If no one sets out to make a bad game, then even the biggest failure must have a good idea at its core. At least that’s what I thought until I played Castle of Heart. What I had seen of the game before I played it led me to expect a middling action platformer, but something about it hinted that I might be pleasantly surprised once I dug in. And surprised I was, but in a way that made me wish the game even approached mediocrity.
In Castle of Heart, you’ll ride moving platforms, jump across crumbling scaffolds, and swing from ropes through 20 uninspired levels. You play as a knight turned to stone by an evil sorcerer but saved by the tears of your beloved, which is just as corny and tone deaf as it sounds. It would feel more problematic that your love interest is only defined in relation to your mighty male hero if every other character weren’t equally shallow. No one even gets a name.
The only consequence of the story comes through two bewilderingly bad mechanics. You constantly lose health as a result of the sorcerer’s curse, so you need to keep picking up health orbs scattered around the level or dropped by defeated enemies. Losing health over time like this discourages exploration, and it made me want to avoid combat as well, since in later levels the orbs dropped by enemies don’t make up for the health you’ll lose fighting them. Once your health gets critically low, one of your arms turns back to stone and falls off. This leaves you unable to use items or secondary weapons, which just feels like getting kicked when you’re down. And when you’re playing Castle of Heart, you’re almost always down.
These items, when they’re available, add a nominal amount of variety to the combat. You can find throwing knives and a number of grenades, a few of which can freeze enemies or set them ablaze, scattered throughout the levels. My main strategy for these was to save as many as possible until I hit one of the game’s wild difficulty spikes, then use them to burn through the tidal waves of enemies thrown at me so I could finish the game as quickly as possible. You’ll also find ranged weapons in the form of crossbows and spears, which are helpful for taking down flying enemies but are generally too slow to use at close range.
You’re much better off just picking up a secondary melee weapon, since your default sword is about as effective as papier mache against later levels’ enemies. It doesn’t matter which weapon you use, since none of them change your moveset or even your attack speed. You always have the same default attack, plus a stronger strike that can break walls but depletes some of your health.
That’s basically all there is to combat. You have a dodge roll, but you can’t roll through enemies. It’s more of a slow somersault, really, and it usually takes you longer to roll away from your opponent than for them to finish an attack. You’re able to block, but its animation is just as lethargic, and a successful block only buys you enough time to make one counterattack, if that. You can’t reliably stagger foes, so your melee options come down to repeatedly jumping over enemies’ heads to backstab them or just charging head on and hoping they go down quickly. Some games make this dumb bull-rush strategy enjoyable, but Castle of Heart’s weapons have no heft to them, so jamming the attack button to make your knight flail his weapon in the enemy’s direction feels just as empty as it sounds. In the final area, enemies gain the ability to teleport, removing any possibility for strategic positioning. Trying to play intelligently and avoid damage just drew the game out longer, and by the last few levels I resorted to avoiding fights entirely and making a beeline for the exit.
This, too, has a cost in this plodding game. In addition to health pickups, enemies drop energy orbs. Collect enough of these and you’ll permanently extend your life bar, a fact that the game never bothers to explain. You can also find these orbs scattered around the level, but you won’t collect enough without facing enemies. That means that choosing to spare myself the agony of playing this game any longer than I had to made me progressively more ill-equipped to face it.
Checkpoints are at least sprinkled liberally throughout so you don’t have to replay too much of a level when you die — an act of true mercy by the developers. The level design itself gives you no sense of how the terrain is connected and makes no attempt at building a believable environment. Aside from the first area’s ugly medieval countryside, they at least provide a fairly pretty background to look at as you trudge through.
Every level is functionally the same, though. You’ll hop over pits and platforms that dot the landscape randomly, with set pieces like sliding downhill or running from unstoppable hazards while dodging obstacles sprinkled in every few levels. In one of these, you’re being chased downhill by a few rolling logs that you could easily jump over if only the game didn’t kill you for trying it.
Each level also has six hidden crystals, if for some reason you’re inspired to explore the secret areas that are often indistinguishable from bottomless pits. I collected all of them in one level and got no acknowledgement for my trouble. I can only assume that finding every one in the game unlocks something, but nothing short of a threat to my life would motivate me to go back and try.
It’s not that the platforming itself is always a miserable experience, it just isn’t any fun. You don’t so much jump as you do float, but once you get used to the moonlike gravity it’s mostly functional. Even on solid ground, your movements are so ponderous that it looks like you’re wading through molasses.
The game’s four bosses don’t shake things up much. The first two are just melee attackers with a couple of unique moves and awkward, unclear animations. I had to pause the game when the first boss’s flailing animations sent me into a laughing fit, the first of many I had while playing. The last two bosses mix up the formula a little, with the showdown against final boss being the only part of the game that approached enjoyable. Facing him is the only time when you’re up against even a minimally varied moveset, and more importantly, an intelligible attack pattern.
It was during the third boss fight that I finally hit on what was bothering me most about the combat. It feels almost as if your character’s combat mechanics and the enemies’ were designed without one another in mind. Projectiles move too quickly to dodge, blocking attacks gives you no advantage, and later levels have so many enemies attacking you at once that there’s no viable way to take them on. It’s not that enemies are particularly tough or cunning on their own, the game just doesn’t give you any way to counter them.
This may sound suspiciously like Stockholm Syndrome, but at certain points I actually found myself enjoying Castle of Heart, not in spite of all the things it did wrong, but because of them. At times, it is sublimely bad. When I would continually get thrown off a rope at an odd angle into a chasm or get surrounded by teleporting enemies in a doorway and die within one second, I found myself laughing as I shouted at the game. Sure, other times it made me absolutely livid, and I was in stone-faced misery by the end, but at some points it was fun in the way that movies like The Room are fun. The game doesn’t feel mean or unforgiving, it’s just so bumbling and awkward, so full of inexplicable design choices, that it has a sort of shambling charm. It’s a faceplant of a game with almost no redeeming qualities, but the sheer number of ways it finds to fail is impressive in a way.
After Castle of Heart’s first level, I was looking forward to breezing through a comfortably average game and quickly forgetting about it. By about the third level, that expectation had been shattered. That process repeated again and again; every time I thought I had a handle on how bad the game was, it got worse. When I beat it, I felt no sense of accomplishment but I was flooded with relief. On the other hand, I don’t think I’ll forget this one for a very long time.
- Mindless combat
- Floaty jumping physics
- Repetitive levels
- Unbalanced difficulty
- Bland visuals