Save for a few underwhelming RTS titles, this current generation of consoles hasnít looked too fondly upon the popular strategy genre. Commanding armies into battle and building up your defences has always been regarded as more suited to the keyboard-and-mouse combination rather than the analogue stick controller. However, in recent years the emergence of a new type of console and handheld friendly strategy game has emerged. Plants vs Zombies has a lot to answer for, as the tower defence game has become one of the most easily accessible forms of strategy games available on consoles.
Castlestorm is the latest tower defence game to come to the Xbox Live Arcade. In a world pitting the medieval knights of old against war hungry Vikings, the game is firmly rooted in the realms of fantasy and history. The campaigns are laden with references to Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings and Skyrim, making the cut-scenes and character interactions rather funny, as they give various nods to other fantastical realms. Castlestorm opts for a rather more colourful palette, instead of going for the grey and brown colour scheme realism that many current fantasy sagas choose to follow. Being an Xbox Live Arcade game, this works quite well, as the colourful cartoony graphics and the tongue-in-cheek humour give this tower defence game a bit of much needed character.
The object of the game is to defend your castle from waves of oncoming enemies who are trying to steal your flag. Itís a much more challenging experience than Plants vs Zombies as the enemies wonít go down without a fight and have plenty of weapons at their own disposal to make short work of your castle. Upon completion of a mission, the player will be granted coins which can be used to purchase upgrades or even new units to bring into the next battle with you. There are also a number of side objectives which give the already pretty meaty campaigns a little more depth, as well as granting the players some bonus items and extra cash.
The main instrument of destruction is your ballista, located at the top of your castle gates. Using the analogue sticks, the player must fire arrows, explosive apples and even sheep (a nod to Worms perhaps?) at the enemy in order to prevent them from coming close to your castle. The rather basic strategic tactics of a tower defence game are just one aspect of the game as players can summon the troops from their castle and have them take the fight to the enemy. You can be a crack shot with the ballista, but sometimes battles are lost and won depending on how many troops you have on the battlefield.
There are a number of special enchantments that can be used if youíre caught in a bit of a tight spot, such as health boosts for your own army or attack spells that can cripple tough enemy units. Hero characters can be summoned, allowing the player to get directly involved in the battle themselves, using the Xbox controllerís action buttons to slice and dice some of the more challenging enemy troops such as heavily armoured soldiers or even bloodthirsty towering ogres. These special characters can only be used for a limited time however so the trick is to use them whenever the balance of war is heavily balanced in the enemyís favour.
They say a manís castle is his home and in the case of Castlestorm, the old phrase really does apply. Before each level, players can customise their castle both cosmetically and defensively. As the campaign progresses, new units can be unlocked but they wonít become available until you give them a room in your keep. Itís also interesting to see how physics plays an important role in creating your fortress as sky rising turrets may look cool, but are ultimately exposed to enemy cannon fire. This added extra at first may seem like an unnecessary, rather pointless addition to the game but as the levels become more challenging, youíll be glad to have spent a bit of extra time perfecting your castle as it could make all the difference between failure and victory.
The major issue with Castlestorm lies with its controls. The ballista turret can be controlled using either the left analogue stick or, for more precision, with the D-pad. The problem with using the analogue stick is that it is far too sensitive and it can be a struggle to keep the ballista steady, often the targeting line of sight flying around in a million directions as you try and accurately take aim. In comparison, the D-pad is rather sluggish and precision becomes rather redundant when waves of enemies are banging down your door. The action buttons on the controller can be used to spawn troops, fire various ammunition types from the ballista or even activate magical enchantments that can cripple your enemy or give a much needed boost your own army. It takes quite a while to juggle these many options as the game tries to bring some much needed depth to the tower defence genre.
On the surface, Castlestorm may look like another entry in the continuously growing catalogue of tower defence games. The castle editor is like a game unto itself, whilst being able to actually control some of the gameís hero characters helps the game break down the hard stone walls of the genre and gives players a little bit more value for money. Its colourful presentation and various nods to other fantasy realms is a rather entertaining, if not limited, method of giving these usually pretty one-dimensional games a bit of much needed character. However, the control scheme is incredibly frustrating, particularly trying to aim the ballista with precision and accuracy and could turn the tides of war just enough to turn a few armchair generals off the game completely.