Two Words. Zombie Sheep.
Developer Zen Studios is probably best known for its contributions to virtual Pinball, but the team has a decent catalog of titles across multiple systems. One is CastleStorm, a weird mix of turn-based strategy and arcade action that was a minor hit in 2013. Zen Studios looks to expand on its series further with the upcoming CastleStorm 2. After spending some time with the demo, it’s clear that Zen has a lot of ambition for its latest title.
Possible to Nail Down
The best way to describe CastleStorm 2 is a mash-up of Angry Birds physics launching, rudimentary tower-defense, and turn-based strategy. Such a mix may seem out of place at first. The slow, methodical turn-based crowd normally doesn’t bother with the quick reflexes of iOS arcade games. What’s astonishing is how deft CastleStorm is at blending these elements into a coherent package.
CastleStorm 2’s gameplay loop is pretty straightforward. Players build up resources while creating strongholds and overtaking needed territory. As your resource pool grows, you start hiring units to fight alongside your heroes, leveling them up in combat, solving quests, and uncovering more resources across the world. The goal is to lay siege to an enemy base, either destroying it completely or capturing their flag. Right off the bat, any turn-based veteran would recognize the pacing and mechanics of CastleStorm 2 easily.
Where the mash-up shines is in its combat mechanics. Like tower-defense, players have a limited number of resources to deploy - in this case troops - on a 2.5-D map to hold off enemy waves. You can control the individual soldiers, who get a few attacks and sometimes special abilities depending on their class.
There is little honest strategy here other than mashing attack or charging up your strikes for big damage. In fact, the only bit of tactics that matter with your troops is when to send them out. Sending out named generals cuts off the rest of their specific unit, so the biggest decision to make is when to pour in the normal troops or not against oncoming waves. It works but it could also use more fleshing out. Outside of laying sieges, there isn’t much to consider tactically.
The bulk of the combat is spent using siege weapons. These machines can shoot at enemy forces to soften them up for your troops, even destroying castle walls and defenses with relative ease in some cases. The demo had me man a ballista, and it felt powerful enough to get the job done against oncoming hordes.
Aiming is sort of automatic; you simply point the cursor and fire. Each shot still requires a bit of skill and maneuvering to hit, mostly through predicting enemy movements and compensating for each arrow’s arc. CastleStorm 2 also provides tons of customization options for your weapons, such as giant stones, spiked balls, and even sheep to hurl at your enemies.
Do Skeletons Dream of Zombie Sheep?
Yes, you can catapult sheep. In one instance I was able to catapult sheep into an oncoming horde of zombie sheep! And let me tell you, nothing is more frightening to fight off zombie sheep who can avoid attacks and slowly infect you with just one bite.
Now, you may be asking, why zombie sheep? Well, they were just one of several undead denizens found in the game; skeletons, zombies, and other lumbering abominations were also featured. This specific map is gray and dreary, a stark difference from the obnoxiously verdant colors of my own kingdom. I can only guess that the sheep simply got the plague by proximity to where they were.
It’s a great bit of winning design that plays to CasteStorm 2’s strengths really well. It provides enemy variety, breaking up the monotony of fighting cookie-cutter undead. You have an enemy type that can be more of a threat due to their speed and size. Finally, the notion of zombie sheep on paper is absurd but fits well into the overall presentation.
Delivering the Punchline
CastleStorm 2 is very cartoonish in its design and writing, with overflowing earnestness coming from the over-the-top, chivalric heroes. It’s almost a full-on parody of ancient medieval tropes, and a lot of the humor comes from a pretty decent script. You have sarcastic and matter-of-fact statements used for quests, from purposeful indifference to completing side-quests to pun-filled descriptions showing up throughout. It’s a small detail that many might miss in a more by-the-numbers title, where quest givers tend to be ignored save for the final decision and reward. Going the extra mile to give even quest descriptions and decisions a bit of comedic flair is a great touch.
Other bits also add to the lowbrow comedy chaos. All bowmen speak with a horrifically bad French accent, every soldier you meet has a vacant, bug-eyed appearance that harkens back to the peons of Warcraft II. Your main hero, Sir Gavin, is a walking stereotype; part Superman wanna-be, part King Arthur stand-in. A lot of this is through exaggerated grunts and gasps, quick bits of ancillary dialogue and exaggerated character movements in cutscenes. Sir Gavin is so animated for example he would have his own Saturday morning kids show if this were the 90’s.
CastleStorm 2’s visuals match the cartoon style perfectly; it’s all over-the-top with beautiful cel-shading that makes the characters pop, even when backgrounds sometimes are too dark and barely match the aesthetic. This is a world that’s simply fun to be in, with its own zany antics to discover as you explore every inch of the map.
Sticking Your Neck Out
The humor might not be to everyone's taste, but as loud and gregarious it is, it would be a lie to say it's not entertaining. It also helps CastleStorm 2 stand out against similar titles. There are actually a lot of design choices in CasteStorm 2 that seem to pay off in its favor, though it is still rough around the edges control-wise. The keyboard/mouse setup is not as intuitive as a standard controller, especially this major issue where the mouse doesn’t lock in place on the screen but instead scrolls the whole map. This becomes a problem when you attempt to click the end turn button, for example. Hopefully, it is something Zen Studios can tweak for the full release.
In the end, I enjoyed the brief slice of CastleStorm 2 that I played. There is a lot of potential for a fun little turn-based strategy game here, and it is clear Zen Studios is pouring a lot of effort into the game’s presentation and release. That effort can go a long way when CastleStorm 2 releases later this year.
TechRaptor previewed CastleStorm 2 on the PC via the Epic Game Store. It will also be available in 2020 on the Nintendo Switch, PS4, and Xbox One.