Developer Zen Studios may be best known for their pinball simulators Zen Pinball and Pinball FX, but CastleStorm is a noticeable departure from both of those. Combining elements of real-time strategy, hack-and-slash brawlers, and physics-based target games like Angry Birds, such a seemingly random combination of gameplay elements sounds like it might not work. And yet, I have to give credit to the developer, because CastleStorm does indeed work. While the game can grow a bit repetitive when played for extended periods of time, there is an overall surprising amount of polish, depth, and replayability, making the game a worthwhile investment for those who are interested by the premise.
The majority of gameplay sets players up with a fortress to protect on one side of the screen, and an enemy stronghold on the other, with the end goal being to destroy the other’s structure. Direct control of a ballista is taken, which can throw an infinite amount of basic spears by default. More projectile weapons, such as multiple groups of spears, bombs, and even dive-bombing birds, are unlocked as players progress through the campaign.
Other forms of attacks include AI-controlled infantry units that can be deployed, including standard soldiers, archers, and healing priests. Archers will generally stay near your fortress and defend it with their arrows, while soldiers will march towards the enemy fortress and attempt to bust open the gates, as well as fight any enemy units heading your way. A notable (and frustrating) aspect to take into account is the fact that your projectiles can hurt or kill your own units as well, meaning you’ll have to be extra careful when firing into the fray.
Another type of unit that can be summoned are specific warriors that are controlled by the player instead of the computer. When placed on the battlefield, the camera and controls switch from the ballista to this character’s 2D path, allowing the player to move them left and right, have them jump, and attack with both swords and bows. These characters have more power and stamina than regular troops and are extremely valuable as a result.
The downsides that must be taken into consideration include the fact that there’s a time limit for how long a special unit can be active on the battlefield, and just like with every special attack in the game, there is a required recharge time during which they will be unavailable. As a result, players are encouraged to be wise and save these characters and moves for when they’re truly necessary.
The story is a simple tale about a medieval kingdom battling it out with vikings, wolves, and other foes to prevent war and protect a holy gem. It’s generally forgettable, especially since voice acting and detailed character animations are almost nonexistent, but it does provide an excuse to both switch between different environments and be given different rules and conditions for each level. Brief cutscenes can establish some of the limitations that may be placed upon you, such as being denied your infantry units due to the fact that they’ve gone on strike.
The fact that CastleStorm is so reliant on its ballista mechanic does mean that things can get a little monotonous, but the story mode does a good job of mixing things up a bit with mechanics like the changing rules mentioned above, as well as a weapon and ability upgrade system you can use between levels. You can even fully customize the layout of your castle with an editing tool, choosing from different types of rooms to provide different in-battle perks and enhancements. In addition, both local and online multiplayer modes are supported, along with some bonus single-player options such as a neverending wave-based Survival mode.
Visually, the game looks very appealing, with a cartoony, colorful, and overall lively aesthetic. Level backgrounds are varied, and always have something neat happening off in the distance. As mentioned before, characters aren’t extremely expressive, but they are at least well-designed. The music isn’t bad, also, but I’d be lying if I said I was able to remember any of it outside of gameplay.
Despite some overly repetitive gameplay at times, CastleStorm is very polished and accessible overall, and offers a lot of content in its campaign mode and some genuinely good times with multiplayer. Zen Studios should be commended for trying something new and refreshing, especially in a case like this where it pays off and makes for a fun game.
This review is based on an Xbox 360 copy of the game that was provided to us.
Though the basic gameplay can get old, CastleStorm offers a lot in the way of inventive game mechanics, content and overall fun.