up both local and online multiplayer in both versus and co-op format. You can either try to destroy a friends castle while he does the same to you or you can team up with that friend in survival and hero survival modes.

This game is no doubt filled to overflowing with features, variety, and fun. The campaign in lengthy, but not to the point of being overly repetitive or obnoxious. Then, when you do want to switch it up you have a bevy of extra modes and multiplayer to lose yourself in.

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I was surprised by this game seeing as I enjoyed it immensely, and I don’t really enjoy Real Time Strategy or Tower Defense games. What Zen Studios did masterfully here is take some very established formulas and switch them up to the point where they seem familiar, but take you on a totally different ride. So different in fact that even people who don’t like two of the major genres it pulls from can enjoy it.  They also did a masterful job in balancing all the different gameplay elements.  A mixing of three different genres sounds like it would lead to a game that is pure chaos, and this isn’t totally inaccurate.  The chaos is balanced though by the ease of control.  Everything is nothing more than a button press away, and despite all the crazy stuff happening on screen, you always feel like you are in control.