It's felt like a long time coming, and the hype has been extraordinary considering the platform, but Castle Crashers finally hit Xbox Live Arcade and has made a huge splash with gamers the world over.
Castle Crashers (XBLA)
Developed by The Behemoth
Published by The Behemoth/Microsoft
Released on August 27, 2008
Growing up, I was always a huge fan of the side-scrolling beat-'em-up. The likes of Final Fight, Golden Axe and Streets of Rage all have achieved revered places in my memory, and it's a love that has continued in the modern day with my love of hack-n'-slash action games. Still, as much as I'll spend hours with Dynasty Warriors, part of me always pines for the traditional brawler, where you and some friends could waste the day fighting a horde of enemies, clearing rooms before a flashing arrow tells you to move on.
Enter Castle Crashers, and a return to the glory days of the beat-'em-up. Castle Crashers looks new and flashy, but its gameplay is deeply rooted in the past, and it's all the better for it. Choosing initially from four different colored knights, your task is to battle through 20+ levels of hack-n'-slash chaos to rescue four princesses from an evil sorcerer and his army of minions.
The wit and charm of The Behemoth's creations are all evident in Castle Crashers; from the opening segment showing knights throwing devil horns and rocking out to gentle medieval background music, to the utterly amazing end sequence (which is something I won't dare ruin), Castle Crashers is an endearing, sometimes hilarious experience full of visual gags and unapologetic silliness that's helped along by Dan Paladin's terrific art and animation.
So, it looks good and makes you laugh, but how does it play? Almost superbly. I say "almost" because it can be very difficult to line up your attacks sometimes thanks to the 2D art style, but once you get a hold of your enemies and start hacking off heads, it's brilliantly addictive fun. Each of the knights (and unlockable characters) play the same in close combat, with identical sword-swinging attacks, weapon availability and unlockable combos. However, each character is gifted with a variety of magical attacks that remain unique to the player. The orange knight, for example, uses fire-based magic, popping off fireballs and issuing forth a sea of flame. The red knight wields lightning bolts, the blue knight can summon freezing icicles and the green knight has a variety of poisonous attacks to drain enemy life.
As the game progresses, you will be able to unlock even more characters, with their own sets of magic skills. Some of the magic, however, is cloned from character to character and for the most part, you'll be playing more because you like the character model, not because your choice does anything particular different. It's a small detail given how much you else you get given, but more character variety would have been grand.
Whatever warrior you choose, you'll be in for a substantial quest. Not only does the main game last for over twenty levels, you can collect experience points and train your characters up to level 99, allocating skill points to boost attack, magic, defense and agility, and earning new combos and spells. Castle Crashers provides all the features of a full-priced retail game, and EXP fiends will find plenty to do if their thumbs can take the button mashing strain.
While Castle Crashers retains all the good of the old-school brawler, it also retains everything that makes them frustrating. Enemies, for example, will be more than happy to attack you from both sides, and they spam their projectile attacks to almost farcical levels at times. This can be incredibly annoying, especially if you're playing solo. Of course, adding between two and three allies to the mix evens the odds considerably, and this is where Castle Crashers truly comes to life.
Featuring both local and Xbox Live co-operative play, up to four people can take on the main game or go head-to-head in Arena mode, and this is where the fun really takes hold. With four friends on screen, an already chaotic game becomes sheer lunacy, and for the vast majority of the game you won't even know what's happening. Are you winning? Are you getting your arse kicked? You barely know, and you barely care, because you're having too much fun to make sense of the fireballs and bodies flying around the screen. All the memories of co-operative beat-'em-ups come flooding back -- from having to apologize when you accidentally take a health item that your friend desperately needed, to the inevitable (and wonderfully stereotypical) moments where the allies have to turn on each other to get the girl. Despite the co-op, there is a competitive element to each round of Castle Crashers, but it's such a fun and friendly competition that nobody really minds losing.
And that right there is Castle Crashers' greatest weapon -- the ability to make you not care. Even if you lose your temper at being shot to pieces by a bunch of cheap archers, you'll soon forget about it and laugh at a puerile shit gag, or go beat up the Barbarian Boss again to feel good about yourself. Castle Crashers refuses to take itself seriously, and if you dare try to do so yourself, you'll look and feel ridiculous.
What else can I mention? There's the astoundingly brilliant soundtrack, full of memorable and infectious tunes (the happy sound of the Forest Entrance level is a personal favorite) or the pointless but fantastically titled "All You Can Quaff" button-mashing eating contest. There are the challenging boss fights that each leave a lasting impression, the hidden animals that you can collect and equip to add unique bonuses and there's that particular deer that will remain forever cherished in your heart when you first meet him.
I think I got it all. I'd be wrong to not mention the fact that, as of the time of writing, the Xbox Live server issues are still not ironed out. It can be very hard to achieve and maintain an online game, but a fix is promised and things seem to at least be a bit more tolerable. A number of glitches have also been reported, including data loss that has seen a few players lose hours of leveling and item unlocking.
That aside, Castle Crashers is a superb and addictive experience that is well worth the 1200-MS-Point price tag. Still being played even after completion, its button-mashing havoc threatens to give me carpal tunnel syndrome, and the unlocked Insane Mode is giving me a run for my money. To put it simply -- this game demands your attention, and if the era of digital distribution means that more titles like Castle Crashers will be made, then it's an era I welcome with open arms.
Castle Crashers is the best not-quite-co-op game I've ever played. Jim's addressed most all my feelings on the game pretty much perfectly, but I have to point out the Behemoth's wonderfully inspired decision to focus almost as heavily on player-versus-player gameplay as cooperation.
Though the game is sold on being a cooperative experience, you'll often have the most fun when the game forces you to turn on your own comrades: whether it's about choosing your favorite character before they can, snatching gold from your allies, or racing against another player to reach a single escape pod during a wonderfully self-referential level, Castle Crashers understands the joy to be had in competing with your buddies.
Yeah, you'll be fighting together and sharing food and casting totally different but wonderfully effective and satisfying spells (to any and all Dtoiders whom I might play with in the future: dibs on Blue Knight), but even the epic boss fights and varied minigame-esque levels don't match the sheer suspenseful excitement of fighting your own teammates for the hand of a princess.
That the controls would be well suited to a somewhat mindless beat-'em-up is not surprising: that those same mechanics would translate so damn well to player-versus-player combat most definitely is. Whether fighting one-on-one in the arenas or four-on-four in the campaign for the reward of a princess' kiss, I was amazed to find the combat, despite being incredibly intuitive, was incredibly well-suited to dueling and deathmatch. My heart racing, I found myself struggling to air-juggle my former teammates across the map before they could do the same to me, avoiding their projectile attacks and timing my own just for the sake of getting to the princess. Heck, during my first few days with the game I spent just as much time playing around with the different arena modes as I did in the main campaign. Though the Beefy and Treasure modes are gimmicky and shallow, the Melee and Marksman scenarios have lent themselves to some of the most tense, satisfying, and balanced multiplayer combat I've yet experienced. Despite feeling like an even more simplified version of Super Smash Bros., the multiplayer combat never feels tacked-on or imprecise: Castle Crashers arena combat is incredibly fun in its own right.
Though it pains me to do so, I am forced by my past review criteria to dock some points for the game's lackluster Xbox Live performance during launch week. Though I know a patch is forthcoming, I can't in good conscience score the game as if these problems did not exist at launch: as I gave Eternity's Child a low score due to the jump button not working at launch -- despite the problem being patched less than a day later -- I can't ignore the bugs and connection problems that still plague Castle Crashers at the time of writing.
That, and the King doesn't seem to be a playable character despite being the most hilariously drawn character in Dan Paladin's entire portfolio.
In the end, though, I echo what Jim said: it's a fantastically dense experience for 15 bucks -- the game is literally worth playing through at least four times, just to see the extent of the four main knights' different magical skills -- and is, as far as I'm concerned, the greatest 2D brawler ever made.
Prior to Castle Crashers' release, the Internet was aflame with discussions about how much the game was going to cost. There was a rumor going around that claimed we'd have to fork over 1800 Microsoft Points for the highly anticipated beat-'em-up, and that infuriated many, many people. In retrospect, however, I'm actually shocked that Castle Crashers' price tag wasn't higher. When you can get more play time out of a $15 digitally-distributed title than you can a full-fledged retail game, you know there is something wrong with this industry's pricing structure.
While playing through the entire storyline shouldn't take much more than 5 hours, it's exactly like Anthony said; you'll want to keep coming back to test out the four main knights' abilities as well as give the numerous unlockable characters a shot. Further adding to the replayability is the fact that you can play Castle Crashers any way you want to. By focusing skill points on one or two specific areas rather than making your brawler equal in all aspects, the game changes immensely.
For instance, if you max out your character's agility, you'll be able to fire off arrows like a machine gun. Likewise, the most damaging and useful magic-based attacks aren't unlocked until you spend a considerable amount of experience points in the magic section. This customization lends itself well to the sheer number of characters at your disposal (we're talking upwards of 20) and allows you to play co-op with a diverse team. Have a friend who just bought Castle Crashers and wants you to join him from the very beginning? No problemo. Pick out a fresh fighter or erase the stats on a previously played one and you're good to go.
While it would have been nice to see some sort of customization in terms of character appearance, it's forgivable when you look at what Castle Crashers offers as a whole. It becomes apparent early on that the game not only has a great sense of humor (ceiling cat says hello), but also manages to stay interesting for virtually the entire duration; that's no easy task to pull off, especially for a beat-'em-up. From battling atop a horse-drawn carriage marching through a parade to being chased by a giant cat while riding a shit-propelled deer, there's enough variety in the levels to keep you entertained on your third or fourth playthrough.
And speaking of variety, it would be criminal of me to write this review and not mention the plethora of bosses, who range from an oversized catfish to a pissed off ear of corn. If there's one thing that really surprised me about Castle Crashers, it's how insane some of the bosses really are, and that there are so many of them. There's nothing quite like fighting the giant bat on Insane Mode, being hit by his lick of death, and then having your friend attempt to resuscitate you while trying not to be hit by the bat's poisonous shit. Co-op simply doesn't get any better than this ... when it's functioning like it ought to.
I'm not exactly sure what went wrong, but there are definitely issues when it comes to Castle Crashers' online play. I was eager to play with Jim, Anthony, and Mike over Xbox Live, but I was dropped every single time I tried to join in their match. Similarly, I had horrible luck with all the non-U.S. gamers on my friends list. As discouraging as that may sound, I'd still recommend Castle Crashers to everyone I know, because I did eventually find a group of friends that were able to play with me online for hours on end without issues, excluding one bizarre glitch that froze the game when you dug in a certain spot.
In the grand scheme of things, Castle Crashers does so much right that it's easy to overlook any minor gripes I had. With The Behemoth currently working on a patch that aims to fix the game's online issues, I feel as if those problems won't be permanent, and while they are worth complaining about now, they shouldn't be around for much longer.
Remember those old and busted jokes about how many people it takes to screw in a light bulb? Well, I propose a new question; how many people does it take to review Castle Crashers? Apparently, four is the magic number, which is fitting considering this game is all about the multiplayer.
So, since you've already read three reviews from the equally awesome Jim, Grim, and Rev, what more could I possibly have to say about things that already hasn't been covered? Not much, in all truth, but read on to see my take on crashing the castles.
Castle Crashers, as said, is the purest return to what made old-school beat-'em-ups so much fun in the first place. There really is something special about getting together with three of your buddies and beating the digital crap out of screen after screen of foes. Sure, this has been done to death by many, many games before it, but few have been able to execute the formula so well.
The first thing you'll notice when playing is Dan's signature art style at its finest. The animation is smooth, the presentation is slick, and everything seems to just mesh really well. Dan has really poured on the polish this time, and the overall visual charm and quality is much greater than any of his previous work.
The second thing you'll notice is the ease of control. Castle Crashers has a simple control scheme that pretty much anyone who's held a controller before can pick up and play. Attacks and combos can be pulled off without much thought or effort, but there are a few other tools at your disposal to spice things up a bit. For example, each character has their own unique magical attacks to use between swordplay that can really put a damper on your enemies. A personal favorite is the Blue Knight's ability to freeze enemies (and certain bosses) from a distance. This turns out to be an invaluable skill several times throughout the course of the game and can really be useful for you and the rest of your team.
There are a few other notable features that Castle Crashers brings to the table. The unlockable weapons, animal orbs, simple RPG-like level system, and unlockable characters help flesh out and differentiate the game from others in its genre. There are also two other game modes outside the main quest, but really they are just a nice garnish to the meat and potatoes.
The first of the two extra modes is the "Arena." This is basically an all-out, no-holds-barred slobber-knocker, where your ultimate goal is to defeat three other people. I hear this mode is a lot of fun on Xbox Live, but I haven't had the pleasure personally due to the ongoing networking problems. Hopefully the much-needed patch we keep babbling on about will be released soon and we all can start cracking some virtual skulls.
Then there's the bastard son named "All You Can Quaff." As Jim talked about, this is an utterly pointless mashfest that I don't see any real value in. Sure, it's fun for a few rounds, I guess, but it feels very tacked-on. (Hey, at least it is more fun than that Major League Eating game... *shudder*.) More than likely, you'll probably play this mode for the Achievement and then forget it ever existed.
There's not really much more I can say about Castle Crashers that hasn't already been said by the four of us. The networking issues are known, the repetition in combat is a given, and "All You Can Quaff" still sucks, but at the end of the day, Castle Crashers remains one of the best beat-'em-ups ever created and certainly one of the top games on XBLA to date.
Overall Score: 9.0 (Fantastic. Negligible flaws. Otherwise very, very good; a fine example of excellence in the genre.)