Turning On, Tuning In, (Castle) Crashing Out
Many has been the time when I’ve stumbled out of the office - bleary-eyed and weary from a day’s hard toil, fingers rubbed raw from the physical exertion of gruelling typing, skin burned by the eerie neon glow of the monitor, brain fried by increasingly complex sets of alarming instructions from senior management – and thought: “What I need in my life is a combination of cutesy cartoon graphics, adorably tiny forest creatures and creative physical violence”.
Fortunately for me, there’s a newly-available title on the PSN which involves just that. Castle Crashers, ported to the PS3 in late August 2010, is a single or multiplayer side-scrolling princess-rescuing beat-‘em-up with a hefty shake of RPG-flavoured seasoning, in addition to a dash of unconventional game mechanics, liberally applied. Indeed, my initial thoughtful attempts to master the game’s fighting system (“press button to fight, press more than one button to fight better”) were briefly interrupted by a startled cry of delight as a tiny floating snail, hovering near one of the characters in the starting area, came into view. This sets the tone for the game, which encourages fast-paced evisceration of the enemies on screen whilst enabling the player to simultaneously adopt lip-bitingly cute animals to follow them around and provide an assortment of ability enhancing effects; a seahorse, for example, will provide the player with increased swimming agility. If a game’s depiction of an unnaturally mobile gastropod is sufficient to overcome even my irrational disgust at the prospect of flying slugs and snails (just think about riding a bike downhill, in that world, for a moment), it’s on to a winner.
The game has a heavy multiplayer element, with smooth player-matching mechanics, and players can choose to challenge the game, or each other, in “arena” combat or against the linear story mode. While the path through levels provides little opportunity for deviation, the load between sections is seamless, and it’s only once the player opts to leave this mode – or dies – that the save and starting points become obvious. The difficulty curve is sensibly plotted and encounters evoke just a sniff of that faint nostalgia which comes from looking for an attack pattern in AI, although there can be frustrating moments when the intense whirligig flailing onscreen becomes more difficult to follow than might perhaps be necessary. There’s a pleasing variety and pace to the gameplay, too, with the more standard hack-and-slash static screens jostling for attention with, for example, a cleverly integrated altercation with a giant catfish which takes place in, yes, a river. On tiny boats. Did I mention that there are tiny things in this game?
The game features rapid combat animations and satisfying sequence-building fight mechanics to create that sense of organised chaos which is so integral to this kind of experience, and these are complemented and enhanced by the cartoon-like art style; yet there’s an agreeably crude vein of humour which runs throughout, and draws what might otherwise be disparate strands together. In multiplayer mode, players must compete with each other for kisses from the rescued Princesses in a welcome twist on co-operative gaming, and there are some gratifyingly gross moments. At one point, early in the story mode, a procession of frightened forest animals work through a bewildering array of entertainingly scatological imagery, including – in one memorable scene worthy of the highest critical accolade – the edifying if surreal sight of a deer careering across the screen by means of extraordinarily unhygienic (and distressingly high-pressured) propulsion.
This is a solidly built game which, thankfully, doesn’t strive to break too many moulds (with a notable exception being the inclusion of soundtrack music composed by some of the folks over at Newgrounds, as well as the more general involvement of the denizens of that particular part of the net). It delivers instead on its initial promises of cute companions, delightful art, wicked humour and relentlessly addictive button mashing.
My only disappointment is that I won’t be able to bring my minute seahorse companion with me to the office tomorrow. Management have flooded the basement and attached project plans to the fins of panicking sharks – to “increase competitiveness”, apparently – and I need all the help I can get.