With impressive grace Castlestorm uses father-like humor as glue to bring together multiple genres with the goal of constructing something grander, and ultimately better than the sum of its parts. Unfortunately CastleStorm is a game destined to live in the shadow of the Angry Birds franchise due to the physics based projectiles it blends into its real-time strategy and tower-defense concoction, however this unfair juxtaposition does the game a great disservice. Yet despite how much of a step forward CastleStorm is for both the genres it incorporates, as well as Zen Studios themselves, it is nearly undone at the start by stiff and imprecise controls; which is something that our furious fine feathered friends have perfected.
CastleStorm is a tower-defense game in the most literal use of the term. Players are take up control of one of two towers and are tasked to prevent the opposing tower from toppling their own. The “meat and potatoes” of the combat lies in the ever present ballista which is used to fling all manners of objects at the opponent’s castle such as standard javelins, flatulent sheep, and even Thor’s mighty hammer Mjölnir. Slinging projectiles form your homestead may be the primary mode of attack, but a true general is never truly alone in battle.
After hiring upgradable ground units which range from standard soldiers and archers, to mounted warriors and air bound griffons, players can charge their enemies gates and retrieve their flag; which is an alternative method to ending most battles. If all this feels a bit too impersonal, you can also take up the role of one of the games Kingdom, or Barbarian heroes and jump into the fray yourself for a short period of time. At any given moment the battlefield can feel either immensely large, or tight and claustrophobic, depending on which method of attack you find yourself engaged in at the time.
Clearly there are a ton of layers to juggle in the combat that CastleStorm employs, and if were not for the finesse in which developers Zen Studios contributed to the design, its frantic and chaotic gameplay may have been overwhelming. The standard gameplay typically leaves little time to breathe as you are constantly engaged in a sort of tug of war with upwards of 10 ground units, all while dealing with the soaring arsenal of objects designed to take out your fortress. If that weren’t enough, you are also afforded an array of spells which aid your units when they seem to be out matched.
CastleStorm may be the title, but multitasking is the name of the game, and the turbulent action on screen is matched only by the frenzied pace your fingers will need to maintain in order to keep up with your adversary. If it were not for the graceful implementation of these elements in the games campaign, the combat may have ended up being far more tumultuous than fun. CastleStorm’s impressive dexterity distills sheer chaos into engaging and addictive gameplay.
Constructing the castles themselves can be as strategic a venture as the combat itself. The rooms you select to build your fortress out The rooms you select to build your fortress out of, in conjunction with your choice of equipment will dictate which units, spells, bonuses and projectiles you can call upon in battle . Furthermore nearly all unlocks are upgradable using coins that are earned in combat. In addition to a focus on selection, it is also imperative that you are mindful of each rooms placement because once they are destroyed as are the corresponding additions they bring to your army. For the meticulous adjusting the layout of the fortress can give an advantage in each round of combat; however an assortment pre-built castles are made available for those just interested in action.
With the ease in which CastleStorm handles its many varieties of gameplay, it is surprising that the aspect it struggles with most is the most fundamental part of its design; the ballista. The ever-present weapon is the first that players are introduced to and is essential to winning most battler; however the means in which it handles can be described as clumsy at best. Using the left analog stick players can directly aim their projectiles of choice using a guiding line, and for precise changes the d-pad is used to slightly correct the aim.
Having a pair of aiming options may sound effortless, but in practice lining up a simple shot can be frustratingly uneven. Whether you are using the unruly left stick, or the overly slow d-pad; nothing feels intuitive. I understand that the developers are asking players to use both, but given the scale of the field as well as the speed in which enemies approach, it can be extremely difficult to line up a simple shot with the standard javelin, especially early on.
It seems as though lining up a shot would have been much easier had Zen Studios made better use of the PlayStation Vita’s touch screen, which is something that they were not afforded when the game launched on the Xbox 360. While shooting in general can be done with a tap, it lacks the precision needed to deal with the (at times) difficult waves of enemies. It is disappointing that such a simple addition to the controls may have fixed the persistent problem, but thankfully the lackluster aiming becomes less of an issue as you unlock better soldiers and far more powerful projectiles that require far less pin point accuracy.
In all regards CastleStorm is a light-hearted affair, from its colorful design and whimsical soundtrack (produced and composed by Christian M Krogsvold aka Waterflame of Towerfall fame) to its in-joke laden campaign, it all plays out similarly to a Saturday morning cartoon. The overarching plot tells a tale of kingdoms divided, but truthfully each mission serves only to introduce the player to new layers of gameplay.
Some may be disappointed by the lack of a deep story-mode, but the truth is that I didn’t miss it. The story cut scenes-though shallow-are just short and funny enough to tie the missions together, and keeps momentum moving forward. Apart from the narrative, the campaign does a great job of mixing up the already mixed up gameplay. Rather than have each adventure be an exercise in large-scale warfare, there are great deal of side missions which include many moments of brevity including hunting for turkeys as the hero, and capturing a group of donkeys for battle.
All missions are graded in a five-star system based upon the speed of completion, as well as your ability to meet a pair of pre-dispatched goals. By exploring the many facets of the its design in the campaign, CastleStorm allows players to gradually become comfortable with its many mechanics without an intrusive tutorial. It should also be mentioned that while the campaign may seem short to those keen enough to keep track of unlocks, there is a whole second campaign that adds to the games length. It should also be noted that while trophies are easy to come by in CastleStorm, there is no platinum for hunters to chase.
Where CastleStorm truly excels is when another is brought into the fold. Adding another human into the fray can make the already chaotic experience even crazier, but feverish nature of the gameplay is still a joy. Whether you are going head to head or working cooperatively on the battlefield or as heroes; the fun (and the difficulty) is multiplied exponentially. Playing with fellow TVL writer Tyler Olthoff we found ourselves cursing, laughing, and cheering as we made our way past endless waves of enemies. There is truly something for everyone in the multiplayer, and enough to keep players returning long after they’ve finished the campaign, although it would have been nice to see support for more than just two players online.
Despite having some mildly-annoying issues, when all is said and done CastleStorm manages to blend gameplay elements that should just not work into a perfect storm. As addictive as it is charming, it will grip your attention and seduce you over and over again into playing just one more game. Superior in every way, If the controls were a bit more accessible I would have no issue declaring to the masses that this is the Angry Birds killer, but as of right now it will have to settle for the thinking man’s (or woman’s) alternative.