The idea of siege warfare is an old one, involving one army blockading the opposing army's city, often bombarding it from outside its walls while keeping provisions and reinforcements out. Now this is going to sound a bit goofy, but imagine for a moment replacing the encircling army with another city. You know, better yet, instead of imagining, just turn on Castlestorm. You'll see what I mean.
A clever mix of tower assault and tower defense mechanics, Zen Studios' latest game is about as far from their normal pinball fair as you can get. It's a tale of two warring kingdoms who managed to forge a peace accord based around two powerful crystals. When the Barbarian kingdom steals the crystal from the more civilized Knights, it's up to Sir Gareth to get it back and win the day!
The story has a few funny moments, and is lighthearted all the way through, matching the cartoon aesthetic and disproportionate body sizes of Sir Gareth, his motley crew of knights, and the barbarians who comprise the main enemy. It falls a little flat, especially as it closes in on it's ending moments, never really capitalizing on what I saw as a sure double-cross opportunity, but it does a well enough job that it's lack of that kind of depth, or even an intricate arc, doesn't hurt the overall story substantially.
The standard battlefield is a strip of land flanked by two castles, each representing a team. Your castle is not only your base of operations, but it also determines what soldiers you can call into battle, as well any bonuses they might have. To give you maximum control, Castlestorm offers a fairly robust castle editor. It's fairly intuitive, with pieces changing from red to green when they are in a buildable space. Castles are only limited by the number of pieces they contain, between 40-50, but within that number you are free to build as you will.
Offensively, you have a few tools at your disposal, the greatest of which is your ballista. Able to fire a number of different projectiles, the majority of your time will be spent aiming and firing at both incoming soldiers, who are making their way from the enemy's gates to yours across the strip of land between both castles, and firing at your opponent's castle itself, breaking through their defenses and destroying rooms. The rooms of a castle are essentially it's life bar. As stated earlier, they also determine which units you are able to produce and send into the field, so destroying rooms also serves to limit the units that can be sent against you.
The variety of different projectiles runs the gamut of things you would think you could launch at an opposing structure. You have your standard bolt, which resembles a giant arrow. More effective against units than structures, this is the first projectile you gain access to, and also the one with the shortest cooldown. Others include some pretty standard fare: an exploding bomb, a large rock that breaks into three smaller rocks, and even a potion that turns enemy soldiers into friends. My favorite, to be sure though, is the homing eagle. You don't fire it as much as let it go, and it places a target on the closest troop to it. Pressing the A button sends it screaming towards whatever it is aimed at, slamming into whatever it is so hard that it bursts into a ridiculous puff of feathers and cartoon blood.
As you are waging a bombardment campaign with your ballista, you also have soldier units at your disposal. Sending them out of your castle gate, they march across the central strip, where, if unstopped, they will proceed to beat down the opposing castle door, capture their flag, and return it home. There are 8 different units at your disposal, you can only take 5 types into each skirmish, and each fills a specific roll on the battle plane. Each unit requires a specific amount of food to summon in, adding both thought and strategy to the act. Do I summon a bear rider or a dragon? Should I call in that griffin or bring out a squad of archers?
Forming the tip, as it were, of your triangle of tower offense is your hero and his/her magic. You start with Sir Gareth, but by the end of the campaign, and in multiplayer, you can choose from three additional ones. Calling them into battle disables your control of the ballista and drops you right into the midst of the battlefield for 30 secs or till your hero gets knocked out (just like everyone else, they can get hit by enemy units and by the enemy ballista). Heroes are a devastating force, tearing through all but the toughest enemy units like they were rice paper, and even those fall to a few uses of a hero's charge attack. Their magic attacks function in a variety of ways, and are not limited to only times when your hero is called into play. Encompassing both defensive and offensive spells, some of the more effective ones can freeze enemy units, allowing for one hit kills, or shield your castle from incoming projectiles.
Describing things this way makes everything seem very cut and dry, but probably the most fantastic thing about Castlestorm is just how effective it's control scheme is as letting you remain in control between all the different facets of a skirmish. Face buttons switch between your different options, with A firing the currently selected ballista shot, X summoning your ground forces, and Y calling your hero or his/her magic. Selecting which unit/shot/spell the face button activates is done with the bumpers, and the triggers allow you to bounce back and forth between views of either your or your opponent's castle.
It takes some time to get used to switching between firing the ballista, choosing which ground troops you need for support, and deciding whether or not to use magic, but the campaign does a noble job of introducing concepts to you and then testing you on those concepts. Missions are introduced that make you consider other courses of action by disabling your ground troops or magic. Others have bonus objectives like “Don't call you hero into battle” or “win without firing a shot.” These are of course, optional, but completing them earns you extra stars, which turns into extra gold.
"Wait, there's currency?” you ask. Yup. Everything, and I mean everything, is upgradeable. Eagle Launch not good enough for you? Turn that bird into a whirlwind of death by dropping some gold. The same goes for all magic, heroes and soldiers.
In a brilliant move, Castlestorm joins all of it's single player content together, which means that everything you earn during the campaign comes with you into one-shot skirmishes, survival bouts (your castle against endless enemy waves), and even a Hero Survival mode (your chosen hero, alone, protecting a flag against a horde of enemies). This also means that all the additional gold you can earn in these modes carries back over into the campaign, giving you reasons to explore other options and grind out some upgrades if you are having troubles with some of the harder missions.
Castlestorm also offers multiplayer for those interested, though as of my last couple of attempts, there are not many players left out there. Depending on the time you try, you could very find yourself waiting at least 15 minutes between matches, if you find any at all. There is the option for local multiplayer though, but it's implementation is one of the oddest iterations on the split screen idea I've ever seen. The game takes the full screen and duplicates it, with player one's full view of the battlefield coming out of the top left corner, and player two out of the bottom right. It easily solves the issue of both players needing to aim and control a ballista, but by having to reduce the size of the screens to accommodate, it loses almost all the personality of the individual ground units, turning a high point into simple mechanics.
For a company so well known for it's console-spanning pinball franchise, Castlestorm is as beautiful and precise as any one of their fantastic tables. It's easy to use mechanics serve to make every skirmish a mix of fun and stress, but it's the personality of the individual units, and the multitude of options for both offense and defense that really make this diamond shine. If all their games turn out like this, I give them my full permission to experiment with any genre they feel like. After they finish my requested Steampunk table, of course.