Castle of Heart
Developed by: 7Levels
Published by: 7Levels
Category: Indie Action Platformer
Release Date: March 23, 2018
Castle of Heart for Nintendo Switch is earning a reputation for being the “Dark Souls of platformers”, and with good reason. The game carries a realistic medieval art design that finds our hero as a knight in a similar suit of armor, paired with the brutal difficulty that the series has come to be known for. The introductory cinematic tells us that our hero has been cursed to being turned to stone, but is brought back to life. This leads to some interesting flavor for how he controls, but throws that flavor out the window for some interesting design choices that hurt the game. I’ll touch more on that later. For now, we will jump into the game proper.
Unfortunately for Castle of Heart, much of that difficulty comes in the form of clunky controls and inconsistent collision detection. You move across the screen with the analog stick, but your steps feel like they have much more weight than they should, and I suspect that much of this has to do with the fact that our character is, in fact, made of stone. While it is an interesting story element, it doesn’t jibe well with the game mechanics. First of all, you’re super fragile. All enemies are damage sponges, often taking upwards of 4-6 hits to kill, and every hit they get off on you takes away far more of your life bar than you would expect. To compound the super enemies, you are also up against spikes that drain a quarter or more of your health littered throughout the levels, fire, and poison. The spikes are hard to discern from the backgrounds due to their coloration, and are often found in places where you need to run or roll to make it through. Each level is a veritable obstacle course that requires lots of running to gain momentum to clear pitfalls, and sometimes your run is unexpectedly interrupted by spikes or breakable crates that require perfect timing to shatter with your sword. The game teaches you how to play it, but then punishes you for adapting almost as soon as you learn.
Fire sets you ablaze for a few seconds, which depletes your health quickly, and that doesn’t even make sense when you pause to think about the fact that you’re supposed to be stone. This is also true of poison, which comes a little later on in the game. Enemies fire projectiles at you, and sometimes you will be stopped dead in your tracks by a volley of arrows from an unseen assailant. All of these projectiles are extremely difficult to see, and then there are the ravens. As you could expect, these are black, and also blend in with the environment far too often. This also leads to a lot of frustrating moments where you get hit (and often killed) without having seen what caused it.
So while the game has a lot of flaws, it also does have some good points to redeem it…at least a little. The level design is actually pretty decent, if infuriating. It’s obviously intended to be a difficult game, and with practice and patience, you will be able to make it through. Much of this will depend on your ability to dodge, roll, and master your offhand weapon. While you always have your trust sword, you can also pick up various secondary weapons to aid you in combat and overcoming obstacles. The ranged weapons are my favorite because they put a yellow target on the nearest enemy, which helps you see the raven in a sufficient amount of time to kill it with your bow/spear, or ready your sword. The ranged weapons are also crucial for interacting with the environment- most often to sever a rope that holds an object which drops over a spike pit or that hangs over the head of an enemy. As you get later on in the game, there are certain sections that are almost impossible without mastery of a second weapon. The game doles out hearts to refill your health sparingly, but it also peppers each level with checkpoints that do the same rather generously. Pattern regonition and stage layout memorization is key to survival, and mastery of your moved and timing your button presses will guide you to your goal. Again, I wish that the button presses always responded instantly and at the same rate every time, but you slowly learn to adapt…most of the time. Thankfully the game gives you infinite lives to try, and try again.
Many seasoned gamers will remember the Ghouls and Ghosts series from the days of “Nintendo difficulty”, and fans of that series will be all too familiar with what Castle of Heart has to offer. It’s a frustrating ride that could lead to broken controllers and rage quitting for the more bombastic of us, but it is satisfying to overcome that one section that has been troubling you for the last five or ten attempts. The game isn’t entirely broken, but the difficulty does feel very cheap when it’s failure of the engine instead of your own. I’d wait for a sale, unless you enjoy when your games torture you.