Castle in the Darkness review

Matt Kapp is the lead artist behind Binding of Isaac Rebirth, a popular Rogue-like action adventure game that has long been rumored to be in development for Xbox One. He has also contributed art to the excellent 1001 Spikes (which thankfully is on Xbox One) and several other games from indie developer/publisher Nicalis.

During my recent trip to PAX South, I took in the Nicalis panel and learned that Matt has been working on a game of his own for the last three years called Castle in the Darkness. While this pet project looks just like an 8-bit NES game, its excellent Metroidvania-style platforming and non-stop creativity put it right up there with modern ultra-difficult action platformers like Rogue Legacy and Spelunky.

At last Castle in the Darkness is available on Steam for the low price of $6, and it's worth every penny. Continue reading for our full impressions and gameplay video!

Castle under siege

As Castle in the Darkness begins, the king of Alexandria has fallen gravely ill. His daughter Princess Isabelle summons the royal guard to protect the castle, but a horde of monsters overwhelms and wipes them out. The Princess and her father have vanished, and the castle lies in the ruins. Luckily one knight has survived to avenge his king and restore order to the kingdom… You!

Castle in the Darkness for Steam

Our diminutive blue-clad knight begins his quest just outside the castle, equipped only with his woefully inadequate sword and armor – why do you think the other knights all fell to the monsters? He'll have to make due for the time being, exploring the surrounding area and killing the foes that inhabit each new screen he enters (they also respawn when he returns).

Castle in the Darkness is what we think of as a Metroidvania game, an action-platformer with a large emphasis on exploration. The world feels absolutely huge, with a wide array of distinctive areas to visit. The eponymous Castle in the Darkness that you'll eventually reach seems to stretch for miles in all directions. And the game feels even bigger thanks to the deliberate omission of a map.

Castle in the Darkness for Steam

That lack of a map gives Castle in the Darkness some of the same feeling as larger NES games like Castlevania II: Simon's Quest or Faxanadu, with part of the challenge being remembering which paths you've taken and how to get to your next objective. Things start out relatively linear, but before long the game opens up more and you'll often have to choose between multiple paths, each taking you farther and farther from the previous crossroad.

Like any good Metroidvania game, many paths and items will be inaccessible until the hero gains the proper power or equipment later in the game. He'll eventually wield throwing axes that can break certain floors, a glove that lets him knock down cracked walls, boots that prevent him from slipping on ice, and many more essential items. Sometimes you might just need a key to open a door, but that key could be held by a boss or chest miles away from the door itself.

Castle in the Darkness for Steam

Danger at every turn

Castle in the Darkness is not a rogue-lite game per se, although it shares some similarities like a counter of how many times you've died. But you won't have to start over from scratch when you die. In fact, the knight can save and fully heal himself at any of the goddess statues he encounters throughout the land. When you die, you just respawn from the previous statue. Of course, those statues can be spread out awfully far at times. And you're likely to die a lot.

Death comes from both the enemies and the environment. Levels are filled with devious platforming challenges. Misjudge a jump and you'll land on spikes; move too slowly and a stalactite will impale you from above. It will take equal parts fast reflexes and trial-and-error to make it through most areas intact.

Castle in the Darkness for Steam

As for the enemies, they come in an amazing variety of over 100 different types. The challenge tends to come less from their predictable patterns and more from the scant tools you have to deal with them. The knight's sword doesn't have the best range or any sort of arc, so you usually have to get in close to score a kill. Later on he'll gain new weapons like a boomerang and spells that can be activated by charging up the attack button.

Each bad guy drops a little money when killed. Collecting money is important, but not as much as you'd think. The opportunities to buy a new weapon or armor are incredibly few and far between. You'll definitely want to pick up new equipment to increase your odds of survival though. The money mechanic basically adds a little (pleasant) grinding to an already sizable adventure.

No less impressive than the standard enemies is Castle in the Darkness's arsenal of over 50 bosses. Each one somehow looks very distinct (and well-drawn) and has completely different attacks and patterns from the rest. You'll battle a Bubble Bobble-like dinosaur, a giant Audrey II-style plant, a mace-wielding robot that looks just like Optimus Prime, and many totally unique creations as well. Defeating a boss nets you a heart container, increasing your total health by a single precious unit.

Castle in the Darkness for Steam

Clever AND sexy

Castle in the Darkness features impeccable sprite work from its creator, with every enemy and boss oozing with personality. It also has lots of humor and in-jokes for fans of 8-bit and 16-bit games to enjoy.

You'll discover that trips down Mario-style pipes don't always lead to bonus areas. Players will also navigate a Castlevania-style clocktower, battle against enemies from Ghosts N' Goblins, and even encounter references to Sonic and Zelda. Yet these allusions never weigh the game down; they just lighten the mood whenever you happen across them.

Castle in the Darkness controls

Not without some quirks

Being a modern Steam release, Castle in the Darkness has most of the features you'd want from this type of game: Steam Achievements, Steam trading cards, and controller support. Notably absent is cloud save support – a real shame as I'd love to be able to hop between PC and Windows 8 tablet with this game.

The controller support needs a bit of improvement as well. The game doesn't auto-detect controllers, so you'll have to visit the controls menu and manually switch from keyboard to controller. Even then, it won't assign the two action buttons to the controller on its own. You have to select each function and assign it yourself.

You can't even back out of the controls menu with the controller; it MUST be done with a mouse. During gameplay, the attack button will back out of menus. Most players will assign attack to X, and it feels weird exiting menus with X instead of B.

Finally, you can't pause or resume with a controller. The only way to pause at all is by alt-tabbing or otherwise selecting a different window, which pauses the game automatically. To resume, you then have to hold the P key for some reason. And only the Escape key will exit to the main menu.

In this day and age of standard Xbox 360 controller support, failing to automatically recognize and map functions to the controller is an unnecessary inconvenience. And we should definitely be able to pause, exit menus, and return to the main menu from the controller instead of having to use the keyboard or mouse.

Castle in the Darkness for Steam

A new classic is born

Controller support issues aside, the truly remarkable thing is that one guy (likely with minor support from Nicalis) has produced such a large and well-designed game on his first try. Castle in the Darkness looks and sounds just like a top-tier NES game, yet it's much more jam-packed with personality and content than any game from that time period.

The deliberately challenging platforming and combat will instantly appeal to fans of this era's tough platformers like Spelunky. And yet the game never feels unfair. You might have to return to a tough boss or area once you have new items, but the path to safety and enemy patterns are always readily discoverable.

If you like your games on the tough side or crave some retro platforming action, consider Castle in the Darkness required playing. I only wish Nicalis was better about porting their games to other platforms; it will probably be years before this game makes it to Xbox One and other consoles (if ever).

  • Castle in the Darkness – Windows – $5.99 – Steam Link