Castle of Heart Review (Switch)

With his friends and allies turned to stone, the love of his life kidnapped, and affliction that perpetually threatens his very existence, the stone-knight must survive the droves of enemies and myriad obstacles trying to end his very existence at every turn. Castle of Heart is an action platformer that is reminiscent of old school Nintendo platformers and brings a ton of weaponry, usable obstacles, and deep levels with secret areas. Nintendo fans rejoice and get ready for a new indie game that pays tribute to the Nintendo legacy.

Castle of Heart Review (Switch)

introduction

Castle of Heart is a new action platformer developed by 7Levels, a polish developer who loves Nintendo consoles and aims to create games appealing to fans of them. Caste of Heart is their first big project and a Nintendo Switch exclusive. It's a side-scrolling adventure that is heavily focused on combat. The unique twist is that the protagonist is a knight who is slowly turning to stone, forcing the player to grab orbs and defeat enemies before the health meter runs out, causing his body to disintegrate. This means that quick strategy is required all the while proceeding through the level and trying to take minimal damage.

It was inspired by 90's platformers (a golden era for side-scrollers) and was originally revealed during the Nintendo Mini-Direct a couple months back. Castle of Heart comes to the Nintendo Switch on March 23rd.

For more information, you may check out the Nintendo eShop. It will be released for $14.99.

story

The game starts with a cutscene showing an ancient wizard turning all the villagers into stone, including the protagonist. As the stone-knight crumbles to the ground, the wizard takes the love of his life and vanishes back to his castle. However, one of her tears lands on the stone-knight, and he springs back to the realm of the living (almost), ready to avenge his village and save his lover.

Castle of Heart Review (Switch) castle
There isn't a lot of cut scenes or banter throughout the journey. Most stages just offer gameplay, and there is a bit of dialogue before a boss, and occasionally during a level as you run into a rare NPC. With that said, the environments and foes make for an interesting world, full of medieval and European lore. There is definitely an epic feeling and dark tone present throughout the game, and the developers based some of the locations on real places. They allow the story to unravel mostly through gameplay rather than dialogue or cut scenes. 

gameplay

Castle of Heart is a platforming/hack and slash game set in a 2D medieval realm. The side scrolling action bobbles between fighting enemies and intense platforming. There is a bigger focus on combat, which is a shame, since the platforming segments were done so well and far more intriguing than the combat–which got tedious.

There are twenty levels to play which are spread across four different areas (city, forest, mountain, castle). Each level can take anywhere between 10 minutes to an hour, depending on how many times you die. There are checkpoints throughout the levels, but dying usually comes with some lengthy combat to replay. Every fifth stage has a boss, which will challenge even skilled players.

During combat you have a sword, which can be powered up by picking up blue orbs dispersed throughout the level. There is also a stronger attack, often used for breaking through walls, that drains a chunk of your health to use. The other important abilities are your shield, which can deflect attacks and minimize the damage taken from a blow, and the ability to roll dodge. This can get you away from a tough foe or help with moving under dangerous obstacles such as spikes.

The combat is intense because your health is constantly diminishing and each blow taken brings you closer to death. Generally, enemies will take two-five hits to defeat, and there are some enemies with shields, which must be destroyed first. The combat system is fun in small doses, but it largely feels like a hack and slash where you are just trading blows with a foe. On the contrary, there is a lot of opportunity to use the environment to your advantage. Lanterns can be knocked down to douse an enemy in flames, poison barrels can be kicked over, leaving a foe in toxic waste, and there is often something around you which can help kill a tough foe(s). While I loved the environmental hazards and weapons, there were many moments when you simply had to try to hack and slash through multiple enemies at once, and it felt like a grind. The sword doesn't have a lot of diversity, and it's hardly possible to dodge enemy blows when in close quarters.

On top of the normal combat controls, there are flashing items throughout the levels that can be picked up as well. The weaponry ranges from cross bows to javelins  to battle axes. These weapons are usually thrown and help with range, but they are also limited in use. The cross bow will run out of bullets, while the throwing weapons must be picked up each them they are used. More often than not, these weapons ended up being a luxury, and I only found the crossbow to be really useful (it's often difficult to pick up an item over and over as you are surrounded by opponents).

Castle of Heart Review (Switch) snow
The platforming segments were a bright spot whenever the combat became monotonous. I was often reminded of a Nintendo classic like Donkey Kong Country  during moments like jumping up platforms as a room flooded or swinging across ropes to land on moving platforms. The array of platforming elements in this game was astounding; there are moments you are sliding down roofs and jumping over spikes and other places where you are trying to avoid giant spiked balls swinging in the air. 7Levels truly did an amazing job with the platforming and pay some homage to Nintendo platformers of yesteryear.

One minor complaint would be the controls. When first starting, the knight jumps as if there is slightly less gravity than normal, and swinging across ropes felt clumsy and awkward. Though the controls were a little odd, I did feel used to them after playing a few levels, and they don't heavily degrade the experience.

Castle of Heart Review (Switch) flames

DIFFICULTY

This game has been likened to Castlevania and Dark Souls, two notoriously difficult series. Castle of Heart follows suit and offers an experience that will leave you in a state of paranoia as you scramble to find life while your HP meter drains and will enrage you as you die to the same horde of foes over and over again. To me, this was off putting, not because it was necessarily too difficult, but because I felt like there was a certain amount of luck involved in my chance of survival. 

You can block enemy attacks, but you still take damage, and the combat system isn't quick enough to allow you to hit and run as effectively as you might wish, especially since your life meter is always draining, even when not in combat. There were points, such as the tenth stage, where I had no choice but to slay about ten enemies to open a gate in very narrow quarters, and I died more than thirty times before eventually rage quitting. I had tried many different strategies, and it seemed to me like it would take a combination of using valuable projectiles (I wanted to save for the boss) and blind luck to survive. 

There are many cases where simply evading enemies and lunging over them without fighting is far more advantageous than trying to fight through a band of hostiles. Stuff like continuous streams of opponents and the impossibility of surviving between two foes made me choose fleeing and taking my chances of finding hearts in crates and throughout the stage over of opting for combat, a risky proposition that often meant losing as much health as I stood to gain. 

Castle of Heart Review (Switch) swamp
If you're a fan of really hardcore difficulty games, this aspect of Castle of Heart may not bother you, but for me, it made continuing the game less enjoyable, and there were many moments I had to take a deep breath or just turn the game off and take a break before resuming later.

graphics and sound

My first thought when I began playing was that this looked a lot like a PS2 game. It definitely has a retro appearance, and a lot of the walls and surfaces are noticeably bland (not to say bad) next to modern titles. This seems like it was a calculated decision that would appeal to older gamers who had played classic platformers before.

Aftter playing through the first stage, I started to feel immersed in the medieval world 7Levels so brilliantly arranged with details and attention on the atmosphere. There are fires ablaze, rain and wind whipping across the screen, and plenty of mystical foes to capture the imagination. On top of that, I really liked the small details like the moss on the rocks or the small plants growing under gigantic icicles. There is always a lot to see, and the developers obviously spent a lot of time thinking about how to craft their visuals to match the tone of the game, which is often ominous yet lush.This is especially apparent with the trebuchets, spiked walls, and manifold Middle Age objects and mythological creatures.
Castle of Heart Review (Switch) city
The soundtrack is easily the weakest part of Castle of Heart. The music isn't bad in of itself, but it's really redundant. The same music plays throughout most levels of the game, and I was just begging for a change after hearing the same track for over and hour. There are tense moments where the music picks up, but given the attention to the visuals and the theme of the game, a lot more could have been done with this soundtrack. It's perplexing, and to be honest, it does take away from the experience a little–I found the music to be a little too hypnotic and boring after hearing it on and off throughout the entire adventure. After all, the period of time used in Castle of Heart is so unique and evocative; instruments like lyres, violins, flutes, and heavy drums could have livened up the game a lot.

conclusion

Castle of Heart is a really mixed bag; there is a ton that I love about this game, but it comes with a lot of frustrations. I loved the level design and how there was room to explore and find secrets. The platforming segments always brought a smile to me face and gave me relief to temporarily escape combat. Unfortunately, the difficulty (there are no difficulty options) borders insane at many moments in the game, and the combat began to feel like a chore as I had to hack and slash my way to the next check point after dying over and over again.

It's hard for me to recommend this or to say it's not worth a purchase. If you love platformers and a hearty challenge, this game could be right up your alley. On the other hand, if Dark Souls-esq difficulty turns you off, this game may do nothing but enrage you.

In the end, this is a game that does a lot right: it's creative, and allows a really unique and passionate developer the chance to show off a very unique take on some popular genres. Castle of Heart also takes a few missteps with the soundtrack, difficulty, and too much of a focus on a semi-fun combat system. I would recommend picking this up if your intrigued by the premise and have the patience for the difficulty.

PROSCONS
+ Strategy is fun to implement– Soundtrack is very redundant
+ Stages offer exploration and secrets
– Difficulty is painful
+ Platforming elements are well done
– Combat gets redundant and can feel bland
+ A lot of visual details
– Stages sometimes feel too long
6.2
Fair

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