Video Game Rentals Delivered

Castle Crashers (XBLA)

David Yun (Xbox Live Gamertag - Vawce) David Yun (Xbox Live Gamertag - Vawce): (contact-deleteme[at]-deleteme-direman [dot] com) 2008-09-21 02:37:21

Castle Crashers (XBLA) - Rank B

Developer: The Behemoth
Publisher: The Behemoth
Date: 8/27/08

Castle Crashers is a joyful throwback to the four joystick beat-'em-up arcade cabinets of yesteryear. If you're familiar with old school Konami arcade games like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Simpsons, you'll feel right at home here. Castle Crashers distills the same sort of limited, but concentrated gameplay fun into a modern package oozing with personality. If you lack these frames of reference, Castle Crashers is a charming side-scrolling masher, despite suffering from repetitiveness and a few marked design flaws. There isn't much depth here: each level is a simple hack-and-slash through a steady stream of hostile flunkies or a formulaic boss fight showdown. The generic plot is deepened by having to rescue FOUR abducted princesses. Fortunately, the manic mayhem is genuinely seductive, even if only on a superficial level.

Combat consists of simple combos of fast and strong melee attacks, or archery/magic ranged attacks. This choice is Castle Crashers' one significant twist to the old formula. Every successful assault earns experience points, and leveling up allows you to increase one of four abilities: melee, magic, defense, and archery. If you're committed (read: insane), you can eventually max out all four stats, but you'll initially want to rank up in one specialty for maximum effectiveness. This provides a huge dangling carrot that incentivizes continued playtime. It's amazing what this mechanic does for any genre; it dramatically upped the addiction levels of first-person shooting in Call of Duty 4, and provides Castle Crashers with some much needed substance. It's not a robust RPG-style implementation by any stretch, but could serve as the methadone for smack-addicted World of Warcraft players when their servers are down.

In addition to grinding levels, Castle Crashers is riddled with the sort of secret collectables that are the irresistible bane of obsessive-compulsives. Scores of stat modifying weapons are hidden everywhere. A plethora of animal orbs (pets that follow and assist you) are likewise stashed in nefarious manners. Adhering to time-honored videogame tradition, Castle Crashers forces you to backtrack to acquire these. The Legend of Zelda "find secrets behind cracks in the wall once you have bombs to bust them open" mechanic is shamelessly plagiarized here. Numerous playthroughs are required to earn the various unlockable characters. Castle Crashers gives you LOTS to do.

These sorts of features can quickly degenerate into drudgery if the journey itself isn't enjoyable. Fortunately, Castle Crashers features a wide array of levels rendered in a jubilantly humorous hand drawn art style. The requisite lava, ice, forest, and desert zones sound trite on paper, but come to life with intricate animations and atmosphere as you battle through them. Chase sequences mix up the action, and spitting llama steeds serve as a comically nostalgic nod to Golden Axe. Enemies range from cartoonish bandits and knights to zany fish-wielding pandas. After defeating one of the bosses, a cyclops bursts into the room to mourn and wail while tenderly clutching the corpse. Later, while castle crashing the cyclops' lair, hanging on the hallway are paintings of the two buddies clasped shoulder to shoulder and celebrating a fishing catch. Castle Crashers is absolutely littered with wonderfully absurdist touches like the heartfelt friendship between a villainous cone-headed knight and a one-eyed monster. However, the scatological humor did fall flat with me. I enjoy a good poop joke as much as the next guy, but riding on a deer jet propelled by excrement? That's just crass.

Lamentably, the actual combat mechanics are riddled with minor frustrations. The flat sprites look terrific, but their hit zones are paper thin. It can be difficult to line up targets, even if tracking their shadows. The abundant enemies can simultaneously swarm you and pelt you with ranged attacks that knock you off your feet. This can feel cheap; the rudimentary combos are the only limited incentive not to button mash, but these ranged attacks prevent you from executing them. Also, all of the playable characters are virtually identical. Unlike Capcom's classic Dungeons and Dragons side-scroller, which featured unique and distinct experiences depending on which character you chose, Castle Crashers' cast only shares cosmetic variations. The starting characters are four differently colored knights. The blue one employs ice magic, the orange one fire, and so on. Admittedly, the way magic functions for each character varies somewhat, but if you went with any of the other specialties, you'd never notice.

Castle Crashers was designed to be a multiplayer experience. Playing by yourself is certainly viable, but teaming up is exponentially more entertaining. Liberating one of the kidnapped princesses results in a Double Dragon-style showdown for the damsel's affections. Covering each others' weaknesses is also invaluable. Some boss fights require ranged attacks, which could take a melee specialist forever to vanquish solo. In my first playthrough, I used the blue knight and maxxed out his magic and defense. I was demoralized to discover that one of the later castles was chock full of flunkies that were invulnerable to ice. But here's the real kick to the nuts - Castle Crashers' multiplayer mode crashes. A lot. You might find someone on your Friends List with whom you can share a stable connection, but good luck maintaining a larger party. Even worse, here's the real baseball bat to the crotch of everyone in your family - this hasn't happened to me or anyone I know, but there are numerous reports of Castle Crashers glitching and erasing all saved progress. The Behemoth stated that a patch was on the way, but as of this writing (9/20/08), weeks have passed without so much as another peep.

At a higher than usual price of 1200 Microsoft Points ($15), the bugs in the net code and save files are unacceptable. Even still, I give Castle Crashers a wary recommendation because it's terrific, simple fun. There's just so much joy in the art design, soundtrack, and nostalgic retro action, that its shortcomings are largely forgivable. It's a unique yet familiar game that warrants a chance at cluttering up your hard drive.

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