ith its stunning and unexpected popularity, Angry Birds has popularized a genre that was mostly confined to flash games before the iOS boom. Many titles since have tried to replicate its success by using its puzzle and slingshot elements to their advantage. But of course, nothing has topped the multimillion dollar franchise since its inception. Now while I seriously doubt that Zen Studios wanted to get a crack at the mountain of cash that Angry Birds generated, there's no denying that their latest XBLA title, CastleStorm, at least takes some cues from the popular series. However, these are where the comparisons stop, as CastleStorm aims to rejuvenate this style of gameplay by adding tower defense, action, and even RPG elements into the mix. All these vastly different mechanics add up to a great idea indeed, but one that unfortunately threatens to spoil the simplicity that made its inspiration fun to begin with.
CastleStorm revolves around two warring factions: The Vikings and the Knights who face each other in a castle at either side of the screen. These two enemies launch countless arrows, spawn endless minions, and battle their way to the opposite side of the screen in the name of stealing their opponent's flag or destroying their home. In the single player campaign, you'll command the Knights and use a varying array of options to achieve said goals. Most of the time, however, will be spent launching arrows and different weaponry to the other side, all while waiting for the timer to pass so you can spawn a wide degree of minions to traverse the middle ground and take down the enemies doors.
There exist many options on the offensive side, and you'll spend a lot of time learning the multitude of things to keep track of. However, the main concern is your own castle, as the game also sports tower defense elements along with the other mechanics. This gets confusing since the game doesn't ease you into the wide variety of tasks presented; it sort of just gives you all these tools at first and then takes them away in a bid to emulate some sort of pacing as it starts to reintroduce them.
Suffice to say there's a lot to do when you're concentrating on attacking but actually very little to do when defending yourself. The game overall is then more of a tower defense title than anything, and your easily collapsible castles will often keep you panicking as you try and watch everything at once. The other team's castle will always try to collapse yours, and with a huge playing field you'll never be able to keep your eye on just how well you're doing at any time. If anything, this is one of the game's main faults, as a match will ask you to do many things at once. Destroying the opponents castle or capturing their flag, and changing your perspective will often leave another part of your plan neglected. This can be very confusing since changing your viewpoint can often be tricky due to the finicky camera, and it doesn’t help that your command HUD is extremely annoying to navigate. Sometimes, I would want to select one of my catapult weapons and would end up trying to release a minion, as it's not really clear how to select or navigate the way to choose what you want to do.
The controls themselves don't make the game any easier, and aiming can be an annoying chore. Without the precision that touch controls can provide, launching objects with the catapult can be very fiddly when the aiming itself doesn't feel that tight. Perhaps Angry Birds spoiled me, but aiming can often be a needlessly hard task when your line of sight becomes very hard to see. You just can't get the crosshair to stay still. When the main gameplay revolves around launching arrows and being very specific with your aim, poor controls never help an experience, and in fact lead to some very annoying occurrences.
Regardless of the faults, getting used to the many elements can still make for very fun matches, especially when you consider the action elements involved. As a commander, you can join your team on the field and fight the opposing team yourself for small amounts of time. This adds some nice contrast to the tower defense and RTS elements, as indulging yourself with some brutal combat feels very satisfying -- especially during very long matches. Along with being one of less developed aspects of the game, your attacks are very simple. However, there's still a lot to play around with when you're fighting alongside your troops. You have lite and heavy attacks along with a bow, giving you more to do when you're not in actual command of your catapult. This action element surprisingly works, and I give Zen Studios a lot of respect for making beat-em-up elements work in such a different genre.
The main problem with these types of puzzle games can be the fear of repetition, but I also have to hand it to Zen Studios with the amount of diverse missions in the single player campaign. Sometimes you can be in a full-on match with every single one of these mechanics at play, but the cut-scenes will often find excuses for you to succeed without using your troops, or by just using a certain type of weapon, or maybe even encouraging you to assault the Vikings yourself. This adds a lot of verity to the core game, and is very much appreciated since these types of puzzles experiences are generally afraid to mix things up or change the way you play.
There's actually a lot to the game, and customers definitely get plenty of content to legitimize the 800-point purchase. The single player campaign entails a host of main missions and side-quests, with the main game providing you with a survival mode and a multi-player addition. However, the latter mode was not very well implemented, as playing against an online player will restrict your options and weapons while making this a lackluster version of the main game. Though smooth, I ultimately saw nothing worth returning to with the online play mode, and instead enjoyed the single player more.
On this note, the robust story campaign in CastleStorm doesn't take itself too seriously. And while I wouldn't call the game "funny," I’d say that the general humor is cute and makes for a very lighthearted experience. However, I do have to question a particular Skyrim reference (you know the one) made many times. Memes have always been an outdated annoyance, and its inclusion in this game makes it feel like CastleStorm forces some of the humor to make you actively laugh. However, despite this, the rest of the game's tone remains intact, and creates a slightly charming atmosphere -- especially when combined with its very nice graphics and sublime cartoon-like art style.
There is indeed a lot to CastleStorm, which makes it a shame when the finicky controls and graceless pacing gets in the way of a unique take on this genre. Despite already explaining the many elements at play, there exist RPG elements that let you upgrade certain weapons in the single player mode. There's even a mode where you can build your own fortress to protect. These both work well and as mentioned before, and there is a lot of content to enjoy.
However, if you're not into the genre this spawned from, I don't see you enjoying this different take on it. While the new elements are fun additions, the awkward controls and confusing battles stop me from recommending this to anyone outside the already confirmed audience. Overall, CastleStorm is a serviceable game with interesting ideas that never really manages to take advantage of just how exciting this blend of genres could be. But if you're a fan of Angry Birds looking for something new, I’d be hard pressed to deter you from buying this interesting, if flawed, mixed bag.