In recent years the tower defense genre has experienced a revival, thanks to titles such as Orcs Must Die!, Plants vs. Zombies and Defense Grid. All have done so by giving a new perspective on the action, having more professional production values or providing better context for what’s happening on screen. Some have even subverted conventions, with Anomaly shaping the “tower offense” genre.
“Predictably, evil stirs in the shadows and the conflict erupts again, complete with a cartoonish villain and his twirling mustache.”Tower defense games are relatively simple, as they – among other things – require a relatively simple and predictable AI. You always know how particular units act and react, which can make them feel a bit stale. So you’d be forgiven for thinking that the same thing would apply to Castlestorm, which is best described as a merging of traditional tower defense and Angry Birds. Thankfully, those worries are quickly dispelled.
That is to say, after the intro finished. It begins with some awful poetry by someone who insists that the last words in a line must always rhyme. It gives a terrible first impression, but nonetheless gets the job done, as it establishes the setting. It’s a generic medieval fantasy realm, where the former arch-enemies, the Vikings and Knights have been at peace for ages. Predictably, evil stirs in the shadows and the conflict erupts again, complete with a cartoonish villain and his twirling mustache.
The hero Sir Gareth is at the center of this, and he must defend the kingdom from the marauding Vikings. It’s obviously clichéd, but it doesn’t really matter as it’s whimsical while providing context for the action. The problem with tower defense is that all too often they can’t deliver a remotely interesting narrative. Since the genre is straightforward and simple, you need something to motivate you to keep going even after the gameplay has grown a bit dull. In Castlestorm there’s always a feeling of progression, a feeling that what you did in last mission actually matters in some way to the world. Not in terms of concrete consequences, but just simple feedback in the cutscenes.
In the bulk of the story missions, you have control of a castle and have to destroy your opponent’s castle or capture their flag. To do this, you have a range of units that you can dispatch for a price, spells that either aid your troops or simply kill the opponents, and finally your trusty ballista which can fire a host of projectiles at enemy units and castles. Among them is the homing eagle, a bird whose course you can direct. The game’s wonderful nonsensical nature shines through in the moments like these.
The combination of these three elements make for an experience that’s more hectic than most tower defense games, with less focus on simply placing towers the right places and hoping for the best. It gives you a greater feeling of agency, and doesn’t end in dull anticipation as you wait for the enemy troops to pass by your defenses. And at the same time, it doesn’t overwhelm you, even though you occasionally forget certain options.
“Multiplayer, though, is where it really shines. Despite only one of the modes being worth playing. ”It also has greater variety, which is also reflected in how frequently the setting changes. It feels like Zen Studios have set up a basic story first, and then figured out how to construct the game around that skeleton. The result is that the narrative doesn’t feel tacked on but complements the gameplay. For example, one cutscene centered how one of your weak units, a swordsman, felt so inadequate compared to all your other units. He sat there on the rock, weeping with shame, and you couldn’t feel anything but sympathy for him. To acquire extra gold (needed for upgrades) in the next mission, you were rewarded for making swordsmen your most valuable unit, thus incentivizing you to change your strategy. It’s so simple, but it works well as it forces you to change your approach instead being mired in the same strategies throughout your time with the game.
However, they ought to have made it easier to access information about the different skills and units you have available, because it’s difficult to figure out precisely what a particular projectile or spell does while you’re playing a mission. Generally you can experiment your way to it, but it would have been preferable if you just highlight the button and then have a small info box above it. It causes some frustrations that could have easily been avoided, as you toss random objects about, hoping they have some effect.
Multiplayer, though, is where it really shines. Despite only one of the modes being worth playing. Survival, which has one player in control of spells and unit production, while one plays on the ground as a Hero, is quite dull for the player on the ground, as it pretty much only entails spamming the attack button until the enemies die. That’s not entirely fair, of course, but there’s very little strategy involved. It also requires you to have grinded through the singleplayer first and leveled up the hero, because otherwise the odds are stack heavily against you.
“Playing as a hero is the weakest element in the game, and thus both of these modes feel superfluous.”Hero Survival is a variation of the mode that has both players enter the fray, but it feels aimless and far too easy. Part of this is because of the overly simple controls and options you have when playing as a hero. You have the two basic melee attacks and a ranged attack, but you don’t have to think tactically. Playing as a hero is the weakest element in the game, and thus both of these modes feel superfluous.
The real potential shows in Versus, which essentially plays as the main campaign, with the added benefit that your opponent is a human player. It allows for greater strategic variety, as their behavior obviously changes from player to player. Versus is what will keep you playing, even after the main campaign ends.
Castlestorm is a worthy addition to the tower defense fold. None of its ideas are particularly original, but it merges them in ways not seen before. Yes, you could probably sniff up an old Flash game built on roughly the same premise, but it wouldn’t have the same production values as Castlestorm has. Because in between the enjoyable gameplay, Zen Studios have crafted a world that’s not wildly exciting, but still worthwhile experiencing.