Zen Studios may be best known as the company that brought us Zen Pinball, but shiny silver balls aren't the only trick in the company's arsenal. Early next year, the pinball wizards at Zen plan on challenging your castle defense skills in CastleStorm.
Part tower defense, part strategy and part destruction, the goal in CastleStorm is to keep the enemy from making it to your castle while you ardently attempt to destroy theirs. Think of it as a current-generation version of Smithereens! Early levels can be won simply by holding fast and defending your fortress, while later challenges task you with capturing your opponent's flag or destroying their defenses.
Vibrant and colorful, CastleStorm's aesthetic is one of humor. All of the characters are stereotypical caricatures, and the environments all have some sort of background gag in them. When you're fighting in the forest, a large spider is lurking in the background. Out near Donkey Island, the Vikings have a soccer field built behind their castle. The story even incorporates the humor into the weaponry, with the pious friar creating a sheep battering ram. You fire the sheep from your ballista and then activate its fart-powered propellant when the time is right. It's kind of like a medieval rocket.
Though some levels may restrict a subset of your powers, in CastleStorm, you generally have three main abilities at your disposal. There is the ballista, your army and your spells. The ballista fires projectiles at your enemy. Your army fights for you. Your spells are designed to help out in a pinch, with some healing your army and others that function offensively. The first spell you unlock allows your hero to take to the battlefield directly.
Unlocking powers for each of your three abilities happens rather quickly in the game, so it doesn't feel like the developers are trying to limit players. Rather, the unlocking is paced so that you have enough time to experiment with a given skill before the next one is tossed your way. In all, there are nine ammo types for the ballista, eight different soldiers in your army and nine different spells to learn. Of these, you can select a maximum of five in each category to bring into battle.
In addition to selecting what to bring into battle, you are also given the option to upgrade your abilities between levels by spending earned gold. You can collect gold by successfully completing missions, but you also get bonus gold for fighting skillfully. For example, headshots earn extra scratch. There are also optional, bonus levels that more or less serve as gold farms. Upgrading abilities makes your ammunition, army and spells stronger, so it makes sense to do so when given the opportunity.
Your custom castle serves as your home base as well as functioning as passive support. Much like the other abilities, the castle has unlockable rooms. Each room offers a bonus of some sort, with those bonuses increasing as the individual rooms are upgraded. A castle editor allows you to select individual placement within your castle. It seems that the bonuses are lost if a room is destroyed during the fight, so putting more important rooms in the back may be a good idea.
Jumping into the game, it was pretty easy to get a sense of how everything worked. Ability levels still need to be balanced out, but even in the preview build, we got a good feel for where the developers were going. For example, you can always jump into battle as your hero to thin out the enemy forces, but making a series of quick kills with your ballista enables a limited time rapid fire mode. With rapid fire enabled, you have a short window of time to deal massive damage to your opponent's castle.
One tweak we would like to see here is a time limit placed on your hero. In the current build, jumping into combat with a hero (especially an upgraded one) is more or less an instant win button since you can clear the field in no time and keep it clear. If the hero had a 30- or 45-second clock on him, it would encourage players to only drop him into battle when he was really needed.
Another place where CastleStorm could benefit from a small tweak is to the ballista. Right now, aiming is tied to the left analog stick. It's a real-time sort of thing, so the ballista angle is the same as the stick's angle. Unfortunately, for most players this sort of fly-by-wire control doesn't give you any real feedback as to where you are aiming. Because of this, we found that we tended to spam the weakest ammunition type, simply to use as tracer shots. Then, when a targeted enemy was coming into range, we would quickly flip to a powered-up shot and fire.
If the ballista had some sort of targeting indicator, either a cursor on the battlefield or a dotted line showing the expected path, then the randomness of blind fire would be taken out of the equation, and players could focus on strategy. We suspect this won't be an issue on the Windows 8 version of the game, as players will likely click on the targeted area to fire there, but for the console version, having some sort of targeting visualization would be a welcome improvement.
Taking out an enemy castle with a projectile may not be a new idea, but the team over at Zen has gone a long way toward making the concept feel fresh. It can be highly addicting to balance different abilities and defend your castle, all the while looking for an opportunity to make an offensive push. From what we've played so far, CastleStorm appears to have a solid foundation. If the team can successfully build on that, Zen may just have another hit on its hands.
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