Humour, much like relationships, sex and peaceful diplomatic resolution of conflict, is something a lot of games try but few manage to get right. If they aren’t crass or straight up unfunny, jokes in games can often feel out of sync with a hyper-serious shoot-the-mans focused universe or dry simulation. When they aren’t, the limitations of player interaction, voice triggers and animation prevent true greatness from shining through. What, ahem, “physics based destruction meets tower defense brawler” CastleStorm does is just a little bit different.
Developers Zen Studios (mostly of pinball fame) have constructed the entire game; setting, art design, mechanics, etc. around their particular brand of referential, slightly wacky humour. Mounted troops, sent between rival fortifications at opposing ends of a battlefield, aren’t men on horseback, they’re donkey or dire bear riders, hats bobbing exaggeratedly off their heads as they plod along. When, for a mission, your troops are out of action, it’s because they’ve all been drinking dodgy water and need the loo or have gone on strike, wandering around in circles waving “Flower Power” signs and moaning about how much their job sucks. There wasn’t a five minute period of CastleStorm where I wasn’t filled with mirth at some new farce and it really helped string the action together.
The choice of faux-medieval fantasy allows steals from Blizzard’s book of massive shoulderpads and hilarious muscles which gives the joke-every-second-line dialogue (victory screens are regularly punctuated with “They took arrows to the knees.” or similar) the right backdrop. The hero is an always smiling, ridiculous caricature of a knight in shining armour. His King: a tiny geriatric, constructed solely of gray beard who’s almost certainly evil advisor is an extreme parody, more chin than man. It’s corny and cliché but it fits.
The simplicity of the game makes enjoying the humour mandatory to get the most out of it. Each mission takes on a similar routine of using automated troops supported by magic powers and a giant ballista armed with a variety of ordinance to either defend against a certain number of enemies or destroy an opposing castle. The basic click-click-click of using powers and deploying troops can be a little dull and gets formulaic once you have a favoured pattern but gaiety comes to the resuce once again with fart propelled “battering sheep” a weaponised highlight.
What’s at your disposal is controlled by a genius bit of pseudo character-customisation that allows you to custom build your castle, with each room giving access to some element of your army or providing a buff to your experience as a whole. Use a lot of melee men? Stack up on initiative bonuses to ensure they strike first and armouries to increase their damage. Suffering poverty? Build treasuries to raise gold bounties from slain enemies. Attempting to spam just these rooms leaves you open to easy destruction making ‘useless’ walls a necessity and constructing the castle is fun on its own merits outside of the main game, and provides a much needed shot of creativity to an otherwise conventional game. This complements an equipment slot based selection system that allows each scenario to be tailored for but ensures no area of your capabilities is under utilised.
Another strength is speed. In a couple of hours play the longest single undertaking was slightly over eight minutes. It’s perfect for a lunch break or lightning visit, embracing a pick up and play attitude throughout that is likely the best way to play the game for optimal enjoyment. A marathon session will begin to bore unless major milestones – tileset switches, additional side missions or hinted-at faction changes – are reached, but short bursts let the polished repetition flourish.
Once I was used to the slightly awkward control scheme, likely stemming from an earlier crossbox arcade release, blitzing to a goal was easy, as I seamlessly switched between battle facets on the fly. The process is smooth and, once mastered, has that RTS feel of skilled domino toppling that few games as uncomplicated could muster. Sadly, I so far haven’t discovered much of a challenge in the main campaign – though multiple “survival” game modes assist in this, if it’s an issue for you, and there is a sense of rising difficulty, albeit slowly.
If you’re ready for a light-hearted laugh and a little bit of game, CastleStorm is out now on Steam at £6.99, with the first expansion DLC “from Outcast to Savior” available later today.