Reviews: More fun than riding a poop-propelled deer.
Way back in 2004, teeny tiny developer The Behemoth wowed the gaming world with its debut title, Alien Hominid. It was the little game that could, with fast-paced shooter action, hilarious bits of comedy and of course, Dan Paladin's unique art style.
The Behemoth is still teeny tiny but their sophomore title is bigger, funnier and a helluva lot of fun. Castle Crashers is fundamentally a simple 2-D scrolling beat-em-up along the lines of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles but it's the little things they layer on top of it that add up to a complete package, making it one of the best games on Xbox Live Arcade and my vote for XBLA game of the year. It's a bold statement considering the recent release of top quality games like Braid and Bionic Commando Rearmed, but Castle Crashers offers good old fashioned light-hearted fun that is accessible to everyone (unlike Alien Hominid, which was pretty punishing).
Perhaps the most important (and distinctive) feature exclusive to Castle Crashers is Dan Paladin's outstanding artwork. This game looks and feels like you're playing in a cartoon with visually pleasing and funny characters guaranteed to put a smile on your face every time you see them. Despite the millions of dollars bigger developers spend on realistic 3-D graphics, Castle Crashers out-charms them all with its refreshingly simple and attractive 2-D art and design.
The only downside to the artwork is that it can be difficult to tell what's going on when there is a lot of action on the screen ? and trust me, there is no lack of action in this game. You will often be swarmed by as many as 10 enemies at a time, and if you take advantage of the four-player co-operative mode (both online and local) things can get so busy you can actually lose track of your character.
You play as one of four knights tasked to rescue the king's four princesses, who have been kidnapped by an evil sorcerer. The knights play identically except for their unique magical abilities, signified by their color: blue for ice, green for poison, orange for fire and red for electricity.
You start off with a basic weapon and are quite weak, but thanks to the game's RPG elements you can earn EXP to level up your Strength, Defense, Magic and Agility, and find gold to buy new items like health potions and bombs. You will also be able to enhance your abilities by obtaining new weapons and Animal Orbs, which are cute ball-shaped animals that float by your side. Most Animal Orbs provide passive modifiers like increasing strength or EXP, but some find hidden items for you, bring you fruit (which replenishes your health), or even attack enemies. The only problem is that you don't know what modifiers each animal or weapon offers until you return to your home castle and visit the Animal Ark or blacksmith (who stores your weapons in the stomach of a giant frog because, well, that's what giant frogs are for). So if you are in the middle of battle and pick up a new weapon, you may find out the hard way that it actually weakens you; and since you can only carry one weapon at a time the only way to get your old weapon back is to end the mission and return to the blacksmith. It's a little annoying but fortunately, you can replay any of the 20+ missions you've completed so you can test out your new toys at any time.
As you level up you will also unlock new combos. Your standard melee attacks are simple two-button affairs ? a quick and strong attack ? but the combos are surprisingly deep, allowing you to pull off some impressive and very powerful attacks. Combine that with upgraded magical powers that can hit several enemies at once and your previously weak knight soon becomes an evil-smashing juggernaut.
However, actually landing hits (especially with your bow and arrow) can be iffy at times since you must be precisely lined up with your target. Fortunately, enemies will gladly line themselves up for you, allowing you to pound several at once. How considerate of them!
What isn't considerate is their annoying projectile spamming. Enemies will shoot arrows or bombs that will knock you down, and the relentless spamming prevents you from getting up. This means you will often be helpless to do anything but watch your health bar shrink with unsettling speed. It's very frustrating but can be avoided most of the time by staying on the move and using your shield.
Fortunately, the fast-paced non-stop action, wide variety of enemies and hilarious cartoon humor make up for any shortcomings. The many different enemies range from pushovers to tough challenges, and from funny to just plain bizarre ? especially giant ugly cats. Let's just say that Dan Paladin obviously has a few ? ?issues? with household felines (and I really don't want to know what psychological trauma he experienced with corn).
The game's charm lies in its ability to keep you smiling, like the funny way your eyes bug out when you get hit, the unusual weapons like an umbrella, dead fish and giant sausage, and my personal favorite, the poop-propelled deer. You'll never stop laughing at the over-the-top Hulk-like transformation when you eat a sandwich powerup or the silly attacks you can perform when riding animals like a dinosaur or camel. The game doesn't take itself seriously and is clearly made with one thing in mind: making every second as fun and enjoyable as possible.
Replayability is huge with tons of items you can collect, new playable characters you can unlock, and up to four-person multiplayer both online and off. You can play the entire campaign co-operatively with your buddies, or beat each other to a pulp in free-for-all Arena deathmatches. You can also see who can stuff their face the fastest in the button-mashing All You Can Quaff eating challenge, but this is actually pretty lame and is something you'll only play once or twice.
Of course, all this online multiplayer fun assumes you can even play online. Unfortunately, the game suffers from horrible connection issues that can drop players after only a few minutes, if they can even connect to a game at all. This is extremely disappointing since one of the main reasons Castle Crashers was delayed a year was to add online multiplayer functionality. To their credit, however, The Behemoth has apologized for the issues and is hard at work on a patch, which should be available soon.
Of special note is the outstanding music, which has just the right mix of heroism, heart-pounding adrenaline, and light humor. Much of the music was composed by members of Behemoth lead programmer Tom Fulp's Flash community website Newgrounds, and complements the game's artwork and design beautifully. From the way icons in the world map bounce to the beat to the thrilling heroic score during boss fights to the relaxing guitar plinks when you visit the blacksmith, the music runs a very close second to the artwork as the game's biggest strength. Heck, when you sit at a screen for several minutes just to listen to the music and find yourself humming it the next day, you know you've experienced something special. Kudos to the various composers at Newgrounds and here's hoping your work will be recognized and lead to bigger opportunities.
Despite all of its charms, some people may still be hesitant to buy this game due to its unusually high 1200 Microsoft Point price tag. While this is obviously the beginning of a disturbing trend towards higher prices (don't get me started on the random and outrageous nature of XBLA pricing), trust me when I say it is money well spent. At the very least, you can be comforted knowing that your money is going to a small independent developer devoted to making fun quality games, as opposed to a huge corporate conglomerate whose sole concern is making decent quarterly profit reports.