In a far away land King Harold has become anxious about invading forces attacking his Kingdom. His solution for this is for his subjects to build a very tall tower. Though, I’m not sure what he wished to accomplished by this, it becomes the main target for the encroaching army. In Castles, developed by Whootgames and produced by BadLand Indie, it’s up to you to build and defend this tower. You do this by matching blocks by symbols or material into straight rows of three or more. It’s a simple mechanic that we’ve seen many times before within the puzzle genre.
To line the blocks up you control a builder that you use to push or drag them around a 5×5 board. By meeting quotas you build levels until you reach that stage’s boss battle. If you are able to get four in a row you can get a mallet to destroy a block. Get five and you get a TNT barrel to destroy a group of blocks. Though, in all honesty, on a 5×5 board that’s very unlikely to ever happen. These may have been more acquirable by allowing diagonal chains and I can’t help but think the developers missed a trick there. While you are pushing blocks around, other cubes rain down one at a time at a fairly fast pace. If they land on a block already on the board they replace it. That includes blocks you are moving around, this can annoyingly can ruin your planned chain. One key glaring issue is the lack of knowing what block is coming next. This is a mechanic synonymous to puzzles games so you can plan and strategize your moves. Without it, you are flying by the seat of your pants and the game becomes more about luck than skill.
The gameplay has a tendency to respond to inputs either over zealously or not at all. There are times you will push in a direction and goes in completely another. You can jump over blocks to quickly get across the board, though it’s hit or miss on whether you character jump upon the block. You can probably imagine how frustrating that is in a puzzle game that requires fast and accurate positioning of blocks by pushing or pulling them. When you are fighting more with the controls than the game itself there’s clearly a problem. I can’t help but think that if they’d used a cursor instead of a physical character they might not have had this issue. As there’s a two player option I asked a trusted friend of mine to play just to check it wasn’t me and they confirmed the same difficulties I was having.
When you build enough levels you face the stage boss. The first boss is fairly straightforward. A mole man that fills a square blocking movement, after a while he burrows away and leaves behind a special block. If you are lucky enough you can line three of these up to get a mallet and use it to hit him with. You can also use mallets gained from getting four blocks in a row. So not bad as bosses go as a knowledge of the game can give you a much needed advantage. Sadly though, it doesn’t stay that way. If you haven’t lodged your controller into the TV screen out frustration already, then the second stage boss will definitely try to push you to controller on TV violence.
The enemy sends a helicopter at you that hovers around above you. It’s attacks consist of using it’s propellers to blow blocks towards the opposite side and dropping five blocks in one go. This is a crushing attack, especially when you’re trying to get that last hit and the board is already fairly full. Two are regular blocks while three others are boxes of fireworks. All you have to do is chain them to fire them at the helicopter. Sounds easy enough, until you realise you have to do this at a specified time the helicopter flies overhead and is vulnerable. Any other time and you will miss and all your hard work goes to waste. The things is, you can’t time these attacks. If you wait a block away from making the chain, more often than not, a block will drop and block your only way to attack. Alternatively, a block lands directly on the fireworks block destroying it and preventing you from being able to make the chain. So what should be fairly easily doable quickly becomes an almost impossible challenge. It’s a very strange idea that simply doesn’t work in this frantic puzzle environment. It only compounds the fact that you are already struggling with trying to get your character go one square instead of two and in the right direction.
Overall, Castles fails to deliver on the key mechanic to that makes us all play video games, gameplay. As charming as the game’s visuals are, the gameplay is just not on point and in a puzzle environment it’s possibly the most crucial element. Moving two squares instead of one because of clunky controls can make all the difference to winning and losing. You can play on D-pad, where you’d expect more accuracy than the analogue stick, however, it doesn’t fix this issue. Not getting a heads up on the next cube is a strange design choice that only removes options from the player. There’s a very fast drop rate so it ends up a purely reactionary affair of luck over actual ability. A single design choice of bosses having timed exposure in a game that simply doesn’t allow for timed attacks may be a bit too much frustration for many.
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