Castle Crashers released on XBox Live quite some while ago, and has certainly found a following. The talented and passionate folks at NewGrounds were able to capture the bombastic qualities of their community into an original, polished beat-’em-up for the modern era that, in my opinion, has only been rivaled thus far by Scott Pilgrim vs. The World as far as recent games in the genre are concerned. Castle Crashers carries a higher price tag than Ubisoft’s retro-styled title, but it also brings along online multiplayer. Suffice it to say that if you enjoyed Scott Pilgrim you’ll certainly appreciate Castle Crashers, but the two are definitely not one in the same.
Castle Crashers has a very organic and fluid art style inspired by quirky Saturday morning cartoons, but with blood and dismemberment thrown in for good measure. There are four base characters to play as, with a bunch of others unlocked over time. By and large they all play the same, with only some variations to their Magic attacks, which lend themselves to different styles of play but generally accomplish the same goal: smacking enemies with ranged attacks. As players whack foes they’ll gain money which can be used to buy items like Potions or Bombs, as well as Weapons and Familiars, but will also gain EXP. As players level up they will gain new abilities and be able to add skill points to their stats: attack power, defense, speed, and magic. You can divide your points equally to be balanced or go crazy and invest a lot into only one or two stats – it all depends on how you like to play, although eventually you will max out everything if you dare choose to invest the time to do so.
On top of this character growth you also find a wide variety of weapons to equip. Generally they involve sacrificing a stat or two to gain points in others, though there are of course some that give inherent advantages overall. These are a great addition in that you can swap them at the Stage Select screen by heading to your base, meaning that if you get to a level where you decide you want to trade offense for defense or vice versa, you can make a quick stop and change weapons to suit different tactics. Familiar Orbs accomplish the same goal, though these usually will offer special benefits rather than stat bonuses. They can help you find hidden items, level you up faster, attack enemies, improve your movement in water, increase jumping height, etc. Yet another addition to the formula that adds to the title’s depth and customization.
The physical mechanics here are slick and solid. Impacts are forceful and brutal. Combos are easy to pull off but later on, different attacks allow for things like stunning foes, popping them into the air, or magically assaulting them mid-combo. You’ll find some tactics that suit your style and maybe even are a bit cheap, but when playing alone the game can be especially unforgiving, particularly on the Insane Mode that is unlocked upon completing the game.
Castle Crashers was clearly designed to be played with multiple players, especially given how crowded things get at times. If you’ve got three friends, it’s a blast, it’s chaos, and you’ll probably breeze through it, but don’t let that stop you from playing it alone if you’d prefer. You’ll develop your characters quicker and it’s definitely more challenging that way, too. Since the combat can get a bit repetitive over time, however, it’s certainly preferred that players give multiplayer a try – online play works fine in my experience, with nary a hitch, though there may be some amounts of lag, naturally, depending on stability. It certainly offers players the chance to bust heads with friends and strangers alike, and the experience may not be quite the crazy festival of laughs that Nintendo games like New Super Mario Bros. Wii, Mario Kart Wii, and Super Smash Bros. Brawl are, but it adds to the experience to play it with others and is simple enough to accomplish.
The art design and sound ooze personality. You may not appreciate some crass humor here and there, but the artwork and music are ripped from the pages of NewGrounds, including some in-jokes for good measure. Even if a carrot with a clock stuck inside it means nothing to do, you’ll still be impressed with the hand-drawn effects and bizarre humor. If you manage to complete the game, there are arbitrary skins to unlock, but there’s also Insane Mode, which really is quite insane, making enemies much more hardy, powerful, and swarming, along with bosses who change up their patterns a bit. Good luck even trying to complete it on your own without serious level grinding.
All told, Castle Crashers is a good length, and the Insane mode and familiars/weapons to collect will definitely add some replay value, as will online play (there’s even an online versus mode and volleyball mode). The art style is consistent but incredibly varied and fluid, the sound is equally varied and fitting, and the gameplay is addicting with just enough depth to keep things from getting stale too easily. It comes highly recommended if you enjoy the beat-’em-up genre. If you’re coming off a Scott Pilgrim high, this is the best follow-up you’ll find.