Castle in the Darkness
Shining in this Dark Castle
One of the newest games to report upon so far, and one of our first commercial games (e.g. not freeware) to boot! Castle in the Darkness was released in Jan 2015 and I’ve been having a frustrating blast playing it and devouring its secrets.
With its metroidvania trappings on its visible sleeves, at first glance you’d expect Dracula and Mother Brain to be primary influences that helped bring Castle to life. But the wounds go deeper, and while I don’t want to spoil too much, inspirations are far reaching, from the obvious (Castlevania/Metroid) to the strategic-diversifications (Zelda) to the less common but entirely appropriate (Megaman, Super Mario Bros.). The (relatively speaking) newer rangers on the scene like Cave Story and La-Mulana are certainly relate-able, too. However, in terms of the old bloodsucker, at least, Castle’s design philosophy harks more towards older Castlevania games rather than the later Symphony of the Night and its descendants. Sorry Mario, XP and leveling up is in another castle, and generally there is more a lot less equipment to deal with. Finally, and most divisively, the difficulty is also more leaning towards the old school, but mostly countered with relatively generous save-point placement.
It other certain areas Castle observes some more modern elements. There are plenty of NPCs with snippets of dialog, stuff to pawn, and quests or secrets to unlock. Sure, Simon’s Quest and Zelda II did it too, even Wonderboy in Monsterland/world, I guess, but it sadly never quite took off back then, and so Castle reminds us that it can indeed be done, although for the most part the interaction takes a back seat to the explore ’em up hackathon. While the equipment is more limited, it is a more focused set of equipment, with each find or upgrade rewarding and meaningful, and each item somehow managing to be both flexible and situational. You wont be hoarding iron swords and variations of leather curiasses (curiae?) to sell to librarians. Aside from the traditional health boosters and double-jump boots to the more interesting such as a boomerang, or a spell that summons a falcon familiar.
So far I feel like my words are filled with nothing but love for the game, and I haven’t even described everything I love about it yet… But, if there is to be a counter point – it is the difficulty. This will likely be a contentious point, as there are always those that prefer difficulty and those that don’t. It’s like that curry that you thought wasn’t spicy that makes your friend burst into tears – your mileage definitely varies. Castle has taken its lot with the more old school of difficulty to be sure, though speaking as someone who grew up with the NES and even C64 games, which were sometimes, frankly, impossible (when even the grass can kill you in one hit, life gets pretty tough), the fairness of Castle is tempered and mostly practicable. It thankfully does not rely on the insane level of trial and error or reflexes of games like I Wanna Be The Guy, but it is certainly challenging when it wants to be. Very challenging. Generally it never gets too much, but one boss in particular did became very frustrating – it felt to me like some cardinal errors that were better left with old games. The boss in question has a particularly long intro that cannot be skipped or sped up. Secondly, she had 2-phases, and the first phase was quite easy – but was a slow process and involved some patience to pass. Having to sit through the intro and the relatively boring first phase after 10-20 deaths quickly gets old. I understand that difficulty is part of the appeal – and certain demographics will appreciate it more than me. But speeding up the intro and the first phase would be a godsend. As with my curry analogy, it though, can be hard to objectively quantify a difficultly level. I can at least say that as I grew up with the death-grass games, or the horrors of the first Bard’s Quest (not the 3D “remake”), or eating that dam egg in the Colossal Cave Adventure… I can complete Castle, but the more casual gamers without the same experiences may not be quite so patient.
Difficulty aside, Castle really deserves props for is the boundless energy and love the designer had for the genres he is paying tribute to. While it may not be the most original game – it takes its sources and mixes them into a engagingly balanced cocktail. The protagonist has a mix of both melee and ranged weapons and magic also is surprisingly diverse – all spells are offensive attack spells at the core, but most have a utility side effect.There are also a ton of secrets, and varying in levels of impact. Secrets are not limited to just finding a room in each area that has extra heart containers – secrets range from entirely new weapons, spells and armour, to special items that are used elsewhere in a long chain of secrets. There are also many, many Easter eggs and nods to its influences hidden through out Castle’s cracks and crevices. Some areas and bosses are also entirely optional.
Castle goes a long way to capturing that sense of fun, imagination and discovery better than many remakes/spin-offs/fan games have in the last decade.