I always like trying out "indie" games. The (re)making of old genres tend to be passed over by professionals because "they don't sell well" and "cost too much to make". The Professional's...
Medium Replayability, Juvenile humor, Mindless button mashing
Music can be a little repetitive at times
I always like trying out "indie" games. The (re)making of old genres tend to be passed over by professionals because "they don't sell well" and "cost too much to make". The Professional's weakness is one of the Indies' strength. Independents are willing to re-visit the classics and put their own twist on it. That gamble doesn't always payoff but when it does a new "cult classic" is born. The Behemoth, developers of Castle Crashers, hit the jackpot.
The classic side-scroller beat-em up is "Guardian Heroes" on the Sega Saturn. Yes, it has been THAT long ago since we had a *good* 2D beat-em up. Namco's "Soul Calibur" stole the crown to 3D -- not only due to its beautiful characters and environments but because it took the fighting genre to a whole new Zen-like experience. Sometimes you just want "old-skool" button mashing fun and that is where Castle Crashers comes in.
= Graphics =
I'm not usually a fan of the modern cartoon look in games but in Castle Crashers in works -- it tells the audience that it doesn't take itself too seriously.
Each of the pets you collect look cute and are easy to tell apart. When in the thick of battle with your friends something you can use as a visual cue in case you ever lose your focus on your player is always good.
Animations may be a tad on the minimal side but like as all great cartoons they convey the essence of fun. It is rare to see juvenile humor such as deer farting, or bear pooping, but darn it, if that doesn't get a laugh out of you maybe you are taking the game just a little TOO serious. The developers certainly aren't!
= Music =
As players move around from area to area the music changes. The music is upbeat and perfectly conveys "Just kick back and have fun" although I did tend to find the music becoming a little repetitive in places.
Sound effects are good. I didn't recall any deep bass so the more critical audiophile will have to look elsewhere for those "deep impacts" of bone crushing weapon hits. Diablo 3 on the console would be an obvious choice.
= Gameplay =
Before Call of Duty merged the genres of First-Person-Shooters (FPS) and Role-Playing-Games (RPG) -- which every modern shooter has since copied with its grind-to-unlock-weapon-X -- the old Guardian Heroes synthesized fighting along with RPG elements by including stats you could level up. Castle Crashers copies what "just works". Removing player choice in stat placement is all the rage these days in modern RPGs, sadly, so having the freedom to allocate where I spend my stat points on Strength, Defense, Agility, Magic is greatly appreciated! It adds to the replayability of the game as you try different characters.
Gameplay is "tight." With the right timing of button mashing you can "air-juggle" opponents and do super-jump attacks in Castle Crashers just like you could in Guardian Heroes. A lot of games don't get "the input basics" right with sloppy or poor controls and timing. That is part of the 'essence of fun' -- connecting the player's avatar with the player's mind.
Pets add variety to combat with their unique abilities. Players will probably gravitate to a few favorites. I found something extremely satisfying as "Rammy" charged and sent the enemy flying up in the air.
Boss battles can be a little tricky until you figure out the "trick" needed to beat them. More then once we got stuck on the Cat Boss and the Dragon Boss. Thankfully kids (and us adults) these days can just "youtube it" to get some hints for those are spots when you get stuck.
A minor criticism is that the designers settled for the fallacy of "Bigger/More is Better" by hiding lots of weapons throughout the levels. Unfortunately weapons tend to be a little bland. You'll find your favorite sword (or axe) and stick to it, only switching to "unlock it" back in the whale and then switch back to your original weapon. On the positive side you don't waste time trying to find that "perfect uber gear" -- you can stay focused on just playing.
Level design is very good due to the diversity and many secrets to be found. As you explore the zones there are different environmental themes so the game never feels boring. Content creation is THE biggest bottleneck in 3D games -- too many 3D games have a very poor choice or selection of content. This is one area 2D still holds the advantage and it was great to see the level designers make the most of it.
Loot is "common" so I could see some tempers flare if someone "ninja loots". We developed the house rule that we alternate treasure pickup. Modern RPGs such as Torchlight 2, or Path of Exile solve this UI problem by making it part of the core game design where everyone gets their own individual loot. World of Warcraft did away with "gold dropping" so while it solved the problem it also doesn't making collecting your treasure any fun. In Castle Crashers these alternatives could work for network play, it would be hard to pull off one a shared screen (aside from color coding) so we are left with a slightly older UI mechanic.
= Multiplayer =
What more needs to be said then this? Multiplayer is a blast!
Combat gets intense when one of the teammates is fallen and you have to balance trying to hold off the enemies attacks and revive your buddy.
I only have one minor complaint:
Even though the game is limited to 4 players at times it can be hectic to keep focus on your character with all the chaos. Part of the problem is that the character's silhouette are all the same -- only the character's color has changed. Valve's research of making unique easily distinct and recognizable characters wasn't available at the time so this can be forgiven even if it is still midly annoying at times. http://www.valvesoftware.com/publications/2008/GameFest08_ArtInSource.pdf
= User Interface =
The psuedo-skeuomorphism of players moving around on a world map is beautifully done. It allows for one to replay their favorite zones and to show the player's linear progression of which zones they have unlocked.
There are two really nice touches that stand out to me as an UI/UX expert because they (the developers & designers) understand a key concept:
Giving the player feedback.
For example, in the Blacksmith zone:
1) There is the belly of the whale that shows you all the weapons you have collected. It is relatively easy to tell that you are still missing weapons by the empty spaces. You still won't know _which_ ones, or the _area_ but the player can use a little deduction to figure it out. The beauty is that you can see a nice visual progression for those OCD players that absolutely must collect every last weapon.
2) The Ark also is your holding area for all the pet orbs you've collected along the way in your journey. There is a hint for how exactly they benefit you. Each holding pen is distinct and adds to the flavor of the game.
= Conclusion =
While Castle Crashers doesn't push the technological boundaries it focuses on what really matters at the end of the day:
Graphics: 4/5 - Modern cartoon look may not appeal to everyone.
Audio: 4/5 - Music is great but can get a little repetitive.
Gameplay: 4/5 - Too many similar weapons.
Multiplayer: 4/5 - Limited to 4 players.
Platforms available on (alphabetical): OSX, PC, PS3, Xbox 360
Platforms reviewed: Xbox 360 and PS3
PC specs: Hand built gaming rig: nVidia GTX Titan, Intel SSD 128 GB, 16 GB RAM, AMD 4-core CPU @ 3.5 GHz.
Bottom Line: Thumbs Up! Must play.
About the author: Michael has shipped numerous games on DS, PC, PS1, PS2, PS3, and Wii working on almost every aspect of games from engine architecture (rendering,audio,UI), tool pipeline, game design, and art. He has been an avid gamer and programmer since the early 80's. His book "Fundamental Properties of Game Design" is forthcoming.
Edit: Fixed incomplete Rammy sentence, reviewed on Xbox 360.