by Christopher Coke
reviewed on PC
CastleStorm is rewarding but can also be occasionally frustrating. Later levels become quite difficult and newcomers to the tower defense may find themselves overwhelmed with the many elements demanding their attention. The ever increasing march of enemies can tempt one to simply restart the level, especially when fast moving targets are missed several times over.
Aiming is generally a breeze, but using a mouse and keyboard provides a definite edge over the gamepad. The game supports either option, but compared to using a mouse, aiming the ballista with the gamepad's joystick feels cumbersome, slow, and inaccurate. It's regrettable since every other aspect of the game feels natural with controller in hand. CastleStorm would be a great game to lean back and relax with but the gross over-adjust that occurs with every touch of the joystick makes that impossible.
Tower defense games typically survive on gameplay, so one could be forgiven for not expecting much of a story in CastleStorm. That person would be mistaken and hopefully happily surprised by what Zen Studios has to offer. From the outset, it's clear that the prolific pinball developer is out to defy expectation. As if the gameplay mechanics weren't enough, cutscene after cutscene underlines the experience, framing each encounter.
The story is admittedly cliché, but forgivably so in the face of its humor. You may be holding out against too-familiar direwolves in the over-played haunted wood, but you'll do it by hand because a nosy sheep got caught in the ballista. Kingdom characters seem seem cut from the Robin Hood cloth of friars, witches, and warriors but parody themselves with each bit of dialogue spoken and the bobble-head rigidness of their expressions. Vikings are, well, vikings with axe and beard in tow. This never feels like a problem, however, because cliché in CastleStorm is a means to an end: familiarity for the sake of fun.
That considered, the story being forgettably light is perhaps expected. The still-animation cutscene which opens the game presents the playable factions, Kingdom and Vikings, in a scene of war until a loving goddess brings peace to the land with magical gems. Mysterious muckity-muck occurs and the Vikings once again march on Kingdom's walls. What initially seems fantastical and interesting soon becomes a piecemeal progression of in-engine story drops. While the overarching theme breaks little new ground, the deliver succeeds in eliciting chuckles and interested to see what the next cutscene will bring. At times the humor misses, such as the outdated “arrow to the knee” meme, but is generally well received.
The game's playful tone is buoyed by its jovial art style. Zen Studios wisely chose to avoid realism and went instead toward an aesthetic that can best be likened to Wizard 101. Characters animate flamboyantly and feel almost marionette-like during story vignettes. Facial expressions change as wholes with little transition in between. It feels cartoon-y, a perception which fits the exceptionally colorful settings and animated backgrounds.
Keeps You Coming Back...
There is a lot to love in CastleStorm and the fun's not over when you finish the campaign. Zen has included a number of multiplayer options to keep you coming back for more. Survival allows two players to cooperate, one on the ballista and one on the field. Hero survival takes the ballista out of the equation and tasks cooperatives with manning the battlefield on their own. Skirmish is a single-player variant which sees them facing off against the AI. Versus is as you would expect and stages two players against each other to destroy the other's castle, which can be built from scratch using a built in editor.
CastleStorm is a solid game that defies easy classification. Experiencing its many systems, it is apparent how much of a tightrope Zen Studios needed to walk to find such an effective balance. I remained consistently impressed at the quality and delivery of each system. Gameplay, at its peak, feels like a choreography of elements acting in concert to create a whole. CastleStorm isn't a perfect game but it's definitely a good one. It may not have been the successor to Zen Pinball 2 that we expected, but it is definitely one worth our time.
Easy blend of multiple genres, consistently rewarding, funny
Can be overwhelming, poor game pad controls