Castle in the Darkness (PC) Review

By Nikola Suprak 21.03.2015

Review for Castle in the Darkness on PC

There is a bit of a retro revival going on in the indie scene as of late, with many titles trying hard to imitate the classic titles of yesteryear. Quite frequently, these games are just awful because the developers forget to stop licking the boots of the titles they loved long enough to actually throw together an enjoyable standalone experience. Luckily, Castle in the Darkness is one of those games that gets it exactly right and will show a new generation of gamers just why some people have such a hard time getting away from the old school classics. This is more than a simple homage to NES classics like Castlevania and Metroid, and while its devious challenge might frighten away some gamers, those that stick around are in for quite a treat.

Castle in the Darkness is an old school throwback to any number of NES platformers or action adventure titles. There are some pretty clear inspirations from games like Mega Man, but at its heart this is what is traditionally referred to as a Metroidvania game. There is a decent sized world to explore, full of secrets and new pathways that will be unlocked by finding the correct item or obtaining the right ability. Copious backtracking will be needed at times because once an item of interest is found, it will frequently lead to a new path or some spiffy new piece of equipment somewhere else on the map. There are some light RPG elements here as well, and defeating bosses will unlock a slight health boost, while different items or weapons can improve things like attack or defence to make these fights easier. It is not quite as sprawling or complex as more modern Metroidvania titles, but it fits right in with the style and substance that would be expected from one of the NES games it draws inspiration from.

Screenshot for Castle in the Darkness on PC

While the game is equal parts action adventure and platformer, the most enjoyable bits are the action adventure segments. The game calls itself an action exploration game, which is a pretty apt title for it. Going around and finding all the secrets is sure to tickle that completionist endorphin centre in the human brain, and a nice job is done spreading out some stuff to find and explore throughout the entire game. The combat is simple, yet effective, and while there are little tricks here and there to spice things up a bit, it never really gets more complex than 'jump and stab.' The boss fights are particularly impressive, not only for how enjoyable they are but for the sheer number of them that pop up throughout. A great job is done making them distinct from each other, and it is surprising that with so many different ones it never really feels like too many similar concepts get reused. A lot of them pack a fair bit of challenge, and the key to success comes in memorising attack patterns and battle animations. The normal enemies are not quite as impressive as the thoroughly enjoyable boss fights, but they do a good enough job keeping the entertainment coming in between those encounters.

The platforming is not quite as enjoyable as the action exploration aspect of the game, although it is still a fair bit of fun. While not every room will require a player to draw from their platforming expertise, there are quite a few along the way that will. Precision jumps will need to be made to avoid spike pits, falling spikes, and enemies, and many of these rooms will challenge even the most experienced of genre savvy gamers. The game does overuse spike pits a bit too often, though, and the frequent use of instant death falling spikes or quickly breakable platforms gets a bit annoying. Still, the segments themselves are mostly well designed and do a good job throwing suitable challenges in along the way.

Screenshot for Castle in the Darkness on PC

Perhaps the biggest selling point here will be the difficulty, something that always seems to draw in a subset of the most sadomasochistic gamers that miss the days where 'Nintendo hard' was a real thing. The difficulty curve ramps up quickly before plummeting back down into a fiery pit of instant death spikes and monsters that can kill in just a couple of hits. It is absolutely brutal, but that fun kind of brutal that makes the game engaging and hard to stop playing. There is an immense reward that comes from clearing a difficult boss or manoeuvring through a particularly challenging platforming segment that is impossible to find in a lot of modern games that are really concerned about holding the player's hand from start to finish so they don't get scared and run away in tears. There isn't even a hint given as to where to go, and while certain upgrades will make new areas available or bosses more manageable, good luck getting a nudge in the right direction. Here is how to jump, here is how to attack… now good luck with things out there.

For the most part, the challenge is totally on point, but it does venture into the realm of frustrating at times. This is especially true near the very end, where it seems like every other room is populated by an insane number of instant death spike pits that require perfect jumps to bypass. There is a point where a fun challenge becomes a frustrating burden, and Castle in the Darkness risks becoming that in places. Even those that love brutally hard games might find themselves turned off by some of the later areas, where even the smallest mistake can push the player back four or five rooms and becoming stuck for a bit somewhere almost becomes an inevitability. There are some rooms that are just nearly impossible to get through on a first try, and skill at times seems to take a backseat to memorising where all the various tricks and traps are hiding.

Screenshot for Castle in the Darkness on PC

Even ignoring this overly hard difficulty, however, there are a handful of issues here that can only be chalked up to poor design choices. The most glaring shortcoming is the lack of a map, which is an oversight so egregious that it is bizarre the developer somehow missed it. This is a game predicated on a healthy amount of backtracking to uncover secrets and find important loot, and the lack of a map from the beginning makes this whole process far more arduous than it needs to be. There will be plenty of wandering around while trying to remember exactly where to go, and a map would have improved the quality of the experience significantly just by itself.

Another issue is that save points are sometimes poorly placed, either appearing very close for no reason or separated by a boss fight and a handful of other challenging rooms just to make the whole thing needlessly frustrating. There are multiple times when a boss room is cleared only to fail on an instant death spike pit two rooms down the line, causing the whole thing to need to be repeated. Clearing a boss room is tough enough, so forcing the player to repeat it because of poorly placed save points is borderline sadistic.

Screenshot for Castle in the Darkness on PC

Cubed3 Rating

8/10
Rated 8 out of 10

Great - Silver Award

Rated 8 out of 10

Castle in the Darkness is certainly not a game for everyone. Those hoping for gentle handholding and a nice relaxing quest will be pulling out their hair before the game even starts to really become challenging. Beyond the difficulty that will scare away genre novices, there are also a couple of questionable design decisions that will mar the experience even for those that take sadomasochistic glee in this kind of thing. Still, when taken overall, Castle in the Darkness is a wild and undeniable success that serves not only as a love letter to numerous old NES classics, but establishes itself as a worthwhile experience in its own right. The game is just brutally fun, and "one more time" can become "oh wow, is it really 2AM?" in the blink of an eye. This is a very rare sort of title that actually deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the classics it is imitating, and, in some cases, surpasses them.

Developer

Matt Kap

Publisher

Nicalis

Genre

Adventure

Players

1

C3 Score

Rated $score out of 10  8/10

Reader Score

Rated $score out of 10  0 (0 Votes)

European release date Out now   North America release date Out now   Japan release date None   Australian release date Out now   

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