This review can hardly be considered timely. Castle Crashers was released for XBLA in the throws of 2008, years before pandas invaded Azeroth and console controllers had giant screens in them.
The game was, however, granted new life through a Steam release late last year. Considering that the last console I purchased was a Gamecube, this seems as good a time as ever to review this indie gem.
The premise is classic. You are a knight in a fantastical medieval kingdom. One day an evil wizard assaults your castle, absconding with a mystical jewel and several princesses. Tasked by the king to replenish the kingdom’s depleted princess supply, you make chase after the villain.
Castle Crashers is a typical beat-em-up title, very much styled after classics such as Golden Axe and Final Fight. Your knight navigates a scrolling horizontal plane and skirmishes with hordes of goons. Health power ups (in the form of food) and currency (in the form of gold and jewels) are collected along the way.
In a departure from the Golden Axe and Final Fight formula, progression in Castle Crashers is tethered more to avatar strength than to player skill. The game features a subtle roleplaying game experience point system. Each level the player is granted two character points that can be expended to improve your knight’s offence, defence, magic, or speed.
Although twitch reflexes and button combinations are indeed crucial to your success, often bosses hit too hard or possess too vast a health pool for you to reasonably overcome. Dying, grinding out a few levels, and trying again is typical.
As with Rogue Legacy, the player’s enjoyment of this mechanic is largely a personal taste. Having been reared by more traditional beat-em-up fare, I did not embrace the roleplaying elements. I feel there’s a certain elegance to slowly improving your skills until a once seemingly impossible challenge becomes surmountable.
Still, it’s impossible to deny the game has a lot going for it. For one, the art direction is fantastic. Hardly surprising, given that the game was developed by Newgrounds alumnae The Behemoth.
Like Alien Hominid before it, Castle Crashers features fantastic cartoon character design, delightfully elastic animations, and a kaleidoscopic colour palette. The characters, monsters, and especially the bosses seep more personality than their simple vector forms would seemingly allow.
The controls are rock solid as well. Embedding innate XBOX controller support in Steam was a fantastic choice – I can’t imagine playing the game with a mouse and keyboard. Moving, attacking, blocking, and dodging all feel fluid, and there was never a point where I could blame poor controls for my untimely death.
Castle Crashers also avoids overwhelming the player with a superfluous number of abilities, spells, and combos. New options are gradually introduced as the player progresses through the game and never in such a quantity that the player has to keep of log of how to perform them all.
Fully aware that slogging through wave after wave of goons can fatigue the fingers and senses, the developers frequently mix things up with great set pieces. One level has you trying to outrun a screen-filling monster through a cluttered lumber mill on deer-back. Another has you surfboarding down a raging river on a piece of driftwood, all the while being accosted by a disturbing looking catfish.
The level design in Castle Crashers is consistently top notch, defying the innate simplicity of its parent genre.
Although the inclusion of roleplaying elements isn’t to my tastes, I can’t really hold that design decision against Castle Crashers. The game is an outstanding beat-em-up by any yardstick. I haven’t even gone into the boss fights, animal companions, and arenas, all of which add almost extraneous layers of polish to the title.
It may be creaking in at five years old – Jurassic by video game standards – but Castle Crashers is still varied, charming, and entirely worth the $14.99 price tag on Steam.