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Castle in the Darkness (PC) artwork

Castle in the Darkness (PC) review

"Bright and nostalgia-stirring before the long dark falls"

The question I had to ask myself was, am I having fun?

When you have to stop to think of that question, your gaming experience is in dire straits, and chances are, the answer is no, I haven't been having fun, and I don't think I have been for a good while.

A few hours into Castle in the Darkness, that question came to mind, and I had to admit to myself that I had been soldiering on for several hours because on the face of it, the game is an irresistibly appealing ode to unapologetically challenging NES side-scrollers, and because Castle started off with such promise.

Well, not exactly. The premise of the game isn't great, and it communicates an underlying theme at work here: Castle isn't satisfied with picking and choosing the best parts of the type of games it pays homage to -- the dullest, worst, and most broken aspects of the bygone action-adventure genre have come along for the ride. To wit: the game's story is as rote as it gets. Castle's Steam page tells us that it all began on a "dark and gloomy night" and once evil had overrun the entire Kingdom of Alexandria, the most pressing matter was certainly the disappearance of the princess.

But hackneyed story aside, Castle starts off with so much promise.

The game's aesthetic does an admirable job transporting you back in time. Castle stars a stout blue-helmeted avatar, diminutive in size -- smaller even than Mega Man -- who wields swords longer than he is tall, and hurls magical sub-weapons as he traverses dark forests, foreboding underground areas, and dilapidated townships. The world is fraught with powerful boss enemies and valuable secrets. Our hero leaps and hacks and slashes his way forward in metroidvania fashion -- or so it would seem: Fight your way through a few screens of foes, save your progress, move on, discover double-jump boots or some other such essential skill or item, save again, and so on.

And yet, there is no map. And were there one, we would find it disastrously laid out, with no thought to putting to good use whatever our most recently discovered goodie, and as if to ensure maximum backtracking.

Still, despite feeling lost in the vast randomness of the world, you press on, often having an easy go of things. Sometimes you'll actually think the game too easy, as you'll be so well equipped, your favourite sword and magic combination at the ready, thrashing foes from save point-to-save point, taking in the nostalgia-stirring sights and sounds while paying little attention to the slippery controls and brushing off the way your progression doesn't seem to... progress. We persist, but we don't seem to be getting stronger; in fact, our skill-set in the face of our adversaries often trends downward.

Those flaws will only really make their presence felt when, all at once, your load-out will jarringly, inexplicably seem wholly inadequate to progress past a certain area, or boss. This is where a map, especially the kind that highlights those helpful warp obelisks, would come in most handy. We could survey the land, take note of parts of the land that we had left untouched; we could investigate unexplored areas that might yield a better shield, or the magic power we so desperately need to put down that boss in our way that currently presents as invincible.

But Castle in the Darkness doesn't have a map. We can't warp from save to save. We don't know where we are at any given point in reference to the world at large. We are getting our ass kicked while enduring straight-line progression and a violently uneven difficulty curve, in a castle, in the darkness, and we are no longer having fun.


Masters's avatar
Staff review by Marc Golding (December 30, 2018)

There was a bio here once. It's gone now.

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honestgamer posted December 31, 2018:

Good review! I think the only "Metroidvania" games I'm willing to forgive for their lack of a map at this point are those that were designed in the 8-bit era, where a detailed map system might well have required more memory than the developers had available. I think Super Metroid and virtually every game in that vein to come along since have had one and been better for it. It's one of those quality of life things gamers have rightfully come to expect from the genre, so I can see how it would make the game a chore to play (especially since, as you noted, there doesn't seem to have been a lot of thought put into laying things out so they facilitate enjoyable exploration).
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Masters posted January 01, 2019:

Thanks dude. On the Steam game forum, someone cobbled together a map and to no one's surprise, it doesn't flow as you would hope, so it's just a series of connected (but NOT interconnected) threads of screens. Anyway, this is another game that looks like it should be a lot of fun (like Madelyn) that really isn't.
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EmP posted January 03, 2019:

I went and looked at that map. It doesn't look planned; it looks like it was just randomly spawned.

Anyway, I like this review. Even if it has no puns. You still manage to convey a lot of sense in few words.
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Masters posted January 03, 2019:

Thanks, that was the idea! But yeah, that map speaks volumes about the game's design.

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