Sunday, April 26, 2015

Castle in the Darkness - Thoughts

Don't let the 8-bit aesthetic fool you—Castle in the Darkness is a lawless game. Developed by Nicolis's artist Matt Kap, this quiet knight's action-adventure romp has more in common with the Souls series and I Wanna Be the Guy than Metroid or Castlevania. This may sound titillating to video game masochists—and there certainly are some challenging moments—but there's also a notable lack of polish and refinement in the title. Shovel Knight it's not; Castle in the Darkness has its own quirky rules that you'll have to adapt to if you want to discover the delightful game hidden within.

Coming to terms with these rules will be easier for some than others. For instance, you can only access the menu at save points, meaning that you're unable to change equipment or check what your items do until you reach an angelic statue. Warping is only allowed at certain statues too, which can be very nettlesome when you have to backtrack through the game's mundane initial rooms or the demanding final areas just to look for cracks in the wall you may have missed. There's no map at all either, forcing you to rely on your memory to recall which paths needed what items—a somewhat rude design decision in 2015. Some save points are right next to bosses while others are very far apart, and the amount of instant-death spikes can easily get on your nerves. Sprite-flicker also needs to be mentioned for how obnoxious it can be when you get hit in midair and lose your position for a split-second, falling to your death after a long platforming segment.

I nevertheless had fun with it though; I'll admit I'm a sucker for rudimentary 8-bit action and this game has plenty. Bosses run the gamut from questionable to thoroughly engaging (like Ruth and the titan at the top of the Crystal Tower), and the finger-dexterity required when running to nab the ten pages can be quite a workout. It's nothing too hard, but it's likely to cause some hair-pulling for those that get frustrated from dying easily (I wound up with around 350 deaths by the end). There's a strong variety of weapons, spells, and armor included in the game, but unfortunately most of it is locked away until you've acquired the double jump—which is obtained over halfway through the game.

The fact that the game doesn't truly open up until the latter portion is a good indicator of the weird design choices at play here. There's also dozens of "gotcha!" troll deaths that you'll roll your eyes to, and blatant references to other video games (like the copy & pasted seaweed from TMNT, or Abobo from Double Dragon) which feel unnecessary in a game this well-put together (I had similar gripes with the abundant amount of memes in the otherwise excellent Guacamelee). Since the game doesn't have the ambiance of Metroid or the loot-depth of Castlevania, the backtracking can become taxing when you go for 100% completion, further emphasizing just how... rough the game feels.

Yet while Matt Kap's design decisions come across as amateurish, the guy is fantastic at everything else. The art is crisp and clean, the music is really catchy and energetic ("Path of Least Resistance" being my favorite), and the game—while jittery during screen transitions—performs well for the most part. The combat is a little strange (emphasizing spamming attacks over being cautious) but the amount of enemies and spells there are continue to keep things fresh all the way to the end. There's also a neat sense of mystery you explore each nook, not entirely sure what you'll come across next (a la the Souls series). I haven't poked my nose in any of the bonus content after I got all the achievements, but I'm happy that something as strange as old demos of the game were included.

It's clear that Castle in the Darkness was designed by a person that adores videogames. At times it feels like a throwback to the older 8-bit era, but thrown into a blender with the rudimentary design of a flash game. There's a ton of content here (over 50 bosses!), the journey lasting a comfortable six hours before you'll be fully done with it. While the philosophy here is quantity over quality—something I've rarely preferred—it's a decent adventure with a smart prince point, claiming no regrets from me.

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