Castle Crashers - ReviewCraig Snow , posted on 02 September 2008 / 6,411 Views
Castle Crashers is an exclusive Xbox Live Arcade game from The Behemoth, the makers of critically acclaimed Alien Hominid. Castle Crashers at its most basic is a side-scrolling beat ‘em up, with RPG leveling elements thrown into the mix. There are a number of different modes in Castle Crashers, all of which can be played against the computer or other players, either locally or online.
The main mode in Castle Crashers is the campaign mode. Four princesses and a huge flying crystal have been kidnapped by a wizard and you have to rescue them. Mercifully that is all the story you are given, instead The Behemoth have laced the game with little jokes and a smattering of dry humour that make plot details not only unnecessary but also unwanted. You don't really want a detailed storyline with verbose dialogue boxes - it just wouldn't be in-keeping with the frenetic action the game involves.
One of the most popular features of the game is the ability to unlock additional character classes. You start off able to access the Red, Blue, Green and Orange Knights, but you will quickly unlock other classes like the Grey Knight, Ninja and Barbarian. Each character has a different magic ability, although in the case of the unlockable characters there is a lot of overlap. On the whole they are equally effective and often pretty similar.
The combat is relatively simplistic, making it an easy game to pick up and play. A is jump, Y is a heavy attack, X is a light attack, and B is reserved for any inventory item you’re holding -- which is determined by skimming through the left and right bumpers. Finally, the right trigger charges up your magic which can then be used by pressing any of the face buttons, which each produce their own unique magic attack.
Variety is introduced to this simplistic combat system via combos that you acquire throughout the game as you level up your character. It is a truly satisfying experience to throw a whole gang of enemies into the air and reel off combos that take you from one end of the screen to the other without even touching the ground, leaving nothing but a small collection of bodies on the ground.
Those dead bad guys give you experience points, which in turn allow you to level-up your character all the way up to level 99. Each new level you acquire also grants you skills points. These points can be spent in one of four different areas – strength, magic, defence and agility. This allows you to customise your character according to your particular play style – on my first play through I opted for a tank with high strength and defence, then on my second play through I went for a ranged character with high agility and magic. Both worked out well and were equally proficient in dispatching with the bad guys, but they also opened up different approaches to combat, which certainly adds to the lasting appeal of the game.
Many games get that balance wrong but here all the different variations you can think up will work. This is mainly due to the relative ease with which the game can be beaten – if you are struggling with a particular area you can just go back to the previous section and level-up some more. This is true throughout the game, although if you find the game too easy there is always insane mode where even a level 99 character will struggle at times.
On top of the skill and combo systems there are two other ways in which you can make your character stronger – there are weapons and there are animal orbs. With weapons there is often a trade off – each weapon will have one or two positive modifiers, like +1 to strength +2 to magic, but it will often have a negative modifier as well. It doesn’t add that much to the game, you're unlikely to notice much difference and by mid-game you will probably have found a weapon you like the look of and will stick with it throughout.
There are 26 Animal orbs to collect and they tend to have purely positive modifiers, such as additional experience points or greater defence. The orb will follow you around the battlefield like a little hovering pet performing its specific task. Both weapons and animal orbs certainly add an extra dimension to the game – you'll want to equip the weapon and animal orb that best suit your character, but this selection is hampered by the fact that in order to find out exactly what they add to your character’s abilities you have to visit the blacksmith and/or the animal ark. There is no real reason for this, when it would have been much more convenient to tell you instantly what they do, rather than having to run all the way back to the blacksmith and the animal ark. The effect is that once you have found a weapon and animal orb you are vaguely happy with you won't really bother checking the particular attributes of a weapon or animal orb you find in future purely because of hassle involved in finding out what it does.
There are a number of different settings within the game – there are a series of hellish lava themed levels, forest based levels, snow filled levels, and so on. Each setting has a number of similarly themed levels that ultimately culminate in a boss battle. All of these levels are very pretty, and the game has the best graphics you are likely to find in an XBLA title. The settings are all vibrant, colourful and well drawn, and the animations perfectly suit the self-deprecating and humorous nature of the game. As you would expect this all runs smoothly without any graphical hick-ups, although as with most 2d side-scrolling beat ‘em ups it can at times be difficult to line up attacks with opponents, particularly when using ranged attacks.
There is also a wide variety of music within the game. Each setting has its own unique track which is often in-keeping with the nature of the settings. For example, the desert levels have rather minimalistic low-key music, whilst the marsh levels you unlock towards the end of the game have a deathly hollow score that certainly suits the scenery of crypts and tombstones. The sound effects are crisp and fitting - you get the clinks of swords hitting armour, the bangs of magic being set off and swirls of missed hits. The music and sound effects never become overbearing though, and you can easily go through the entire game without noticing either very much, but it's a credit to The Behemoth for putting so much effort into an often overlooked area of games in general.
One minor frustration I had with the game is that enemies tend to have the same attacks throughout (with the exception of the bosses which are all completely unique) and their differences are often just cosmetic. Their tactics are also identical - a group will often try to surround you with a couple of them coming in to attack while the rest hold back fire arrows at you should you stand still for too long. Most enemies therefore tend to run away from combat and just fire arrows at you and this can be extremely frustrating, particularly as a hit by an arrow will cause you to fall to the ground and it can be hard to escape at times. This is a particularly prescient problem in insane mode – it doesn't kill the game by any means, but it is ultimately an unnecessary addition to the game.
So far so very good. However, there is a but, and it is a big one. Castle Crashers’ online is horrendous for most people, so horrendous in fact that it virtually renders Castle Crashers a single player and local multiplayer game only if you are affected. That’s a pretty damning criticism for a game billed on its 4 player co-operative and competitive modes. Attempting to use the quick match selection from the online options almost always connects you to a game that is already full, and rather than searching for a new game it boots you back out to the main menu, resulting in a frustratingly vicious cycle. Selecting the open custom match option is a similar story and creating a match to invite friends doesn't work either. If you do happen to find an open party or create your own, the lag is usually unbearable and if you don't leave the game of your own volition the game will often disconnect you automatically. Online multi-player in Castle Crashers can be such a frustrating experience that, if you are subject to these problems, it’s best avoided until The Behemoth fix it.
The Behemoth have confirmed that there are indeed plans to put out a patch as soon as possible to fix these problems, so look out for news on that. If you're anything like me, you'll have already looked at the review score I've given Castle Crashers. These online problems are largely responsible for the low technical presentation score, which would otherwise have been much higher.
The final two modes are worth mentioning briefly as they are essentially bonus mini-games – firstly there is All You Can Quaff, which challenges you to tap the X and Y buttons in alternation as fast as your reflexes will allow, thereby causing your character to eat through the items of food dumped in front of him. It's essentially a button-mashing mini-game that reminded me of Track & Field, and it should only hold your interest for a short while.
The second mini-game is the arena mode. In its single player form this is a somewhat pointless survival mode – you're merely challenged with withstanding successive waves of more and more enemies for as long as possible. In its multiplayer form you are pitted against 1-3 other players in a fight to the death using one of your characters from the main Castle Crashers game. Unfortunately the connection issues detailed above also apply here, rendering the arena mini-game unplayable in its present form online.
Castle Crashers is an excellent game – it is, on the whole, a well rounded and polished game with plenty of content to enjoy, making it an XBLA game with some truly lasting appeal. The single player campaign is the main draw and it doesn't disappoint with its quirky charm and addictively simplistic gameplay. If you can overlook the broken online modes it's certainly worth a look at 1,200 Microsoft Points, and if The Behemoth manage to fix those online problems Castle Crashers really will be a complete package with the potential to hold your attention for many hours.
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