CastleStorm 2 Review
Knocking down the castle
The success of genre mash-ups are about as peculiar as the idea itself. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't, at all. Luckily for Zen Studios, their original title CastleStorm turned out to be a winner; it combined some basic 2D hero action levels with tower defense, castle management, and a charming style with amusing story and dialogue. The campaign was composed of a series of levels and objective-based progression made it easy to pick up and play, while the gameplay variety kept things fresh. Years and many expansions later, we now have the full sequel in CastleStorm 2, and while it includes many of the same original elements and some new additions, it doesn’t manage to recapture the fun of the first game.
CastleStorm 2's main mode is the campaign, where you get to observe the same story from two separate perspectives. In a kingdom that is under threat of being overrun by the Undead, the champions of the Kingdom set out to seek out and stop the threat. And in the second campaign, you get to play from the zombie perspective. Much like the first game, the game offers a whimsical and light approach to the fantasy setting, with a variety of silly returning and new characters making light jokes. Unlike the first game, which had more traditional conversation cutscenes, the sequel simply offers two portraits of characters and some text, which looks nice but is less immersive. The narrative isn’t really the reason to play games in this genre (or genres) though, and so it just does a good enough job to keep you moving forward with purpose.
The original game had a simple campaign structure – you played levels in order, earning stars based on completed objectives to unlock the next levels. Sometimes, you got a choice of what type of level you wanted to play. It was very straightforward and perhaps plain, but again, it worked fine for a game of this nature and made it easy to return to. CastleStorm 2 decides to majorly revamp this approach – now, the campaign is played like a very simple version of Civilization. On a hex grid you traverse the kingdom's map in search of the next fight, castle, story mission or side quest. You usually have a few objectives and in your way are different types of terrain, groups of enemies, friendly settlements, and so on. You can only do so much before ending your turn, and then other heroes get to make their moves. You can also encounter merchants that provide unit replacements or upgrades, and occasional choices to make in dialogue on how to approach a situation. Most generic enemies are stationary, but other hero units can roam around, making for a slightly dynamic world.
Traversal isn't the only new thing that the 4X campaign approach brings. You also have a variety of materials to gather, which are needed to maintain and upgrade your armies. You can build farms to produce food, as well as build mines, logging camps for wood, and so on. The structures can be upgraded to be more productive, and also create new materials. It's a very simple system, and almost feels like it is not worth doing; it just adds a layer of plain management that is more of a chore.
You can also build new castles, but this is a rather disappointing concept as a whole. In the original game, players could customize their castles and had a degree of management over the construction. All of that is gone in the sequel; you simply assign what army units reside at the castle, and it gets automatically adjusted. Removing this gameplay element seems like a poor decision, as now it becomes just another menu to navigate to.
Having multiple castles across the map is actually a bit of a detriment, due to the roaming enemy heroes we mentioned earlier. While you’re traversing the campaign map, there will be plenty of occasions to get into fights where you're the attacker, or are only defending your camp, and these play out similarly to the first game. One thing that's missing is the scenario where you are the defender in a castle under siege – to get this to happen, enemy heroes will attack the castles you've built. This leads to an excessive amount of pointless combat levels – in the original game, you were always moving forward in the campaign with every battle, even if many offered no story elements. But in this sequel, you could potentially have an absolute ton of fights that grow very repetitive and drag out the campaign time. Seemingly the only benefit of having castles is storing your extra army units there – and when they are attacked, that's an opportunity to gain experience and level up. You can then transfer these units as needed to your hero's army.
The 2D side-scroller battles take place anytime your castle is attacked, or as you attack enemies while roaming the land as the hero. The combat plays similarly in function to the first game, however even here there are changes that seem like a step back. All level types make a return – in one you simply control your hero and use basic attacks to slash at a few waves of foes. These levels are still quite dull and basic. In all other combat scenarios, you control a ballista, and are either defending against waves of enemies, or attacking/defending a castle/camp. You also deploy AI units who march forward, and you’re limited by a power meter on how many units you can deploy at a time. Your army will either stand around and wait for enemy waves, if that’s the mode of the battle, or they will attack the enemy castle/camp and try to walk the enemy flag back to your base. There is still friendly fire, so your ballista shots need to be good.
Your ballista comes equipped with a few different ammo types, from basic javelins to more destruction-focused stone blocks, spears, blazing bolts, and so on. Shooting your ballista works about the same as in the original game, though it can be awkward to zoom out and aim with precision. All non-basic projectiles require resources to be crafted, before the battles. Your AI army can be composed of a few different unit types, from basic foot soldiers and archers to paladins and fire mages. Each unit has only a couple of moves, so variety is important during deployments. They also can be reinforced between battles to be at full strength.
Players will have the option to take over individual AI units, and while this is a fun distraction, it presents the same shallow gameplay as when playing using your hero. Taking over regular army units is even worse as they are much weaker than a hero, and die quickly. But what's worse, now in order to level up your units, you must earn experience – and this only happens when you're using manual control. Being forced to play as weak AI units is often annoying, and it puts you at a big disadvantage, as in the meantime your ballista is sitting idle. So what ends up happening is you start losing battles because you're forced to play as these weak AI units to get them experience. With each defeat, you lose reputation – a very flaky meter that presides over your campaign progress, and illustrates what the people think of you. Losing a bunch of battles will send it plummeting, which reduces the resource income. This meter never seems to work properly – despite winning almost all battles, it can still fall steeply.
So, while CastleStorm 2 features a lot of content and battle types from the first game, they never seem to be as fun. Having to control your weak units manually to level them up results in losses, and that leads to reputation meter dipping harshly. Your campaign can get easily derailed, as enemy AI start to attack your other castles, and you're forced to keep doing battle after battle, and not able to progress through the story quests. While on paper the new 4X strategy design of the campaign seemed serviceable, and quite simple, in practice it ends up being not overly enjoyable. The game also lacks the truly fun castle vs. castle, destruction-filled encounters that the first game offered.
Outside the campaign, the only thing to do is play Arcade mode, which is somewhat reminiscent of the original game. Here you are simply tasked with winning combat encounters, earning stars, and moving on to the next set of battles. When it was first announced in 2019, the game promised to have multiple campaigns, and multiplayer options like the original title. Instead, all we have at launch is two campaigns and Arcade - only local coop multiplayer in Arcade mode.
And although it's been a few years, the game also doesn’t look all that much better than its predecessor. As mentioned, the cutscenes are now simply character portraits and text boxes; and elsewhere, the sequel looks extremely similar. Some of the 2D backgrounds feature more detail, and the textures are perhaps sharper, but overall there's not much to impress here. Animations are very much the same, the text is often blurry or breaks the borders of the screen, and some prompts get stuck. There are plenty of loading screens (between each time you leave the world map and go into battle, or castle management) .
CastleStorm 2 is a bit disappointing. Its predecessor was a silly genre-bending adventure that was entertaining, straightforward, and kept the fun going through variety and castle customization. By comparison, the sequel adds a dull 4X mode and resource management that offers little gameplay engagement, and the battles that do return are hampered by the need to constantly control weak AI units to level them up. In the presentation department, there are so few changes that it hardly feels like a sequel, and it appears rather dated. The changes that the sequel brings don't add to the experience, and often feel detrimental. CastleStorm 2 tried to mix up the formula, but the result comically blows up the lab.