It’s hard to believe that it’s been six years since Zen Studios pushed out CastleStorm Definitive Edition to Xbox One. It is now though where we see Zen go on the offensive once more, with release of CastleStorm II; a bigger, brasher, more accomplished look at merging projectile warfare, tower defense, city building, brutal combat and humour into one. I’ve been impressed with what has been created here too, taking the basics of the original game, before pushing on with a similar, but ultimately slightly different, vein. Unfortunately, for all the appeal that brings, there is one quite significant issue.
The majority of CastleStorm II will see you playing through two campaigns – the main one being that following Sir Gavin, which when complete opens up the secondary option, Luna’s campaign. These tell fun, humorous stories of how kingdoms need to be created, maidens need to be saved, and battles need to be fought – against the living and the undead.
When you get into the action you find the campaigns playing out via a simple Civilisation-styled map world, as you’re left traversing lands, building castles, villages, forges and more in order to ensure that progression is made. The more buildings you have, the greater wealth and power comes your way – and with great power comes greater opportunity. With mountain ranges to navigate through, dense forests to survey and plains to wander, the overview world of CastleStorm II is a massive one. Throw in its procedurally generated nature, and you’ll discover a game that is happy to provide plenty of secrets and a ton of replayability.
After an initially slow start, following missions and sub-missions and growing your kingdom is a simple affair – as long as you’ve got enough resources, creating new structures and upgrading older ones to produce more content is easy. But as you’d expect to hear there are many, many foes that get in your way. Bandits hide in camps, spiders from outer space populate hidden tiles to bring on bouts of arachnophobia, and wolves, bears and other beasts will need to be fought back. But that’s not all, and other enemy factions are present throughout; as you try to enhance your kingdom, they are doing the same with their own. At some point, paths will meet and the fight becomes real.
Happen across these guys in your travels and CastleStorm turns into a viewed-from-the-side fight to the death, one in which you utilise your army at hand to take down all-comers. This may just mean fighting back against a few waves of opponents, or it may require you to take down a base, grabbing your enemy’s flag and taking it home to ensure success. Whatever the objective though, the main crux of the gameplay boils down to two things: flooding the battle arena with as many units as you can – swordsmen, archers, golems, griffins, paladins and magic bearers are just a few of the many options you’ll have at your disposal – and making the most of your own little ballista to back up these units – arrows, magic, stone blocks and even sheep can all be fired from your turrets. Ensure that your forces are stronger, and better backed up than your opponents, and your job is a goodun.
Utilising a mixture of the bumper buttons with units that are easily reached via a dial system ensures that, even in the heat of the battle, CastleStorm II is a fairly free flowing affair; one that is easy to get to grips with. But if you require more input then you can also send commanders into battle, possessing them at will and dictating every swipe of the sword or cast of a spell. This is a risky tactic to take – should your commanders fall then you’ll be left to see your kingdom overrun – but the extra firepower these guys bring more than outweigh the risks at hand. And sometimes your foot soldiers will become so overwhelmed that dropping a commander or five into the fight is the only way to find any form of success.
It’s not just all about going on the attack though: at times throughout the campaign of CastleStorm II you’ll discover raiders trying to take down your own castles, and so you’ll need to fortify them to the best of your ability in case a lone raider comes knocking. The balance of ensuring that your main Hero and their buddies are well-equipped, with the need to keep a constant eye on the welfare of your entire kingdom, is a real one. Like I said previously, with great power comes great opportunity, but it also brings great responsibility.
CastleStorm II is helped along nicely by some seriously cute visuals. Taking a bit of a goofy approach to the characters sees things working well with the narrative, and even though the cutscenes that play this out are occasionally left wanting, they do the job needed of them. The in-game visuals are just as colourful, with the right amount of gore in place (should you so wish) to ensure that you’ll want to pull off that headshot with your archers a number of times. It does all get a bit confusing when the map world opens up to larger areas though, and as your empire grows it becomes increasingly difficult to pinpoint certain structures, villages and foes on the map. It’s just all a bit too cluttered and could do with being pared back a little bit.
In terms of the audio and it’s all fine in the fight, but the way the story unfolds with a combination of text-based language accompanied by some really odd voice-over just doesn’t work. You’re never sure whether you should be reading, listening, or just ignoring what is going on. Unfortunately, after a while it’s the latter which will see you wanting to skip through the scene setting as quickly as possible.
So we’ve decided that it looks good, it sounds alright, it comes with a huge array of content and it’s most certainly one to consider if you’re looking to get your teeth into a new gaming affair. But there’s an issue with CastleStorm II on Xbox One. And it’s quite a big issue – loading screens.
With procedurally generated maps dictating how your time with your band of merry men will play out, you’ll rarely get bored with the gameplay sessions that are created; random maps ensure that every single time you decide to head into the campaign of CastleStorm II, it’ll be unique to you, presenting something new, fresh and super exciting in the process.
Procedurally generated though means loading screens. And in CastleStorm II there are many of these. In fact, there are so many that the whole experience becomes stuttered and broken up, killing the immersion as you load from kingdom building in the map screen, to a battle scene, to a castle management page and across to hero and unit upgrades. It’s all too much, and the severity and population of these has meant that instead of CastleStorm II being a flowing affair, it’s very bitty, failing to ever establish any continuity. I’d go as far to say that things fast verge on the ridiculous at times, as you come out of a battle, take in a loading screen as the world around you is created, only to discover another amount of time where you sit twiddling your thumbs as you head into the unit management to survey your losses from the previous battle, before again waiting patiently as you hit the world map again. Rinse and repeat that hundreds of times, and you’ll see the issue. Honestly, these loading screens kill the entire vibe that Zen Studios are trying to set.
Yes, it could be said that you get used to them, but I’ve been sat here for hours traipsing through the huge campaign, finding myself trying to circumnavigate round upgrading heroes, or lessening time in the deep castle management in order to avoid the wait that is required. And that’s a huge shame because without the constant waiting, CastleStorm II could well have been more of a success. I fully understand the need for worlds to be built, and maps to be created as the randomly generated elements take hold, but I’d have much preferred a longer wait time at the very start of the game, letting things build into place there, instead of the multiple shorter breaks that we’re given.
And whilst that’s by far the biggest disappointment with CastleStorm II, it’s not the only problem. You see, dual-stick cursor action in which both the left and right stick combine to allow you to view your kingdom field just doesn’t work as intended. Then, as mentioned previously, as your kingdom becomes larger, working through the variously detailed tiles to find your hero, your castles, your villages, your quarries, your gold mines and more just gets far too fiddly and finicky; to the point where you’ll want to concentrate on one thing and one thing alone, losing ground in the empire building as raiders sneak around other areas.
Thankfully, in place alongside the campaign and sitting there to complement this action is a faster paced Arcade system. This does away with the need to build and collect resources to instead throw you into a series of scenarios, collecting stars by achieving specific goals. It’s great that these bring a bit of urgency to CastleStorm II, and with twenty unlockable scenarios to go at, one will find the best bit of CastleStorm – the fighting – front and centre.
If you can look past the rather hefty problems – i.e., the silly amount of loading screens found in the campaign – then the rest of CastleStorm II on Xbox One is absolutely fine. The humour is stupid but on point, the battle scenes are fast and frantic, and the world-building is just deep enough to let you feel like you’ve got a proper control over proceedings. Should you have played the previous game, liked what you found there and are ready to get stuck into a meaty campaign, then CastleStorm II is most definitely going to be for you. Just be prepared to twiddle your thumbs and put up with a bit of frustration in the UI.