Rockin’, or just Rocky?
I can appreciate Castle of Heart for what it’s trying to do. Here we have yet another example of a game attempting to keep the spirit of the “classic platformer” alive, by taking old-school game-play, tweaking a few things, slapping a fresh coat of graphical paint onto it, and sending it out into the current year. Being a fan of classic platformers myself, I’m always on-board for this kind of thing. However, I don’t just want any old old-school platforming tribute. I want a good one. And that’s the issue that I’m facing with this game.
It’s not that Castle of Heart is unplayable. It’s not even bad. Far from, it, actually. But it’s not amazing, either. It’s just… “fine”, I guess The game’s so-so status comes from a strange place, though. Usually when I find a game to be middle-of-the-road, it’s because it feels extremely uninspired. I can’t say that’s the case with Castle of Heart. Yes it’s a tad cliché, but the twist of fate placed on the main character is interesting (albeit in a somewhat frustrating way) enough to help the game avoid being completely cookie-cutter. This time, however, it’s due to the mechanics. Mechanics which almost completely work, but never quite get there. And, although they aren’t a big deal in the beginning, the technical shakiness ultimately converts what could have been a strikingly solid platformer into something a little less stable.
A Beating Heart, a Steadfast Start
Castle of Heart isn’t particularly narrative-heavy. It features a simple, almost Ghosts n’ Goblins-esque story about a knight in a village who — along with many other villagers — was turned to stone by an evil, greedy sorcerer while protecting the woman whom he loved (who was promptly abducted by the sorcerer afterward). Despite being afflicted with a curse, however, he still finds himself able to move around, as a single tear from his love fell upon him as she was being taken away, bringing him to life once more. At least, I think he’s alive.
The rest of the game’s narrative is equally as light. Save for a handful of levels where you speak with others about your quest, and the bits of dialogue before each boss fight, there isn’t a whole lot of storytelling going on. It probably goes without saying, but a game like this doesn’t need a whole lot of dialogue. The small chunks of storytelling scattered throughout the game are perfectly sized, and reflect the “classic” vibe that Castle of Heart tries to give off rather nicely.
Watch Your Step
As I’ve already told you, Castle of Heart vehemently tries to be a “classic” 2.5D platformer. And, for the most part, it pulls this off. The game features 20 levels — each of which is surprisingly long for a platformer — and, to my pleasant surprise, a very stable difficulty curve when it comes to the actual platforming. Given how long each level is, I was a little worried about things become stale quickly, but Castle of Heart (mostly) avoids that by sprinkling in a number of different layouts within each level. Even as early as Level 1, you’ll quickly realize that the game throws you from jumping over pits, to fighting off swarms of enemies, to sliding down rooftops (and other things), never quite settling on one thing long enough to get boring.
Of course, I’d be a fool not to mention the collect-a-thon aspects of Castle of Heart as well. Scattered throughout each of the game’s sprawling levels are a number of collectibles — the most important of which being gems. Gems come in two varieties; red, and blue. Like most floating red collectibles in platformers, red gems recover your health. Which you’ll need even more than you’re probably anticipating (more on that later). Blue gems, on the other hand, increase your HP bar. You literally need dozens upon dozens of blue gems if you want to see any HP-related progress, but the game makes it easy on two accounts; the fact that they’re everywhere, and the fact that you can apparently farm them by going back into previous levels.
Appearing less often are things like collectible weapons that can be used at later points in the game, including knives, which can be thrown to deal some hefty damage, and bombs, which can be used to not only damage foes but blast through certain walls as well. Five purple gems known as Pieces of Heart (which look suspiciously like the Crystals from Crash Bandicoot) are also hiding within each level. The number bits and bobs that you can pick up is almost overwhelming, making it very easy to miss some things here and there. Fortunately, the game has no issue with you going back to grab anything you missed or just to resupply.
Simple as it may be, the game does manage to throw a major gimmick; a health-based time limit. In lieu of only giving players a certain amount of time to complete a level, Castle of Heart is constantly draining your health. If you’re worried about this making the game too difficult, there’s no need to worry. The health drain, while consistent, is small overall. So long as you’re making progress at a decent pace, you probably won’t notice it. I’d be lying if I said that things didn’t get bad during some of the more technically complicated levels and (especially) boss fights, though.
Castle of Heart features some nice levels. Unfortunately, the protagonist himself isn’t constructed as well as the stages through which he runs and jumps. Contrasting the competent level design, Castle of Heart‘s stone-clad knight features some less-than optimal controls. Perhaps the biggest oversight — and a rather ironic one at that — is how floaty he is. I’m not saying that the game is terrible or unplayable because of this. It isn’t. But something that most quality platformers share is consist character movement. A character should have weight and — for lack of a better term — finesse with how they’re handled. Precision is imperative when creating a top-notch platforming character. Castle of Heart‘s knight, valiant as he is, just doesn’t have that.
I’ll give credit where credit is due; I have no issue with the this game’s concept of combat. There isn’t much, in terms of actual depth. Considering the inspiration behind this game, that’s probably a good thing. After all, a back-to-basics platformer with an intricate combat system would be kind of weird. Things are different when it comes to execution, however. Fights are generally relegated to mashing the attack button and beating your foe into submission while they try to do the same to you. The game does give you the ability to block, which nearly (if not entirely) negates all damage, but it’s slow and ends up being more hassle than it’s worth. There’s also a clunky, near-useless dodge roll. Because of your lack of defensive options, you’ll end most of the bigger fights barely clinging to life. Which would be fine… if your health wasn’t constantly draining.
Most likely being aware that blow-for-blow combat scenarios were likely to happen, 7Levels thought to put a number of sub-weapons (a la Castlevania) into the game. Players can acquire sub-weapons throughout various points within each level. And you can even loot them off of dead enemies! There are a variety of different sub-weapons, including swords, spears, and bows, with some even having secondary effects. …And every single one is a ranged attack. I can’t complain too much about this. Bows and spears make sense as ranged weapons. The swords are a bit of a head-scratcher to me, though. Especially given the fact that you can only throw a sword once, and have to go retrieve it (leaving you totally open to enemy attacks) before using it again. Seriously, where’s my dual-wielding?
Combat’s saving grace seems to be its stage hazards. Each level is packed with a number of traps. If navigated incorrectly, these traps can make quick work of you. However, with some clever foresight, you can use stage hazards to your benefit. See a hanging lamp? shoot it down with a projectile and light your foes ablaze. Goblin run up to you with an explosive barrel on its back? Hit the barrel, run like crazy, and laugh as your enemy accidentally takes down all of its allies. The game’s many stage hazards add not only versatility to combat scenarios, but make them more enjoyable as well. It’s features like these that make me ask “how great could this game have been, had they tweaked just a few more things?” Unfortunately, I don’t think that we’ll ever know.
Written in Stone
It’s a shame, really. This game had a lot of potential. Heck, I’d even say that it still has potential, whether that be in the form of an update or an eventual sequel. But, for now, it’s just okay. Castle of Heart makes a decent attempt to bring classic platforming action to the modern day genre, does have its good point, but ultimately ends up tripping over itself due to floaty controls and an ever-dropping health bar. It’s not a bad game by any means, but there are definitely other platformers that I’d recommend before this one.
FINAL VERDICT: 3/5
Available on: Nintendo Switch (Reviewed) ; Publisher: 7Levels ; Developer: 7Levels ; Players: 1 ; Released: March 23, 2018 ; ESRB: T for Teen ; MSRP: $14.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of Castle of Heart given to Hey Poor Player by the publisher.