How can you possibly review a game like Castle on the Coast? A collaboration between Big Heart Productions and the Valley Children’s Hospital in California, it has the noble aim of bringing the hospital’s mascot, George the Giraffe, to life. By making Castles on the Coast, the children can play a game that’s dedicated to them, while the wider world can scoot some cash their way.
That’s quite some review-proof armour that Castle on the Coast has. The correct approach on our part, of course, is to encourage you to buy Castle on the Coast regardless, or – should you not fancy it – even send the Valley Children’s Hospital a charitable donation. But we’re going to risk any karma we might have gathered over the years, and review Castle on the Coast honestly and without prejudice.
Castle on the Coast feels like a lost platformer from the PS2 era. You could imagine it being a cancelled sequel from the Ty the Tasmanian Tiger series, for example. It feels drawn from a period when platformers were garish, and when the main character was whichever animal hadn’t been used yet. And just like other 3D platformers from that era, it’s absolutely loaded with collectibles.
You play George the Giraffe, the mascot of Valley Children’s Hospital, and he’s a curious old bean. While everyone else in the world can talk, he can only nod and shake his head with a tongue lolling out of his mouth. But he’s also got nothing to do with the plot of the game. He arrives by boat and wanders into an argument between a community and their two wizards, Vendrick and Aleandra. The wizards feel aggrieved for a past wrong, so they nick four keystones from a castle and scatter them across four different worlds. George is mostly getting involved because he likes collecting things. It’s not the most involving of character motivations to put it kindly.
There’s something bravely ugly about Castle on the Coast’s world. Everything is gaudy and noisy, highlighted with thick cel-shading, to the degree that it’s hard to pick anything out. When you wander into the opening castle, effectively the hub area of the game, it feels like someone cut out lots of pictures from Borderlands and scattered them on the floor. Yet, the characters are drafted in from a completely different game, being simple plastic toys – especially George. Basically, Castle on the Coast is a mismatched graphical mess.
The controls are messy too. It’s not because they’re limited: it’s quite the opposite. You’re given a lot of maneuverability, but the game can’t keep up with them. You can do the old Mario jump-jump-flip, but that last flip will often ambush you by flinging you way off course and flinging your camera in all directions. You get a jetpack, which is a godsend, as it’s a safety net for when you’ve missed a platform. But returning to a platform that you overshot is a nightmare because the camera won’t play. The majority of issues are at the intersection of camera and controls, but some odd rulesets don’t help either. George has the uncanny ability to walk on near-vertical walls, which means you can cheese your way through some sections by simply climbing over them. But the rules on when you can or can’t climb are a little hazy.
These controls become more problematic when Castle on the Coast gets ambitious. It’s a kitchen-sink platformer, and loves to add in new concepts, regardless of whether its engine can handle them. There’s a couple of Monkey Ball sections, where you ride on top of a ball or – heaven forbid – a cube, and have to navigate intricate courses. But the ball feels like it’s on ice; you have to anticipate turns a couple of seconds in advance. Another sequence has you in RC buggies, but the handling’s so sensitive and the camera is determined to look in every which way but forwards, that it’s a hack job getting to the exit.
It sounds like we had a hard time of it with Castle on the Coast, but through all the mess, the chaotic controls and the surfeit of ideas, there’s some rough-edged joys here. You have to be forgiving and scrape off some of the mud to get to it, but underneath is the spirit of multiple PS2 platformers. It’s not quite Spyro, but it’s closer than you’d think.
Part of that’s in the freedom of movement, matched with the collectathon. You get some reasonably large environments that are absolutely dense with petals and stars to collect. It feels satisfying to spot something twinkling in the distance and then work out a path to get there. Those collectibles unlock doors, so you’re always rewarded for finding them, and they allow the world to blossom out. If there’s a criticism, it’s that these moments are skewed to the start of the game, and the final levels feel more rushed. World One takes you an hour or two to complete. The last world takes only fifteen minutes.
Other jagged joys are the Periculo sequences. Coming at the end of each of the four worlds, you’re teleported to a floating islandscape, lit up with psychedelia. This is the Periculo, and their sections are fantastic. It’s like an epic Fall Guys obstacle course, and you’re convinced it must end soon, but it just keeps on going. The difficulty is perfectly pitched on the edge of incredible challenge, and checkpoints mean that you’re never overly punished. They’re just impressively well made, and show that the designers can pull off fantastic pirouettes when they aim to be minimalist, rather than maximalist.
Looking back on our time with Castle on the Coast, a lot of it was rocky: we had sequences where we were headbutting the camera and controls repeatedly. If you are a game designer, please, please only make a Monkey Ball section if you’re confident your engine can support it. But that inconsistency was part of it’s charm by the end. It’s an ambitious game that pulls in so many different games and genres, and not knowing what you’re going to be doing from one room to the next became a pleasure more often than it was a pain.
Castle on the Coast is about the messiest, most uneven little 3D platformer that you could hope to encounter. But it is also generous, with plenty of collectibles and game genres packed into its five or six hours. When you factor in a charitable donation to Valley Children’s Hospital in California, the balance is in its favour. Send them £12.49 and you will get a ramshackle, enjoyable little Banjo Kazooie in return.
You can buy Castle on the Coast from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S