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Castle in the Darkness (PC) artwork

Castle in the Darkness (PC) review

"Indistinguishable from the NES games that it apes. That's generally fine, occasionally charming and often infuriating."

Castle in the Darkness (PC) image

One of the things that I loved very much about last year's sleeper hit Shovel Knight was that it was an exceptional homage but also an excellent game by modern standards, taking the stylings of decades-old action-platformers and fitting them with the smoothness and accessibility we've grown more used to in the generations since. It celebrated games of a certain era but would never be mistaken for a relic of that era itself. On the other hand, Castle in the Darkness, a tribute to games like Metroid and Castlevania in the days before we started lumping those two franchises together, is retro to the bone. Aside from maybe one or two references to more modern titles, this thing is indistinguishable from the NES games that it apes. That's generally fine, occasionally charming and often infuriating. We like to bag on modern releases for excessive hand-holding, but not all older games were challenging timesinks for the right reasons.

Let's toss pretense aside and jump straight into one of the most glaring examples: the bosses. These things are pixel hunts to the extreme, each one a towering monstrosity with the tiniest possible hit box. No matter which weapon you're using (they all handle differently), for every strike that you land, about three or four more pass harmlessly through the creature's body with no effect and no feedback. And when we're talking about bosses that dish out an obscene amount of damage and take very little in return, that lack of balance is a nuisance.

It probably sounds like I'm complaining about getting my ass kicked, but surprisingly, no – the other frequent issue with bosses is that many of them have weaknesses that are laughably cheesable. Many of the arenas actually have literal safe zones where you can just stand, slowly chipping away at the boss's health with no risk. During one underwater battle against a giant fish, you need to grapple with swimming controls to hover safely between an electrified floor and a ceiling lined with spikes, and you've got to worry about attacking a monster who's hurling a never-ending wave of projectiles and trash mobs your way. It's an unreasonable fight until you land on the ledge immediately behind the boss, where you can just endlessly cast magic out of his reach and end the encounter without a worry.

This happens so often that I wonder if it's a deliberate design choice; many retro platformers were kinda sloppy like this. But then what is Castle in the Darkness paying homage to? Pixel hunts? Unbalanced combat? Lack of polish? Whatever the case, it's a major component of the game that just doesn't work, a notable instance of Castle in the Darkness being too old-school for its own good.

The game was published by Nicalis, whose previous releases include VVVVVV and 1001 Spikes. You'll note that they have a penchant for perilous, deathtrap-ridden platforming. That's kind of the case here; there are a number of jumping sequences that it'll take practice to get through and more than a handful of unavoidable deaths that showcase either brilliant comedic timing or insufferable cheapness, depending on your mood at that particular moment. Castle in the Darkness isn't a wall-to-wall platforming gauntlet, though, and is just as centered on combat and exploration as it is on spiky insta-death.

There's quite a bit of Metroid in this game's blood, meaning that the whole thing is set in a single, connected world that expands as your arsenal grows. You get a double-jump ability and suddenly you want to revisit all of those ledges that you couldn't quite reach before. To developer Matt Kap's credit, Castle in the Darkness's world is utterly awash with hidden nooks and crannies, and rewards thorough players with an awful lot of secret content. The sense of reward from using your expanding ability set to better traverse levels is easy to come by.

Progress itself is not as easy to come by, and that points to the modern luxury that Castle in the Darkness is most direly in need of: a freaking map. While the game's world design is continuous, it doesn't have the feel of a setting overlapping and folding onto itself; it's largely just a straight line with some occasional dead ends. In a good Metroid game, I'm organically returning to old locations with new insights. In Castle in the Darkness, you have to laboriously retrace your steps until you happen to stumble upon the one previously-unreachable path that'll take you to the rest of the game. There's no real sense of geography here, and most players, like me, will get frequently and genuinely lost.

And while I wouldn't say that Castle in the Darkness is overly difficult, the often harsh realities of getting around in this world (i.e. that you'll often fall to your death quite easily if you don't have the level designs memorized) mean that backtracking is often more tedious than it should be for a game in which backtracking is a key driving factor. This is an exploration-centric title that I wasn't particularly fond of exploring.

I certainly admire the straightforwardness of its homage (there's a vertically-aligned level full of rotating platforms and Medusa Head-esque flying enemies that's just called "Clock Tower," because what the hell), and Castle in the Darkness does have charm in unexpected places. The best example is Easy Mode, which unlocks after you've died a certain number of times and is an entirely different game, essentially a full-length joke on people who think they can squirrel their way out of the campaign's very deliberate challenge. And hey, maybe people longing for a fully authentic NES-style action-platformer will eat this up. As someone who missed that train, I found Castle in the Darkness as rewarding as it is frustratingly dated. It doesn't cost much and it's worth trying, but it's also potentially worth giving up on.


Suskie's avatar
Freelance review by Mike Suskie (February 20, 2015)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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