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‘Castlestorm VR’ Review: Defend Your Kingdom from Behind Your Towers

by Joseph Knoop • August 3rd, 2016
Platforms: Oculus Rift (Reviewed) and Gear VR
Positives

- Simple-to-learn, yet surprisingly deep gameplay.
- Charming aesthetic that goes well above cheap indie fare.
- A pleasing level of castle & army customization options.

Negatives

- Banal campaign narrative that only serves to facilitate more battles.
- Despite being built for VR, stages feel surprisingly flat and lifeless.

The funny thing about VR is that even the more subpar efforts tend to still capture that “wow” effect of immersing yourself in a seemingly tangible fictional setting. I still remember the odd sense of disappointment that Time Machine VR wasn’t a more visually striking experience, but holy cow, that underwater Spinosaurus was definitely about to swallow me whole.

CastleStorm VR is another one of those games that’s an odd duck, even for virtual reality. It’s able to concoct an immensely pleasing package, but it’s almost entirely devoid of an effort to clench the strengths of its new medium. Originally released for Windows and all major consoles in 2013, CastleStorm is an eclectic mix of tower defense management and destructive physics puzzles merged with the crossbow shooting mechanics found in any number of online flash games.

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Each opposing side is able to spawn differing army units, including archers, knights wielding longswords, siege artillery, and special forces like the aerodynamic griffin, a towering stone golem, or a vicious dragon. While each army slowly makes its trek across the functionally two-dimensional battlefield, players can utilize their castle’s ballista to fling up to five different kinds of projectiles at the enemy’s own units or their castle itself. Spells and heroes also play an important role, providing support or devastating damage down on their recipients.

It’s an important balance to strike, and one that CastleStorm does gracefully throughout its single-player campaign. Destroying segments of the enemy castle effectively neutralizes their ability to produce certain units or resources, but you’ll often be forced to expend your time and more effective projectiles on protecting your own troops and castle door. Suffice it to say, there’s few things more satisfying than splitting a giant boulder into three and leveling an entire tower in one strike. One of those things is using a flatulence-propelled sheep to do it. Yeah….

Even for players who don’t find themselves drawn to such genres, it’s immediately evident that CastleStorm has a level of polish that even some similar, albeit wildly more popular titles, don’t. The question of whether or not VR mixes well with it all is where players might find themselves divided.

At first, CastleStorm’s usage of VR proves to be a little uneasy, quickly transitioning from a virtual medieval theater (they had projectors back then, who knew?) to watch non-VR cutscenes on a digital screen, much like any other virtual desktop/theater setup. It’s as comfortable as any of the others, but it can be jarring to transition between the theater and the vastly more detailed battlefield every minute or so when the game triggers one of its many cutscenes. The game also forces players to navigate the pre-battle menu in the theater unless they happen to be rolling through the missions one after the other. That wouldn’t be an issue if it weren’t for the menu’s notably reduced size, making it harder to focus on the necessary text or images. No amount of focusing on my Oculus Rift could make it any less uncomfortable, forcing some amount of squinting.

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Things open up quite literally when you get to the battlefield, however, including the menu’s minor sizing issue. If you’ve yet to devote any time to CastleStorm, its VR edition could well be the most optimal format. While its original 2D incarnation forced players to shift left and right to view either side’s status, mobile even more so with its constant tapping, squeezing, and swiping, CastleStorm VR eschews all that.

Checking up on a distant soldier’s status or the structural integrity of either castle just requires a simple turn of the head, effectively making the entire battlefield yours to command at your leisure. Playing with a standard gamepad, you can trace the arc of your latest projectile fairly accurately into enemy territory, though the fixed angle does occasionally play tricks on your perception. Sometimes this means you simply miss the brick wall you intended to smash, other times it means you accidentally spear your own soldier in the back.

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While virtual reality certainly lends an element of eased strategy to the proceedings, CastleStorm VR’s battlefield environments don’t feel as brimming with life and motion as they ought to be. To compare it to another release, Colopl’s bear-filled puzzler Fly to Kuma is filled with charming environmental touches and animations that breathe life into the world around each static level. Sometimes it’s as simple as the bears looking up to wave hello at you, sometimes it’s a giant whale swimming through your peripheral vision. CastleStorm VR, for all its inherent charm, has little to none of this. Environments seem noticeably flatter than they ought to be.

Looking below my vantage point in an early level, I noticed multiple assets like an oversized outhouse and signpost had hardly any three-dimensional elements to them. The castles themselves might have a fair amount going on inside their walls, but said walls feel just as flat if you but only lean forward an inch. It all goes a long way in feeling like CastleStorm VR wasted an opportunity to really do something impressive with the technology, instead choosing to just meet a modest functionality.

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Final Score: 7/10 – Good

While CastleStorm VR doesn’t feel like the type of game that really benefits much from VR integration, that lack of reasoning does nothing to detract from the overall game’s addictive nature, even if we are left asking “Why VR?” instead of “Why not?!” But make no mistake; CastleStorm VR is absolutely worth playing if you’ve yet to give the game a shot in any other format. This version is even worth calling the best format of the game if you prefer to fiddle with as few navigation mechanics as possible, eschewing everything that made the mobile version an annoyance. Just don’t expect a true gem to put in VR’s crown quite yet.

Castlestorm VR is now available on both the Oculus Rift and Gear VR.

Read our Game Review Guidelines for more information on how we arrived at this score.

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