Publisher: ZEN Studios
Developer: Microsoft Studios
ZEN Studios, best known for their awesome ZEN Pinball and Pinball FX games brings a new hybrid of existing genres to Xbox Live Arcade. CastleStorm combines the non-stop action of a good tower defense game, with elements of a real time strategy game to make a game that is easy to get into but hard to master. This story driven title delivers a huge amount of fun, with just the right amount of difficulty. While it may not be perfect, it's definitely one that begs for your attention.
The story revolves around two rival factions in constant war. To prevent a complete destruction of both sides, a goddess shed two tears that turned into magic gems, one for each side, that brought a cease fire for many years. Now, the Vikings want to possess both gems to completely take over the world, and the King of the humans begins a campaign to defend against the Vikings attacks. You mostly control a weapon called a Ballista to shoot arrows at approaching armies and to fling objects at rival towers and castles. You can't focus on just one of these for too long, if you let the ground forces get too close to your castle, they will enter and capture your flag. On the flip side, if you don't take out the enemies Ballistas and destroy their castle, your castle will crumble to the ground. If things on the ground get too heated, you can call on and control your factions hero to even the score, but this leaves you vulnerable to complete destruction of your castle.
You battle through 12 locations, progressing by either capturing the enemy flag or destroying their castle. Each world will offer new weapons to collect and use against your enemies like exploding apples or a bundle of 3 arrows to take out more ground troopers. You can upgrade the weapons you have or add new ones with the gold you collected in battle. It will take a few plays to fully get used to the controls since there is a lot going on, but after you get the hang of it, you'll be the master of the battlefield. All the action that happens on screen is fantastic to watch, but it's ZEN Studios mastery of Physics that brings the excitement. Shooting down a flying enemy, such as a Dragon, and watching it fall on your rivals castle and having a huge piece of the debris roll down and take out a group of advancing enemies is simply pure bliss. A load of destruction can be had with just one well-placed shot of the Ballista thanks to the amazing physics found here. As I stated before, it takes a while to master the controls so don't get discouraged if you can't hit an epic shot the first or even the 20th time. After all, it's all about winning the battle anyway you can, and your enemies are just as clever and try to take you down quickly on the harder difficulty settings.
Also included is a nice creation mode, where you can build your own castle. The only thing you can't move is the location of your Ballista, but everything else is up to you. Once you built your tower of power, you can test it out to make sure it will stand up on it's own. Due to the amazing physics, if you misjudge the foundation, your castle may crumble once the battle begins. I spent a little too long just playing around with all the options you have while building (almost as much time I spend with games like Minecraft). Most of my creations wouldn’t last too long, but it was fun going back and trying to improve what didn't work. While the single player modes offer loads of fun, the multiplayer options only add to the great time you can have with CastleStorm. You have the standard head to head battles, but another great one is called Last Stand. Here, you and another player control the Hero Characters in a 2D ground battle, fending off waves of enemies to protect your flag. This mode can get pretty hectic as you progress, so make sure you and a friend work together. One other mode is Survival, where one player controls the Ballista and the other controls the Hero. This is more fun while playing locally with someone you know since some rather "heated" arguments can occur over Xbox Live as who did their job and who did not, but on the whole, it's a fun experience either online or off.
The presentation is where things may get a little rocky. When I first started CastleStorm, I was asked if I wanted to play in 3D, to which I replied (audibly to myself) Yes Sir! I don't know if it's the 3D on my TV or they way the Xbox 360 handles 3D games, but after about 5 minutes of play, I had a huge headache and eyestrain, and I rarely find 3D a problem. This might be due to the fact that most of the visuals are shown from a distance until zoomed or panned by the player. The quick movements you need to make to adjust the flow of battle can really make you dizzy if viewing in 3D. Even with 3D off, I found the camera movement to be a hindrance while trying to follow the flow of the fight. From the zoomed view, you will miss many shots with the ballista that you swear are lined up right. When you zoom in to get a precise hit (like a headshot for example), you leave your castle vulnerable to an unseen barrage. That brings me to actually aiming the Ballista, which is a chore to get right. The controls are a bit touchy, and my first 20 or so battles were a mess with firing things too far or to close. Since the Ballista won't stay put unless you maintain its position manually, it becomes less a weapon and more of an object you express audible anger at! While the control issues are largely minor in the long run, it may scare off players to quickly before they give the game a decent chance.
The CastleStorm music is composed by Christian M. Krogsvold, the same composer for the game Castle Crashers. With the setting being medieval, the choice of tunes is very fitting. As with the great music in Castle Crashers, some of the music will be stuck in your head long after you are finished playing. While the music is really great all around, the sound effects and are mediocre at best. You get the standard pain groans and explosions while in battle, while those fit just fine; it's the voice clips that will grind on your nerves. The voices repeat over and over with very little variety. I must of heard "Ay Captain" and "They are at the walls" over 20 times in a single session, it gets irritating especially in a long battle, so the best you can do is try to block it out and immerse yourself in the great music.
CastleStorm is proof that ZEN Studios can do more than exciting Pinball games. The amount of fun you can have here largely outweighs the minor gripes and annoyances you will come across while playing. At 800 MSP, it should be in your collection, and should not be overlooked especially if you are a fan of other RTS games. Even veteran players will find enough of a challenge here to get their money’s worth. If you are still unsure, like always I recommend trying the Demo before you dive in. If you like what you see, then by all means get the full version and get ready for some wild fun.