Platform: XBLA (800 Microsoft Points)
Developer: Zen Studios
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Have you ever played Angry Birds and wished you could build your own fortifications? Fancy summoning troops, wielding mighty heroes and demolishing your opponent's citadel in a tense mix of all-out attack and desperate defence?
Do you have any objections to using flatulent sheep as a devastating ballistic weapon?
So long as you answered yes, yes and no to the opening checklist, you're going to get a massive kick out of Castlestorm. Zen Studios have proved that they can do more than just pinball with a neat fusion of Angry Birds, architectural design, strategy and all-out destruction.
The core concept naturally owes much to Rovio. As the defender of the realm standing against the villainous and unhygienic Vikings, you'll command an enormous ballista capable of throwing out a range of explosive ammunition. Some of them fragment into clusters. Some of them can be manually detonated. Some of them are, erm, sheep. The traditional turn-based structure has been discarded in favour of real-time gameplay with cooldowns for each ammo variety, but otherwise, you've still got to destroy an enemy castle to win the match. Strong physics modelling (perhaps inherited from Pinball FX) make for some satisfying and unpredictable impacts, with shrapnel and debris causing an appropriate amount of collateral damage.
So far, so very solid and familiar, but Castlestorm proceeds to add so many new twists that it could practically be considered its own genre.
First things first: you also have a castle, which the Vikings would absolutely love to destroy. Enemy troops continually spawn, walking from right to left in order to beat down your defences and steal your flag - which they'll then take back to their base with disastrous results. Canny players will therefore have to carefully target enemy units with anti-personnel ammunition, such as bouncing spiked balls that skip along the ground, and continually switch roles to keep the dastardly raiders from their pillaging and plundering. Later levels see Vikings fielding powerful flying units ripped from ancient mythology, which require precise targeting and sustained firepower to destroy, adding yet another frantic dimension to the action.
Of course, since the enemy fields a small army, it would be unfair not to let players summon troops of their own. From pikemen to bowmen and hulking knights, a simple respawning resource system allows you to quickly and efficiently deploy squads of allied units to harrass the enemy and push battle lines back towards their castle. You'll need to keep a careful eye on their health, perhaps using the ballista to take out some of the more dangerous Vikings along the way, but using them effectively can win a match as surely as your catapult. Worst comes to the worst, you can even teleport in your powerful hero, who can be directly controlled for a short time to deal inordinate amounts of damage to the Viking assault. It's another neat change of pace that keeps every match fresh and exciting - though their endlessly-repeating voice samples will grate within minutes.
Castle customisation rounds off the package. Money earned from beating levels and killing foes can be spent on a cornucopia of modular rooms to assemble your dream fortification. Far from a cosmetic flourish, your choice of rooms affects the units available to you, from specific living quarters to more esoteric structures that give army-wide buffs to health and damage. Since you'll also need to build your castle with defence and structural integrity in mind, there's a surprising depth and addictiction to be found here.
All of Castlestorm's gameplay mechanics can be found better elsewhere - from the familiar artillery gameplay to the simplistic sidescrolling strategy and even the humour - but Zen Studios have managed to expertly blend them all together into one cohesive experience. Simple controls allow you to fire off an exploding apple against the fortress before queuing up some more crossbowmen, sniping a handful of over-eager Vikings and then redoubling your siege efforts, at least once muscle memory is up to speed. The camera controls could have used a little extra work, since there's a lot to take in and most of it is mapped to a single stick, but by and large Castlestorm is one of the most enjoyable artillery genre hybrids we've seen in some considerable time.
Factor in an offbeat sense of humour, stylised graphics, a killer soundtrack from Waterflame and a wealth of content (60 singleplayer stages, skirmish matches and multiple multiplayer modes for starters) and you've got a seriously compelling purchase for roughly £6.80.
- Fun mix of twitch gameplay and simple strategy
- Addictive castle customisation, followed by satisfying castle annihilation
- 60 stages plus skirmish and multiplayer - fantastic value for 800 MSP
- Camera control could be tighter, especially in splitscreen
- Better examples of each individual gameplay element can be found in abundance; fusion can be overwhelming
- Aggravating SFX
The Short Version: Castlestorm makes you the king of the castle before handing you a massive catapult pointed at ravening Vikings. Some familiar gameplay elements are fused into an entirely new and worthwhile experience, available at an incredibly generous price point considering the wealth of content on offer.