The RTS genre is a tricky one to pull off correctly on consoles due to the limitations imposed by the much smaller number of available buttons on a controller. Still, games like Pikmin have shown that it can be done smartly, and there are ways to infuse RTS elements into another genre, like Tower Defense, as CastleStorm has done. Though CastleStorm struggles with its controls, it proves to be an enjoyable, deep, and content-rich action game that has the capacity to appeal to fans of a wide variety of genres.
The premise is simple, sticking to a Saturday morning cartoon-esque plot that follows the century-long battle between the Kingdom and the Vikingland, while building up a lore around these two warring tribes as it reveals that neither side is perhaps as bad as the other one would think. The story is mostly relegated to (admittedly cheap-looking) cutscenes told before or after each level, and is punctuated by liberal amounts of humour and fart jokes, which can be a bit hit or miss. Though the plot doesn’t necessarily get any points for its depth or originality, it still does a great job of setting up the goofy tone that CastleStorm runs with.
Gameplay is rather complex once you have full access to your entire suite of moves, and the game does a great job of easing you into the various mechanics that are at play in a typical fight. The goal of most stages is to either destroy your enemy’s castle, or to break down their gate and successfully run their flag back to your own castle. You primarily take control of a ballista affixed to your castle gate which can shoot a variety of projectiles - from simple spears and harpoons to Mjolnir itself and an exploding apple - and these are used in both offensive and defensive ways.
Castles are built in an Angry Birds-like way of being precariously balanced on stilts and stone walls; destroy the supports with the right bombardment, and you can watch the whole thing come crashing down in a glorious bout of screams. However, your attention will frequently be divided between attacking the castle and defending your own from the battle taking place on the middle ground, which is populated by a plethora of deployable units dead set on stealing the flag.
With each passing second, food is passively generated, and this can be used to send out myriad soldiers to do your bidding. These can range from being the standard cannon fodder enemies that can be spammed in huge numbers, to dragons and stone golems that are virtually unstoppable. The action happening on the ground can often decide the outcome of a battle, but if things aren’t quite going your way, there’s yet another element to combat to further deepen the strategy elements.
At any point in time, you can choose to deploy spells which grant a variety of offensive and defensive changes for the action happening on the ground, and the most important spell is represented in your Hero character. Activate the Hero, and you can choose where to deploy a controllable unit on the ground who absolutely torches the opposition, cutting through all but the hardiest of units with extreme ease. The Hero, and all other spells, are fortunately limited by hefty cooldowns which prevent them from dominating a match, making them more of a last resort for when you need that extra push.
It sounds like a lot to manage, and it is indeed a lot to keep track of, but it’s rather remarkable how well CastleStorm balances these three primary elements in combat to achieve a fluid system that encourages and necessitates usage of your full moveset; ignore something for too long, and the battle can end quite abruptly. It helps, too, that the pace of battles overall is kept to a relatively slow and plodding speed. You’re given ample time to assess a situation as it’s unfolding and respond accordingly, yet it seldom feels like a battle is dragging on or not throwing enough new challenges and threats at you. From the game design perspective, then, CastleStorm is solid, but there are issues with the way controls are handled.
Most of your direct control in battles is handled via the ballista, which is rather clumsily controlled by the overly sensitive left stick. There’s no way to turn the sensitivity up or down (although you can make minor adjustments using the D-pad buttons), which makes for a rather frustrating experience when trying to land headshots on incoming enemy fighters or to hit a specific room in the other castle. Zooming in the camera helps to alleviate this somewhat, but it feels like a band-aid for a much bigger problem and, when combined with the stick and the D-pad buttons, makes aiming feel like an overly complicated affair.
One would think motion controls would come in to save the day, but they’re puzzlingly only utilized to pan the camera left and right, making them feel utterly useless when they offer no notable benefit over just using the right stick to control the camera. The touch controls do help a bit with accuracy, but it’s still pretty easy to 'fat finger' shots and miss your target by a few inches. Now, these control issues certainly do not ruin the experience - it’s simple enough to adjust to the bizarre set up after you fight through several battles - but they do hamper it somewhat, and feel like an unnecessary drawback that could’ve been easily avoided.
Control issues aside, it’s extremely easy to get sucked into the masterfully constructed gameplay loop that CastleStorm uses, encouraging repeat plays of levels and giving players a constant sense of empowerment and progression. After each battle, the player is given a generous amount of gold which only increases with excellent performance, and this gold can then be invested into upgrades for the various units that make up the army. Health points can be raised, cooldowns lowered, damage increased, and most of it is cheap enough that you can purchase about two or three upgrades per visit to the barracks. This provides a tangible reward for good performance, and encourages you to play “one more battle” just to see the new upgrades in action.
On top of this, the castle itself can be tweaked in an editor that lets you drag and drop rooms to suit your needs. Each room in the castle grants passive benefits over the course of a battle, whether it be faster food generation or more units on the field at a time, but these benefits are lost if that room is breached by enemy ballistae. This creates an interesting dilemma for how one should design a castle. Should filler rooms be placed up front, taking the brunt of enemy fire at the cost of more upgrade rooms, or should you double down on upgrade rooms and plan on only half of them making it? It’s fun to experiment with different castle designs and see how they can affect the outcome of a battle, and though the castle editor feels a little hokey when you’re doing some serious renovation, it’s nonetheless a welcome feature that adds yet another layer of strategy.
Naturally, this sort of competitive game is well suited to multiplayer play, and CastleStorm leans into this by including both local and online multiplayer. Split Joy-Con play makes it a cinch to start up a game with a buddy on the go, and there’s a variety of modes to keep the two of you occupied. Versus mode sees each of you taking control of your own castle in a battle for supremacy; Survival sees one player manning a ballista and the other controlling a Hero in an endless battle against waves of enemies; while Hero Survival sees you both taking control of Hero characters to see how many waves you can endure. Even when playing in portable mode, we didn’t notice the framerate suffering much, and though the controls are still less than ideal, they’re simple enough to teach to newcomers.
As for presentation, CastleStorm manages to impress, going for a chunky, World of Warcraft-like style that’s packed with all kinds of color and detail. Though you’re mostly just staring at the same battlefield for several levels before moving on to the next one, Zen has made sure to pay plenty of attention to detail, throwing in background things like flying machines, soccer fields, and radiant sunsets to keep the action feeling lively and visually appealing. Although animations look stiff - even more so when viewing them up close during the cutscenes - this doesn’t detract hugely from one’s enjoyment of the visuals in the moment-to-moment gameplay. Matching all of this is a perky and upbeat soundtrack that provides great backing for the battles taking place, filling the air with Renaissance-style strings and flutes that further reinforce the lighthearted atmosphere.
It must be said, too, that there is a staggering amount of content to be found in CastleStorm on the Switch. Each level you face has up to five earnable stars which are decided by your chosen difficulty level, ballista accuracy, and mission fulfilment, and you most likely won’t come anywhere close to collecting all stars right away. Couple that with the fact that there are actually four campaigns here - the two that made up the original release and the two that were later added as DLC - and there’s a considerable amount to get through before truly hitting that coveted 100% mark.
CastleStorm is a wonderfully well-rounded package that offers up enjoyable RTS gameplay in an approachable fashion, with a high skill ceiling that caters to players of all skill and interest levels. Although we do wish the control scheme was better thought out, the addictive gameplay, appealing art style, and hefty amount of playable content make this an easy recommendation for anybody looking for a solid strategy game on their Switch. Zen Studios may have made its name on its excellent pinball franchise, but CastleStorm proves the studio has the chops to tackle more genres in high-quality, fun and creative ways.