Colorful, absurd, fast-paced and more than a little clever.
What an exuberant game Castle Crashers is! It's so elated to be a videogame, that it approaches the clichéd conventions of dastardly foes, princesses to save, hulking bosses, bizarre weapons, and epic battles with a combination of enthusiasm and satire. And it's hard not to get caught up in the excitement. It's rounded out by some truly excellent animations and character designs which are twisted yet appealing—bloody battles have never been this adorable. Castle Crashers offers a solid take on the beat-'em-up formula which makes it a lot of fun even without the co-op. So spread the joy! Surely you have a friend or two (or thtree) who also want to decapitate others in a cute, fun-loving way.
[image1]The storyline begins with some bad dudes who have invaded the castle, stolen an important looking crystal, and kidnapped some princesses (what ever happened to having good security/). Yes, yes, you've seen this before, but here, it's actually fun. Instead of dialogue, Castle Crashers opts for quick, wordless cut-scenes to set the context for its scenarios. You're not taken out of the game for more than a few moments, and the payoff is nearly always funny, including some clever touches that belie your expectations.
Some of the locations are borderline epic, such as a full-scale war going on in the background or an invasion of a castle to put a stop to a princess's wedding. Or at least, it would be epic, if it just wasn't so precious. (Note: Calling things “precious” does nothing to my masculinity.)
Castle Crashers looks great from the very first frame, but the gameplay reveals itself more more slowly. You're given a swift attack, a strong attack, and a magic attack that drains MP, but MP recharges quickly. Enemies swarm in groups of six or more, testing your ability to beat them down quickly before they whittle your health down to zero. Like other many 2D brawlers, though, it can be hard to tell whether or not you are lined up with your enemies, since the “depth” axis is scaled along a 2D plane, but that difficulty is inherent to side-scrolling games. Thankfully, it passes the first test of any decent brawler: button mashing = death. Well, too much of it, anyway.
[image2]What separates Castle Crashers from other beat-'em-ups is its distinctive RPG twist. Instead of repeatedly using the same set of moves, you gain levels as you defeat enemies. Each level-up will give you, at the conclusion of a stage, points to spend on your strength, defense, magic, and agility. It's an intuitive way to customize a character's fighting style and gives some purpose to the endless hordes of enemies you must slay.
You also gain new abilities every few levels, allowing you to master one attack before getting the next. It's a simple, deft way of avoiding the repetition that has felled many a promising brawler. Unfortunately, the stats seem initially unbalanced, as spells are too underpowered at the beginning to be of any significant use. Choosing a fiery orange knight only to see his magic amount to a puff of smoke is disappointing in a game so full of awesome.
While smashing things is enough fun to carry most any video game, it's the fine coat of visual polish that puts Castle Crashers above most. The animations are gorgeous, with the cuddly but twisted caricatures battling, dying, and decapitating in the most comically appealing of ways. The quantity matches the quality too - you'll see side-events like a soldier trying to perform CPR on a fallen comrade or a number of woodland animals dashing to escape a monster. There always seems to be at least one more little detail or animation you haven't seen before, and Castle Crashers is that much more likeable because of it.
[image3]The single-player offering may be surprisingly compelling, but this is still a born and bred co-op game. With a friend, the battle becomes that much more epic, that much funnier. There are some clever touches, such as the way you can revive your fallen friends by pumping air through their lungs in time with a meter as a nod to Double Dragon. The only downside is that because you and your friend gain levels separately, it isn't as much fun to play when you have two characters at vastly different levels. One player will invariably face either no challenge or a very harsh one, depending on what stage you tackle.
This problem extends to the otherwise entertaining diversion of the arena, which allows two players to fight each other. If you're ten or fifteen levels behind, you might as well give up immediately. There's also a mode called 'All You Can Quaf', which might challenge bottled air for uselessness—you simply mash a button until someone wins. Yay?
Castle Crashers really is the great co-op experience that you were hoping it would be, but because it's just so consistently fun to play and look at, it holds up as a single-player experience as well. It's exciting, twistedly epic, funny, and great to play with friends. It may be a small step below Braid and Geometry Wars 2, but it's one of the best XBLA releases so far, and one of the better 360 releases, Live Arcade or not.