Four years ago, at the time of the original Castle Conqueror title's DSiWare release, we made a somewhat snarky remark in our review about the absence of Real-Time Strategy games on the Nintendo DS. With its touch controls and capability to display information on one screen and action on the other, the dual-screened console seemed like the perfect home for the RTS genre – something that Castle Conqueror proved quite well. Now, over three years into the 3DS’s lifespan, the aforementioned genre is still shockingly unrepresented on the family of portable consoles. Rather than opening up a gateway for the genre, Castle Conqueror instead paved the way for four sequels of its own which, according to this site’s reviews, were all pretty great. In a not-so-shocking turn of events, the original Castle Conqueror game is back, this time in the form of a 3DS eShop remake titled Castle Conqueror EX.
Referring to this title as a real-time strategy game might be a bit misleading, but it would provide an effective introduction to the genre for novice players. There is a necessity for resource management and a simple levelling system, but it doesn't delve as deeply into these mechanics as the more fleshed-out games in the genre. The strategy here mostly involves counting your troops and making sure your defence stays high. When all else fails, grinding through completed levels in order to earn gold and purchase upgrades and level boosts is the way to go.
Gameplay takes place on the handheld console's bottom screen, making use of touch controls and avoiding physical inputs completely. Each stage consists of a map that occupies a single screen, featuring castles populated by your troops, enemy troops, and unoccupied strongholds waiting to be conquered. The goal in each of the game's 50 stages is to completely eliminate your enemies from the map and effectively take over all of the space that they occupy — there is no real combat involved, as instead the action involves sending troops from one stronghold to attack another, intercepting enemy soldiers along the way. It's a simple concept that we perhaps wouldn't expect to keep its players interested for as long as it does, but it works well in execution; with its steady increase in difficulty, Castle Conqueror EX never feels particularly dull.
A unique mechanic that the Castle Conqueror series utilizes is the use of shared offensive and defensive statistics. The health of any given castle on screen is directly related to the health of the soldiers holed up inside. When a soldier is pulled from the castle and directed towards an enemy unit, the castle’s HP immediately drops by five – the same amount of health that the newly freed soldier has displayed above his head. Castles regenerate health over time, which in turn means that they are actually creating more and more units inside for you to send to battle. Enemy castles as well as abandoned properties can be overthrown, giving you more areas in which units can be created to increase the numbers in your army. As previously mentioned, the strategy isn’t so much about knowing which units are more effective and where to spend you money, but it instead involves making sure that you have the right numbers in the right spot – you never want to pull too many units from a castle and leave the building itself susceptible to enemy attack.
There are three different heroes who you can choose to play as when starting a new game, and a fourth who becomes available after the campaign has been completed. Playing as different heroes doesn’t have any direct effect on gameplay as it still retains the same top-down stylus based action, but it does change the item cards that you have access to in battle. Item cards carry different effects, such as increasing the speed of your troops or the defence of your strongholds, and can be purchased at any time during battle, assuming you have the correct amount of crystals. A new feature to this 3DS version is the use of Play Coins to increase your crystals per stage, a helpful addition for players having trouble overcoming a particularly difficult battle.
Castle Conqueror EX uses the same art style as the original, making use of chibi-style characters and a bright colour palette that lightens the mood of what would otherwise be a gruesome war theme. Though identical in style to its predecessor, this remake boasts smoother lines and more vibrant colours as produced by the 3DS's superior hardware — it's not a significant upgrade as the graphics aren't intended to be lifelike or overly detailed, but it does have a cleaner look nonetheless. Despite being on the 3DS, however, Castle Conqueror EX does not make use of the stereoscopic 3D display. The missing feature is not surprising, however, as the entirety of the action takes place on the decidedly flat bottom screen while the top is reserved for battle statistics. Like the art style, the soundtrack fits well into the game's tone and theme; though lacking significant variety, the bombastic tunes do well to reflect the war at hand.
We recognize that it should be clear and common practice to review any new game on its own merits, but in the case of remakes things can get a little muddy. Castle Conqueror EX is a good enough game to stand on its own, but to state that it has been significantly expanded or improved over the original is a bit of an overstatement. The graphics are crisper, there is a little more variety in starting characters, and the added use of Play Coins makes use of console-specific technology, but at its core Castle Conqueror has remained absolutely the same. This isn’t what we would call a lazy port as it is done well and leaves nothing broken, but fans of the original might be disappointed when they realize that they’ve invested their money in what is almost literally the same game. This isn’t one to miss for the newcomers out there, but don’t be fooled by what is essentially a polish and shine.