Fun diluted by frustration.
There are a scarce number of games today that are capable of substituting for the beat-em-up arcade machines of old. Castle Crashers is one such game. It has been billed by some as the game to fill in that gaping hole of side-scrolling hack-and-slash goodness. In this regard, it is both a resounding success and a debilitating failure.
Combat is obviously the focus of the game. In a word, it is delicious. There’s a button for quick attack and another for strong attack, with combos slathered between them. Each character has a unique magic ability…mostly. The four main characters are noticeably different in a good way in this regard (though the Red Knight in particular is very overpowered). Beyond that, there are many other unlockable characters that come about by beating the main story. These lamentably share abilities. Though they are aesthetically different, they are fundamentally the same. The player is given a standard bow and arrow for a ranged attack but can choose from a huge number of weapons to find and use in melee. Along the way, little floaty animals also make their presence known. These small dudes follow you around (there can only be one following you at a time, though) and grant you small bonuses, be it an XP boost or a combat enhancement.
All of these abilities (but not the weapons or animals) have stats that can be upgraded as the levels are gained through experience points that accumulate as the enemies get smacked around (experience points are literally awarded on a per-hit basis). There are 99 levels in total, each one presenting an opportunity to enhance defense, strength, magic, or agility. Regrettably, there isn’t a whole lot of incentive to reach level 99. The game pretty much stops throwing new material once the main “story” wraps up somewhere around levels 20 – 30. Luckily, everything leading up to and including the final battle makes for a spectacularly fun ride. The controls are fluid and responsive, the characters are fun to play as and to fight with, and most of all, Castle Crashers pays a painstaking attention to detail. The entirety of the artwork that Dan Paladin has beautifully rendered leaves no stone unturned. The game looks exquisite and utilizes a unique style unmatched by any other game.
The levels and environments are as varied as the enemies that populate them. Each location offers a different look and feel. While playing the game I found myself looking forward to the next section of the game simply to find out what I would see next. What I usually found, though, was a boss battle. While not as epic as, say, Shadow of the Colossus, these brawls leave little to be desired and provide a nice break from the hordes. Instead, the fight is with a single, huge, beautifully drawn enemy with a bunch of hit points. Even the sound in Castle Crashers is above average for an Xbox Live Arcade game. The music that permeates each level does its job smoothly and cleanly. There were some tunes in the game that I admittedly wouldn’t mind listening to outside the context of the game.
There are so many good qualities that describe Castle Crashers. Unfortunately though, the entire experience is marred by the online portion of the game. If you only care about the single player, by all means, get this game now. If you want to take part in the 4-player co-op, think twice. I bought this game with the intention of playing much of it with my friends, but the game had other plans for me. I’m not sure how the servers are now, but before I couldn’t even play the game with a friend without getting disconnected multiple times upon entering the game. Worse than that, however, is the fact that all of the many weapons that I found and the animals I spent a lot of time collecting were all erased as a result of playing online. My characters retained their levels, but I lost all my loot. This alone broke the game for me, because if I wanted to start a new character or find new things with an existing one, none of it would be there the next time I turned the game on (yes, even in singleplayer). Because of this, I lost my will to play, having already beaten the regular story multiple times in single player.
If you don’t mind the co-op issues and don’t plan on playing online, this is a solid recommendation. If you do though, keep in mind your save file is at a potential loss, sucking the hours of gameplay away from you. Play online at your own risk. Castle Crashers is an amazing game. It’s a shame that it should be ruined by something so small as a few technical glitches. At the very least, anyone even remotely interested should definitely find a way to play this game.