By: Casey Curran
Another year, another slew of indie titles appealing to all the gamers who grew up with an NES hoping to be this year’s Shovel Knight or Rogue Legacy. Generally, the ones which succeed at this goal are the ones that combine the challenge of the old games with the modern sensibilities of today. Castle in the Darkness offers the former, but not the latter. If you think video games haven’t improved since 1989, then it may be for you. Otherwise, if you want challenge, I recommend something more modern, like Spelunky or Mega Man 3.
Despite the average score, the controls are responsive. Jumping and attacking work very well, but there are some design choices that make wandering the game’s map more frustrating than it should be. For starters, the attack is lacking in both range and longevity. Your sword barely sticks out, scarcely moving in front of the character. Then it comes out and goes away so quickly that it’s nearly invisible. Not only does that remove much of the satisfaction, it also leads to a bigger problem.
The range forces you to get annoyingly close to enemies to hurt them while the short time attacks last add to this, specifically with enemies moving towards you. Even letting your sword stick out for half a second longer would make fighting enemies far less frustrating. In some cases, I still could get used to this, but there’s a variety of enemies and bosses with attack patterns that clash horribly with these design choices; making hitting them without taking damage nearly impossible. This is resolved as you find new weapons, but for too long I was stuck with that dinky sword, which really hurt the early portions of the game.
In addition, magic doesn’t really work. The controls ask you to hold down the attack button until it is charged up enough to hit them. This creates an all-or-nothing scenario as there are no different powered spells, just your fully charged version. The glowing effect and sound cue to let you know when it is charged, however, implies different powers in a way that makes it hard to tell when you have your spell charged. In fact, I never quite got the hang of the spells, regularly messing up in the heat of the moment.
Finally, the game does not map a controller itself, you have to go to the menu and do it manually. In a game that nearly forces you to use a gamepad, this should be a requirement, and it’s inexcusable that the game lacks such a basic and simple feature. And the manual mapping does not even give the option for a pause button. This is not an oversight, it’s laziness.
These may all seem like nitpicks, but together they make the game very frustrating and unsatisfying. Nothing specifically wrong, just going against what could have been a retro and fun control scheme.
Graphically, Castle in the Darkness looks exactly like an NES game, without any graphical effects or polish that couldn’t have been achieved on that system. Granted, there is nothing wrong with this, but the environments and character designs both do little to pop out and most of the stuff in the game just looks generic.
There are exceptions when the game makes a joke about a game from the NES. Some of these jokes work, like having an enemy knight’s armor get destroyed, revealing a guy in his underwear. But that’s about it with anything memorable the game does visually.
Music varies depending on what area you are in. Sometimes it’s just a really repetitive and annoying song on an endless loop. Other times, it provides some decent and pretty catchy 8-bit tunes. Unfortunately, there is more of the former than the latter.
Castle in the Darkness has a Metroidvania setup where you find power ups in a large 2D map to access new areas. The setup to this is surprisingly linear, however, mostly just offering one path you can go down with the rest restricted to coming back later. It does little to provide opportunities to explore or take advantage of the setup.
As previously stated, the control setup makes fighting enemies more frustrating than fun, forcing you to get way too close to hit them with your sword while spell casting is unintuitive. This makes early combat almost entirely trial and error, with too little room to actually get better at the game. There’s too much focus on knowing enemy and hazard placement and not enough on smartly approaching either of these. It’s not about the player improving; it’s about remembering arbitrary details and finding better equipment for your character.
Enemies are placed in bad locations, often times being right on the only platform after a tricky or difficult jump. The game makes taking damage a requirement far too often, especially when your character can take so few hits. As you beat bosses, they will drop a health upgrade. The thing is, however, that enemies generally take out the same amount of health meaning that most boosts to your health are not noticeable — only every three or four can you absorb an extra hit.
The game also does an awful job of teaching you new mechanics. It will introduce tricky platforms over spikes and put new enemies in locations where they can hit you before you can react.
Even teaching me how to use spells was not a priority, as upon unlocking them, I rushed back to a save point to equip it, only to find out I had no idea how to use it. I went back to the room I received it, but the wizard who gave it to me and, as I later discovered, explains how to use spells had vanished. He was put on the opposite side as the save point, giving me no reason to pass him in my eagerness. And this is the only time in the game it explains how to use spells. That’s just bad game design.
The moment I realized my dislike for Castle in the Darkness was when I was offered an easy mode after dying 50 times. I tried it, only to find no enemies, a bow for an upgrade and a keyblade for a weapon, ending with a message that I gained nothing. In something like Dark Souls, this could be funny. Here, however, it just irritated me. The game was hard, sure, but its challenge came from cheap deaths and unfair level design. It’s a game where challenge was more important than smart level design or fun gameplay. It didn’t earn the right to use that joke.