Castle in the Darkness is another in a long line of 8-Bit styled bastard hard platformers that seem to grace Steam with increasing frequency. Taking its cues from Super Meat Boy, Shovel Knight, Megaman, Cave Story (you get the idea) it’s a bastard hard, nostalgia gland massaging piece of software that many love simply because they hanker for a time before 3 gigabyte day one patches and pads with more than 4 buttons.
And it certainly looks and sounds the part. The graphics are simple but lovely with a muted colour palette, and the soundtrack is pretty much exactly what you’d expect from a game such as this. All bleepy bloopy awesomeness, albeit quite a repetitive, bleepy bloopy awesomeness.
The gameplay certainly follows the tack set by the looks and the sound, with tight controls requiring perfect timing to make those jumps and hit those enemies with your oversized sword and navigate those falling, insta-death spikes. Or avoiding and hitting that boss that has no consistent triggers or pattern to learn. Or running into that enemy that drops from the sky each time and you know exactly where it is but the placement makes it difficult to avoid it as soon as you come on the screen. Ah.
You see, the problem with bastard hard retro-styled platformers is that they require a deft hand in development to stop them from being teeth grinding chores, and Castle in the Darkness unfortunately seems to fall on the side of being frustrating rather than fun.
The first clue that you’re in for some pain is the counter that records your death. It goes to 6 digits. But dying a lot isn’t a problem. Dying a lot is practically the first design choice on the list when it comes to bastard hard retro-styled platformers, but there’s dying a lot because you’re not playing the game correctly (or rather, you’re not learning how to play the game correctly) and there’s dying a lot because the game hates your guts and will do all in it’s power to make sure your dreams remain unfulfilled.
Another peculiarity is the placement of save points. You can save and change equipment at them, and when you pass through them you regain all your health. However, they’re placed inconsistently throughout the game. Sometimes you’ll reach a save point and have to fight through about 10 screens of enemies to get to a boss. And when you kill the boss, you have to fight another slew of enemies to get to the save point. During which, of course, you could die and have to do the boss again.
There’s nothing wrong with the game being difficult, but the inconsistency in the placement of save points just leaves an unpleasant taste. At the very least it makes the game tedious. Repetition through lack of your own skill is fine. Repetition because the game wants to punish you for no reason isn’t.
There are many more elements that I could list, like the curious instadeath spike placements, or the regular enemies that seem a little too hard to kill without taking damage, but it’s at this point I wonder how much of my dislike for Castle in the Darkness is down to me or the game.
Take the Frog Prince boss, for example. Logically speaking I should be able to trigger when he falls down, but I couldn’t find any consistent way to make him trip over. There’s a long winded way to kill him (which may or may not be the right way), but it took me many deaths to figure that out as I was trying to do it the way that seemed a little more apparent.
So is it me or is it the game? Well, there’s a problem with these bastard hard retro-styled platformers, in that it’s often difficult to tell whether you’re just a cack-handed idiot with all the hand/eye co-ordination of a lobotomized sloth on morphine, or if they’re just not very good.
In all honesty, I think it’s a little of both. I thoroughly enjoyed Shovel Knight and Super Meat Boy, but they aren’t my usual go-to type of game. This game feels off in many ways, like it could have done with a couple of extra pairs of eyes and hands to point out some of the flaws and to tweak some of the gameplay elements; someone else to refine the game from unfair bastard hard to fair bastard hard. It’s kind of telling that of the nine Steam Achievements the game has, one is for dying 100 times and another is for dying 500 times.
It’s very easy to fall into that awful reviewing cliche of “if you’re a fan of the genre, then you’ll enjoy it.” That’s really no way to review games, but it’s the best I can come up with. I didn’t enjoy Castle in the Darkness. It felt mean spirited, harsh and unbalanced. However, if you’re into games that harken back to a time when fun went hand in hand with the notion of being kicked in the spuds by a large navvy wearing hobnails and game balancing was for softies, then please feel free to add an extra couple of points to the score. As it is, even at the undoubtedly bargain price it’s going for, I’d struggle to recommend it.