Personally, I find it difficult to select a video game to review. Do I choose the latest and greatest AAA titles? On the one hand, you’ve probably heard of them and are eager to learn more. On the other hand, you’ve almost definitely read a review by a more eloquent, professional and studly reviewer already. Plus, brand new big-name titles are expensive, and I’m a college student. So instead, each game I choose to review is one that I think will surprise you, defying your expectations and treating you to something you’ve not seen before. Of course, they’ve had that very effect on me. One such title is Castle Crashers, a hand-drawn 2-D beat-’em-up. Castle Crashers puts you in control of one of four brightly colored, elemental-themed knights to lay siege on castles and lay waste to the bad guys, and it is set in a quirky world that is never quite what it seems.
The Behemoth, the independent developer of Castle Crashers, started as the collaborative duo of programmer Tom Fulp and artist Dan Paladin, who began creating Flash animations and games and worked their way up to their own development studio. As a fully-fledged title, Castle Crashers exceeds its humble roots and impresses with its colorful art style and surprisingly fluid animations. The hand-drawn nature gives the game charm, yet doesn’t lose any of its slickness or depth. Paladin’s style is relatively simple, but injects tons of humor and personality into every character and setting. The aforementioned colorful knights all brandish oversized weaponry and angry scowls, while their enemies include everything from standard fantasy fare — barbarians, thieves and evil knights — to the outlandish — rain-dancing panda bears, boxing beetles and even aliens. These enemies inhabit all kinds of settings that are just as colorful and captivatingly rendered. Once again, there’s a juxtaposition of standard settings — a battlefield, a forest, a desert — and the bizarre — a knight’s wedding or a ninja-pirate-ship. Little details such as villages in the backgrounds and destructible furniture really bring these settings to life, and you get the impression that there’s more to this world than just the linear levels we’re shown. The soundtrack, which is crisp and professional, perfectly evokes the appropriate feeling for each level, with details such as a chaotic blaring of horns on a battlefield or a dreamy sitar plucking in the desert.
The core gameplay in Castle Crashers follows a simple but addictive formula; fighting swarms of enemies, you can alternate melee and magical attacks to chain combos and overcome particular resistances. You start off with a limited number of techniques and magical abilities, but leveling up unlocks new techniques and allows you to distribute points to improve your health, damage, magic or speed. It’s not a terribly complex or deeply customizable system, but it doesn’t feel like an after-thought to the combat. In fact, it does a very good job of pacing your progress through the game and each new technique feels like your character has actually improved. Each knight has a unique elemental magic that distinguishes him. For instance, the Ice knight can freeze enemies, while the Electric knight can zap a whole chain of them. One disappointment is that even as they advance, the knights are awfully similar to one another, using the same melee techniques and similar magic attacks. On the other hand, the differences feel more pronounced and satisfying when you play with another person and can see each knight’s strengths in action.
In fact, the game as a whole is more satisfying with another player — multiplayer is easily its strongest suit. I played the game by myself for a while, but it took on a whole new life when a friend plugged in his controller and joined me. I must note that as an X-Box Live port, the controls are awful without a controller, though intuitive and satisfying with one. The game makes multiplayer easy, as players can join in at any time, and you all play on the same level rather than a split-screen. It’s simply more fun having a friend tossing fireballs and slaying demons with you, showing off maneuvers and having each other’s back. Moreover, having a friend makes it easier to discover the ridiculous amount of unlockable content in the game. In addition to the original four knights, you can unlock up to 24 more characters, each with their own magic and items, as well as over a hundred different weapons, and pets that offer minor bonuses. The collectable aspect really increases the lifespan of the game and offers you more options to play the more often you play.
The story in Castle Crashers boils down to rescuing four kidnapped princesses from the evil wizard (who is even simply named Evil Wizard). A few issues ago, I wrote an article covering the history of narrative and story-telling in games. After writing it, I considered that maybe I should push myself to explore games with greater narrative depth, those that use the medium to pose deep questions in new ways. Yet time and again I find myself treating myself to video game candy. I’ll find that magnum opus of video game storytelling one day, but for now there is the addictive gameplay, captivating artwork and sheer fun of Castle Crashers.