Review – Castle Battles

Well, clearly he’s the evil guy (Castle Battles)

Once many aeons ago — okay, 26 years ago — there was a truly lovely RTS game released on the Amiga called Mega Lo Mania. It was mostly known and loved for its silly voice acting. Over the years since, I often thought to myself, ‘wouldn’t it be grand if someone else tried to make a similar game which was just as silly for all the right reasons?’.

I don’t know how (perhaps via a combination of time travel and wormholes), but someone at Light Arc Studio was able to read my thoughts. They managed to reach into my subconscious and pulled out Castle Battles — a game that was just what I’d been subconsciously looking for all these years.

Like Mega Lo Mania was before it, Castle Battles clearly wanted to be on the Amiga. The bold neon colour palette and the intense demo scene style track aptly named “Castle Battles”, which plays on the main menu screen, are evidence of this to me.

For that matter the entire soundtrack is a gorgeous feast for the ears. While it is available from Bandcamp, I’d have loved to see it sold on Steam as DLC too. I like to keep my game music with my games. I also do not buy enough music to justify another third party site account (thanks tinnitus!).

In keeping with its over-the-top feel, the story starts off by introducing the Moustachiers; named for their impressive facial hair. They are seeking their lost homeland while providing humorously voiced dialogue that would make both Mega Lo Mania and any cheesy action movie proud.

The gameplay mechanics in Castle Battles are deceptively simple. They also slowly introduced over the first few of the Moustachiers campaign levels. Player actions are limited to building castles and ordering troops.

Similarly, resources are boil down to just three types. Stone to ensure you can build more castles, food to keep your (invisible) workers working, and gold to help grow your army. These are claimed by building next to them or by the range of influence of a castle expanding to encompass them.

Managing troops is just as simple. Either use the hot key Space or the onscreen icon to select all troops, or the more traditional mousing-over method to select specific troops. The selection area is circular by default but can be changed to square in the options menu, allowing for more precise unit selection.

While gameplay basics are simple, Castle Battles can get challenging fairly quickly. Particularly so when you’re up against an opponent that has greater resources than you. For example, in one of the Moustachiers campaign levels, I only found success after working out a specific sequence in which to expand.

Spreading out building orders too quickly resulted in failure. Likewise building in the wrong place — and thus failing to secure a much needed resource — also resulted in being Zerg rushed by the Clearly Evil Empire.

In both cases, the biggest issue was stone reserves. Once this is depleted, building new castles drops to a snails pace. There are also no commands available to prioritise or cancel build orders. This is one area in which Castle Battles’ simplified mechanics can add to the overall difficulty of any given stage.

Building management isn’t the only source of strategy in Castle Battles. Even when you have a decent sized empire which is capable of producing a large army in relatively short order (making full use of increasing game speed of course!), that may not be enough to ensure success.

As one mission taught me, timing can be very important. Send out troops too soon and you can end up never having enough to defeat your foes. Send them too late and they can’t reduce enemy numbers fast enough to ensure your own survival. In this respect the opponent AI comes off as very aggressive.

When playing the campaigns there are no traditional difficulty levels. Instead you have the choice of Normal mode, Speed mode, Extreme mode (where the AI has an even greater advantage), and Extreme speed mode. Normal may be the base difficulty, but it can still be very challenging — especially for those who rarely play RTSes such as myself.

The description for Normal mode claims that the player is not deserving of an easier mode. While this may sound harsh at first, the developer’s intention is to provide a challenge to players so they can feel good about themselves on successfully completing a mission that has had them beat for some time. Thus, the lack of an easier opponent is to ensure players are not robbed of a satisfying win against a difficult opponent.

It’s a good sentiment that may come off as explained badly in-game, but then Castle Battles is a game with a very clearly defined voice in the same vein as Mega Lo Mania (as mentioned previously). And that voice is a huge part of what gives the intros and outros of the campaign missions their charm.

Although there is no way to make the AI easier in the campaign, a Level Skip cheat can be toggled on in the options menu. While this allows players to take a break from a challenging mission and to try another one, it does mean you miss the mission related outro. And in the event of skipping the last campaign mission, you’ll miss the ending of the campaign.

This could be considered an incentive to push through a difficult stage. Personally, I would prefer an option added to the game settings to give the player a slight advantage, such as toning down AI aggressiveness, in the event they fail a mission a specified number of times. This would also mean being able to move forward without risking spoiling the overall storyline for yourself.

Castle Battle’s replayability is extended through the provision of a Quick Match mode. The map for these battles is created based on a simple map generator. Input for this relies on a seed composed of three letters and a map size. Up to three opponents can be specified. Unlike the Campaign, six standard difficulty settings ranging from Easy to Extreme are also available.

In my experience Easy was just as much a challenge as Normal in the Campaign mode. But tactics learnt while overcoming campaign missions can also be applied to the Quick Match AI. This will of course mean that once you know how to deal with the AI, Quick Matches will be relatively easy at most difficulty levels.

Playability could have been extended further if the map generator also allowed for specifying the availability of resources, or for further applying handicaps to either the player or AI teams. However, Castle Battles does not have any multiplayer support.

While this could have further increased the player base as well as extend playability the decision to not include multiplayer due to budget makes sense. Perhaps in the future Light Arc Studio will be able to return to Castle Battles and consider the inclusion of multiplayer and other play modes.

I have enjoyed playing Castle Battles on the PC. For the most part the graphics have actually looked better during gameplay than they do in static screenshots. Although I did end up having to turn the Screen Effects option off as they began to make playing certain levels near impossible.

Castle Battles is a great budget game than fans of RTSes should consider trying when looking for a little something to fill a gap between larger games. Now that Castle Battles is also available on smart devices, its worth checking out on those too; especially as the first campaign is available on smart devices for free (no such demo exists for the PC unfortunately).

Screenshots are direct grabs taken via Steam’s overlay. They have not been altered or modified.

Castle Battles was obtained as a review copy courtesy of Violet Moon Promotions.