The Eternal Castle Remastered has the kind of auteur spirit that can make even a bad game worth playing, which is fortuitous because it’s probably a bad game by most standard metrics. Its slavish devotion to recreating the past results in a nonsensical story with uncooperative controls, but it also lends a contagious quality to the developers’ passion and imagination. This is a rare game that makes you want to keep playing just to see what it does next, even though everything it does is some combination of frustrating and underdeveloped.
This feeling starts as early as the title and official description, which declare the game to be a modernization of an obscure 1987 release. While that’s not false per se, it’s certainly stretching the truth to the breaking point for the apparent purpose of viral marketing. In actuality, The Eternal Castle is a from-the-ground-up project based on vague memories the designer had of playing an unidentified game from that era. The result is a cinematic platformer in the vein of Another World and the original Prince of Persia, audaciously constructed entirely within the 2-bit color palette of the CGA. For better and for worse, it pulls off the act exceptionally well.
Inevitable eyestrain notwithstanding, there’s no denying that The Eternal Castle looks damn cool. That stark cyan-and-magenta setup is iconic for a reason, and it’s put to great atmospheric use here. The retro look is fully cemented by the animation; if it wasn’t realized via rotoscoping, it’s doing an excellent imitation of it. The audio almost breaks the illusion – I’m fairly certain any machine equipped with a CGA card could not output sound of this quality – but it’s acceptable because the soundtrack is amazing. If nothing else, the developers have nailed the “cinematic” part of the cinematic platformer.
The problem arises when the game is asked to perform as…well, as a game. Striking as the graphics are, the only way they could be less conducive to action gameplay if they used a text interface. First of all, anyone who tells you they can definitively identify every object in a given screenshot is a liar. By extension, identifying ladders, grabbable ledges, and interactive objects amid all the pixelated detritus is perhaps the greatest challenge on offer. Finally, navigating a room whose background is the same color as your character is as confusing as it sounds, and it gets especially ridiculous when other identical human characters are involved.
As for the touted modernization, apparently, that just means there’s a Souls-like influence. And that just means rolling works as a dodge maneuver, and you have a stamina bar that depletes when you do absolutely anything. The kernel of a good combat system exists because of this addition, but of course, the visuals make it impossible to determine who’s attacking who during a scrum, and the possibility of reading a boss’s attack tells is laughably out of the question. Even with a more conventional presentation, however, the combat would simply be too shallow, as much of it (including blocking) is locked behind obtuse and unexplained input combinations.
As both have a reputation for labored player movement and trial-and-error gameplay, the marriage of cinematic platformer and Souls-like makes perfect sense — as long as you forget that those are the two worst aspects of each genre. Given this, I was surprised at how little intentional trial and error there is here. The visuals are once again responsible; they’re often so impenetrable that you’re forced to stop and take in your surroundings to determine what will and will not kill you in a given room. Whether a happy coincidence or not, this goes a long way towards defanging the dreaded one-hit kill, and the frequent checkpoints take it the rest of the way.
That other common problem is in full force, however. The Eternal Castle copies its inspirations’ controls to a tee, so every action is taken after a one-second delay, and “realism” demands that the protagonist can jump no farther than six inches in any direction. On top of that, the key setup is unnecessarily redundant and inconsistent. I guarantee you’ll accidentally discard guns trying to duck into tight spaces, and you’ll repeatedly press the wrong button trying to interact with something. It can also be extraordinarily unintuitive; I once accidentally threw my weapon across the room, because apparently, that’s what pressing ‘E’ while holding ‘Q’ and ‘W’ does.
While the controls and graphics capture the technical feel of a thirty-year-old game, it’s the story that unexpectedly evokes the spirit of game development in that era. The opening text crawl has been copied verbatim into the Steam description, and its random, unpunctuated shifts in subject matter form a perfect microcosm of the plot. Starting as a sci-fi rescue mission, you’ll quickly find yourself dealing with fistfights in a dance club, cover-based shooting in a modern warzone, and mutants lurking beneath a church. There’s also a recurring theme of dreams and precognition. It feels like looking through a kaleidoscope: undeniably captivating, but ultimately pointless.
I understand that Another World was a landmark title, but it’s also one of the most poorly aged games I’ve ever played, so a modern revamp of its style would be welcome. The Eternal Castle Remastered is an interesting attempt, but it works backwards and forwards in equal measure, and its new additions thoroughly clash with its retro vision. It showcases enough unique artistry that I can’t imagine starting it and not wanting to finish, but it’s so mechanically flawed that I can’t actually recommend starting it unless you’re a hardcore fan of its lineage.
This review is based on the PC version of the game, which we were provided with by Playsaurus.
This faux-remake does what it sets out to do eerily well. There's just the question of whether that goal was worth achieving.