Zen Studios, famous for their Zen Pinball series of games, is back, and this time they bring physics-based castle destruction to the table (or couch, or subway, or wherever you happen to be playing if you’re on the Vita!). Throw in some tower defense and even side-scrolling combat into the mix, and what we have here is a mashup! But is this mashup akin to a four-course meal of varying tastes, each complementing the one before it, or is it more like meatloaf, which tastes the same no matter the individual ingredients?
Starting in the campaign mode, believe it or not, is an entertaining, light-hearted story involving two kingdoms. The Knights and the Vikings, who have lived in peace ever since a Goddess of theirs cried during their last war, which resulted in two teardrops raining down from the sky, which turned into life-giving gems as they hit the ground. After having acquired these gems, both kingdoms stopped their feuding, but of course things are not always as they seem… You play as Sir Gareth, the Defender of the Realm. The story is easy to follow, and worth a few chuckles, but is mostly used as setups for the various levels that you will play.
There are a few dozen of these levels, as the campaign mode will typically take a few sittings to finish. There are also side missions, and you earn new rooms and spells for your castle as you progress. There’s the expected weapons that you can launch from your ballista, such as javelins, stones, and morning stars, but also the more imaginative ones such as exploding apple grenades and flatulent sheep. To cover the ground battle, you have basic infantry units, mounted units (both horse and donkey), ranged units (archers), and support units (catapults). There are also some air units to ensure all the bases of combat were covered.
The campaign serves as an extended practice in collecting gold. The more gold you have, the more upgrades you can purchase for your units, spells, bonus rooms, and special units. Your castle can also be upgraded. While you are free to use any of the pre-built castles that come with each level, you are also given the option to create an entire custom castle. Using the bonus rooms you have earned thus far, you must build a castle that can withstand a beating while also allowing for these bonus rooms. You see, the castle reflects what type of upgrades your troops will see, if any. For example, adding a recruitment room will allow for a larger maximum army size, while adding an architect’s office will increase your castle walls’ strength. If these rooms get destroyed during combat, then you lose their benefits, so it is also worthwhile to insert empty, or structure-based sections where rooms won’t fit to give those bonus rooms more time to remain in effect. It’s a cool game mechanic that definitely plays into the game’s strategy. If you have a castle built of nothing but bonus rooms, it will be a structurally weak castle but your troops might have an edge for the beginning of the battle. Conversely, a barren but large castle might not help your army much, but it may be able to survive long enough to allow your gimped soldiers to bring the flag home.
Need to test out your latest castle design but don’t want to wade into battle just yet? Well, simply enter the test mode, which lets you fire from a ballista at will, with unlimited ammo! This is a mode that I’ve had plenty of fun with, because it’s always fun to destroy something you’ve created, to see how long it can survive the pummeling. A simple reset restores your castle to its former glory, and you can go about your merry way perfecting your design.
The game certainly looks the part, with that slightly-realistic yet cartoonish look similar to, say, Crash Bandicoot games. It looks and plays basically the same on both the PS3 and Vita, with the PS3 getting a slight graphical bump with the extra special effect here and there, and the Vita having some menus and things able to be interacted with via touch. The PS3 version has the ever-rare splitscreen mode, which makes me (and any couch gamer) love the developer Zen Studios that much more. The soundtrack (which you can listen to in full here) is notable in that it is produced by Waterflame, who also has his name on the soundtrack of Castle Crashers. It follows the mood of the game – light-hearted, cheery, heroic, epic.
CastleStorm has a lot going on. Perhaps a bit too much. If you’re not good at micro-managing, maybe this isn’t the game for you – or you should only play it on easy mode. Save for one unit type, this game has basically no level of automation. If you are busy assaulting the enemy using your ballista, while forgetting to spawn any of your own friendly units, well, tough. You’ll pay for your forgetfulness, in blood. Ok, well maybe not literally, but you get the point. CastleStorm takes no prisoners, and you can lose a match quickly if you forget to send in your own troops while attacking the enemy. Lose, and it’s nobody’s fault but your own.
CastleStorm has plenty going for it. There’s an entertaining story accompanying a decent-length campaign, there’s a handful of multiplayer options, and strategy is required if you’re going to play against another person. A better way to select units to send out to battle could have been devised, because it can get really easy for all the tasks you have to do in a battle to become overwhelming. A better lobby system would have been nice as well. Overall, though, for $9.99, you get the grown-up version of smashing LEGOs together both on the go and in HD, which is exactly what the fine folks at Zen Studios promised to deliver!