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Nobody ever asked Zen Studios to stop making games that star silver balls.
The developer of the successful Zen Pinball and Pinball FX titles, which are available on pretty much every device capable of playing video games, has decided to branch out anyway. Its latest game, CastleStorm, launches today on Xbox Live Arcade. The studio describes it as “a super genre mashup of 2D physics destruction mashed with tower-defense brawler,” but another way of putting it is that it’s like playing Angry Birds and a real-time strategy game simultaneously.
The plot involves a knight’s humorously epic quest to steal back an ancient crystal from an evil Viking plotting to rule the world, but really, the heart of this game is in building a castle and then using its standard-issue giant ballista to fling projectiles — like exploding apples and boulders that split into three boulders — to bring your opponent’s fortifications crashing down. (See? Angry Birds.) At the same time, you have ground units you can send out to try to weaken the enemy’s defenses.
So those are the basics, but the question remains: Should Zen just stick to pinball?
What you’ll like
Zen is famous for its physics engine; everything in its pinball tables rolls and bounces exactly the way it would in real life. And this system is a great fit for a game about knocking things down. It’s really satisfying to hurl an exploding projectile into your foe’s precious stronghold and watch the walls fly apart, especially when you set off a chain reaction that causes a huge section of the structure to buckle and crumble into rubble.
And it’s triple-awesome when some of that rubble falls down and crushes some of your opponent’s soldiers; in fact, you unlock an Achievement for killing an enemy this way. But that’s exactly what you’d expect to happen when giant chunks of stone and wood fall from the sky. Other games might make the debris insubstantial once it’s separated from the building, but Zen keeps the realism going all the way to the ground.
The same is true of flying enemies. In what is easily one of the greatest moments of my gaming career, I once used my ballista to shoot a dragon out of the sky. The massive lizard corpse fell to the ground, killing three of my opponent’s soldiers.
Thank you for making that moment possible, Zen Studios.
Building and destroying castles is endlessly fun
You typically have two ways to beat a level in CastleStorm. You can either destroy every room in your opponent’s castle or send your ground troops across the battlefield to knock down their gate and capture their flag. One of these is far more satisfying than the other, as I’ve said above.
But CastleStorm also includes an editor that you can use to design your ideal castle. You unlock new rooms by playing through the 12 levels of the campaign; in addition to barracks for your ground units and aeries for your flying beasts, you can also slot in special chambers that do things like make your troops do more damage or grant you bonuses to the gold you collect for taking out your opponent’s forces.
Your ballista will always be in the same place, but other than that, the design is up to you. Building a castle feels a lot like playing with building blocks — Zen’s designers are not afraid to proclaim their love of Lego — and it doesn’t take long to make something worth keeping. Once your masterpiece is complete, you can enter Test Mode to make sure that it will stand on its own and also to blast it into dust. You can pretend that this is to see how difficult it will be for your adversary to destroy the thing, but let’s be honest: Careless destruction is a stark inevitability with all building-block constructs.
The co-op multiplayer
Multiplayer is inevitable in a game like this, and Zen has made some interesting decisions with it. You have three modes to choose from, the most obvious of which is a head-to-head fight in which you and your opponent race to destroy each other’s castles or, less interestingly, capture one another’s flags. But CastleStorm also includes two cooperative game types that are actually more fun than their single-player counterparts.
Last Stand is a 2D brawler mode in which you and your partner each control one of the Hero characters. These are superpowerful melee fighters who are typically only available for a limited time in the campaign. You and your partner work together to fight off increasingly difficult waves of enemies to protect your flag in the middle of the arena. You lose if the bad guys carry your banner away or both Heroes are down at the same time (after “dying,” you have a brief cooldown period before respawning).
It’s a lot of fun standing back-to-back with your partner and picking off distant enemies with your ranged attacks before switching to your sword when they get too close, and this game type is way more manageable with a buddy, since single-handedly trying to hold off waves of foes that approach from both sides gets frustrating pretty quickly.
But the most interesting of the three is Survival, in which one member of your two-person team controls the castle’s ballista and sends out troops while the other controls a Hero character on the ground. Co-op Survival is a fun exercise in coordination and communication that gives both parties plenty of interesting and useful things to do.
You can play multiplayer both online and with someone sitting on the other end of your couch. I only played locally for this review, and the individual screens seemed like they would be way too small at first, but the ability to zoom in solved a lot of those issues.
CastleStorm features a soundtrack from composer Christian M. Krogsvold (known on the Internet as Waterflame), whose work you might recognize from 2008’s Castle Crashers. The music is immediately memorable and fits its “farcical medieval combat” vibe perfectly. In particular, an earlier piece that Krogsvold reworked for CastleStorm will likely be stuck in your head long after you’ve stopped playing. I’ve been humming it this whole time.