Review: CastleStorm (Wii U)

The Wii U marks the third console I’ve played through CastleStorm on now, and I’m still not any closer to figuring out what I should call this thing. I suppose the closest thing would be tower defense, but it does so many different and unique things that classifying it as a tower defense game doesn’t really accurately describe it. It does have elements of a beat ’em up, but that isn’t the main focus of the game and there are times where you can ignore those aspects entirely. It is more of a “beat and destroy their castle by throwing sheep, but also defend your castle with swarms of soldiers ’em up” but typing that throughout the review was giving me hand cramps. Regardless of what console it has appeared on, CastleStorm has always been a lot of fun (even if I don’t quite know what to call it). The control options on the Wii U version make it feel like it should’ve been on this console all along, and if you’ve missed out until now, this would be an excellent time to make up for your mistakes.

You assume the role of Sir Gareth, protector of the realm and three time defending champion of manliest beard. The knights and vikings have had a longstanding peace, but being a protector of the realm during peace time in a game would make for a dull experience as the ribbon cutting and baby kissing minigames would get boring quickly. As such, the peace inevitably goes sour when the knights’ magic gem of plot convenience gets stolen. It falls to Sir Gareth to rally the troops, retrieve the gem, and restore peace to the land. This is about as generic as a fantasy story can get and is essentially the equivalent of the stock photo that comes with a picture frame when you buy it. However, the lighthearted approach the game takes to the story telling gives CastleStorm a unique feel and makes the plot far more entertaining than if they had tried to approach it seriously. Sure, you have the prerequisite knights and ogres and dragons, but you’re also dealing with soldiers striking because they’re tired of being used as fodder and sheep who won’t stop eating your weapons. There are a handful of laugh out loud moments, and it is nice to find a game that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

The core of the game is actually comprised of three completely unique game styles, mixing Angry Birds like destruction with tower defense and elements of a beat ’em up. This formula seems like it would lead to confusion, with disparate styles muddying the gameplay and imparting a lack of real focus. However, somehow CastleStorm manages to meld all of this into one remarkable and coherent package, making the game feel like more than just a sum of its parts. At the core of this concoction is essentially a tower defense game, a genre has become so over-saturated over the past few years that even if developers stopped making them now I still couldn’t possibly play through all of the bad ones floating around the dark depths of the Internet. Still, while a Google search for tower defense games gives you only slightly fewer results than “Miley Cyrus sideboob”, the unique perspective CastleStorm offers prevents it from feeling like just another tower defense game.

You can spawn many different types of troops to help defend your castle and prevent your flag from being stolen by those no good dirty vikings. In most instances, however, this is not enough because this isn’t just a tower defense game as you are expected to play tower offense as well. Your castle needs to be defended, true, but what about that big old ugly viking castle over across the map, sitting their all smug and making offensive gestures at your family members? Don’t you just want to smash it? Well, luckily in CastleStorm you can do just that. While your troops just go about doing their own thing, you are in direct control of a ballista that fires a wide variety of awesome weapons, including javelins, mind control potions, and gassy sheep. You can use these things to help your army take out smaller troops or directly fire your ammo at the enemy’s castle. Most maps require you to smash your opponent’s castle to win, and flinging everything you can find and watching the castle slowly crumble until you hit that last critical piece and the whole thing collapses is tremendously satisfying and entertaining to watch.

If the battle does start going south, you can jump into the action directly by taking control of your hero character and going out there to smash some heads. What is surprising is that each aspect I’ve described, the tower defense, the tower destruction, and the beat ’em up direct combat all work very well on their own, and when combined form this incredible package that is hard to put down. It isn’t ever too complex to switch back and forth between what you’re trying to do, and after some brief introductory levels you’ll be juggling sheep launching, troop generation, and direct combat like a pro.

While formula has worked well in all the past CastleStorm iterations, the Wii U version manages to perfect it by simplifying the control process using the touch screen and stylus. While the controls were never overly cumbersome, aiming was an issue at times and it was always a bit tough to control minute changes to the aim of your ballista to hit just what you wanted without also pulverizing your own troops in the process. It was entertaining to see your troops curse you with their dying breath, but the Wii U manages to remove this minor frustration entirely but just allowing you to tap where you want to aim your latest salvo. Now there is no more ambiguity as to where you’re firing and the focus can be entirely on smiting those that most need smiting. Almost everything can be done with this touch interface, and I found myself immediately favoring this control scheme and completely forgetting that the more traditional one existed. In fact, I found myself looking at the gamepad almost entirely and ignoring the much larger television the game was also playing on. There was nothing wrong with how the game controlled before but this version simply controls even better.

There is also a surprising amount of depth, and by using gold you accumulate in the levels you can power up your various units, improve the magic spells that you can use in battle, and even power up the rooms you have in your castles to give you passive bonuses. There are so many clever and interesting ideas here that it’s surprising that everything forms one coherent package, but it works and works well. If I did have any complaints, it would be that even at the highest difficulty the game never presents too much of a challenge and I do wish the single player campaign was longer and a bit meatier. Still, if my main gripe about a game is that I wish there was more of it, it is usually a good sign that the developers did something right.

You can even create your own castle in the castle editor, and as the design and shape of the castle have an impact in how strong your army is and how easy your castle is to knock down, coming up with ways to make the best castle possible is tremendously important. Of course, if you’re boring and no fun and were the kind of kid that refused to play with Legos because imagination made your brain hurt, this isn’t likely to appeal to you and you can just use one of the pre-made castles with no real negative consequences (other than the fact that everyone secretly hates you). While there aren’t as many options as I would have liked in the castle editor, there is still a solid foundation here and building up your very own castle and then coming up with all the best ways to knock it down brings back fond memories of Legos without having to clean up all the mess afterwards.

In addition to the strong single player modes, CastleStorm features some multiplayer options that are stupidly addictive. The best mode is the competitive battles where both you and your opponent can build your castle and then set about knocking down the other person’s castle using all the features you’ve grown accustomed to in the single player game. Knocking down the other person’s castle contains all the fun of stomping sand castles at the beach without any of the judgmental, angry glares you get from parents afterwards. The cooperative modes are also good fun, and the Wii U removes one of the bigger complaints I had about the other versions’ local multiplayer play. Here, one person plays via the television and the second on the gamepad, instead of both players playing on half of the television where everything looks all cramped and ugly.

Closing Comments:

CastleStorm comes with an easy and complete recommendation, and it is one of the special games that can be enjoyed by just about anyone. It’s Angry Birds meets tower defense meets beat ’em up meets crack cocaine levels of addictiveness in a hodgepodge amalgamation of stuff that absolutely should not work as well as it does. Tower defense is a completely saturated genre that most people have grown bored of, but there are enough unique and clever ideas here that everything feels fresh and innovative. I had been quite the fan of CastleStorm in the past, and the Wii U version is pretty much a slightly improved version of what was already a very good thing. It might not be the most complex or most challenging title out there, but it is unique, clever, funny, and, most importantly, genuinely and remarkably fun.
Version Reviewed: Wii U