Version tested: Xbox 360
I've just watched an owl poop itself to death. Moments later, a deer is similarly afflicted and takes off across the screen like a rocket, leaving a light brown vapour trail as it goes. It's important that you know these facts, because whether or not you find them funny will dictate how you'll respond to Castle Crashers' epic medieval multiplayer adventure. It's a lot like a jacuzzi, you see. There's nothing to stop you enjoying it by yourself, but it's even more fun with other people. And if those other people happen to be a close-knit group of like-minded friends - the sort of friends who find an owl's bowels hilarious, for instance - then you have the ingredients for a very special evening's entertainment.
Much like The Behemoth's last Live Arcade effort, Alien Hominid HD, this is a resolutely old-fashioned side-scroller. Where it differs is in a much less brutal learning curve, a vastly increased amount of peripheral stuff to play with and a generally more rounded gaming experience.
Whereas Alien Hominid was all about blasting, Castle Crashers is all about the hack and slash. You choose a knight from an initial range of four (additional characters can be unlocked) and set about avenging a gross intrusion into your quiet castle life. An evil wizard has barged in, eaten all the Mini Cheddars, stolen a giant crystal and kidnapped four princesses to boot.
Combat is of the traditional fast-fast-strong combo style, and you can also pick up ranged weapons such as a boomerang or bow. Each character has their own magic attack, carried out by holding the right trigger and pressing Y. As well as the predictable elemental spells there are also poison attacks and rains of arrows and spears. Power-ups can be found or purchased, enabling you to throw bombs or, by eating a sandwich, transform into a hulking brute capable of smashing down impassable doorways. It's a familiar and inviting arcade set-up, offering a knowing wink in the direction of Golden Axe, so there's nothing stopping you from jumping straight in and carving up some cartoon miscreants. Experience points are accrued with each hit, and basic stats can be increased between levels, adding a small taste of RPG depth to the relentless mashing.
With the emphasis on manic combat, there's not a whole lot of depth to the adventuring side of things. You need certain items to progress past certain points, but these are always located at the end of obvious paths and obtained by pummelling your way through crowds of bad guys to take a crack at a boss. Levels are small but numerous - 36 in total, plus five arenas - and as you complete each one it's unlocked on the world map. You're free to roam between the levels you've completed, and with almost no loading times it's quick and easy to dart around looking for items or secrets.
The main story, played in sequence, is fairly meaty. You're looking at the best part of six or seven hours, at least, before you'll polish it off. Even so, the game offers up considerable replay value as well, with dozens of weapons to find - ranging from swords and axes to fishing rods, sausages and seagulls - as well as Animal Orbs. These are cute little support characters that will follow you around and help you out. Some are easily found, hovering along your linear path or purchased from the various in-game shops. Others require some searching or must be taken from enemies.
When equipped, Animal Orbs bestow status buffs to your strength, defence or agility, as well as additional attack options or the ability to find previously hidden items. The only downside, which applies to weapons as well, is that there's no way of seeing what the effect of a new animal or sword is without quitting the level and journeying all the way back to the start of the map to visit the blacksmith. They're devilishly cute though, and internet rumours of plush toy spin-offs come as no surprise.
The art style is similar to Alien Hominid, but noticeably more polished and detailed. Incidental details abound, and the heavily stylised look is applied to an impressive range of enemies, animals and environments without ever feeling stale. Where the visuals prove less than useful is in the annoying frequency with which enormous scenery items obscure huge chunks of the screen. You're often left fighting with no idea of where you are and in a game that relies so heavily on controlled chaos that's a poor design decision.
The flat sprites also prove confusing where collision detection is concerned. It's a problem that affected many of the classic side-scrollers that influenced Castle Crashers, but it's somehow more annoying to see it occur in a modern game. The game is very fussy about where you can stand to actually land a hit, with a strange dead zone slightly above enemies but no such restriction below them. In other words, if you're standing a few pixels higher than an enemy, you probably won't hit them. Shuffle down by a tiny amount and suddenly your sword finds its target. This is especially problematic in some of the later boss fights, and is downright frustrating when you have to play a game of volleyball to progress. Miss the ball ten times and you have to replay the match, but with a flat ball sprite casting a circular shadow, you can be standing right underneath it and still have it pass through you.
The game isn't particularly well balanced either. Difficulty comes mostly from enemies who knock you down with ranged attacks, and then hit you with another one as soon as you get up. And another. And another. Your block move can be slow to respond in these circumstances, and precious health can be chipped away as you mash the buttons to try and get out of the way. That's assuming you're sticking with the melee attacks, since the magic system - when upgraded - proves so ludicrously effective that you can wipe out masses of enemies with powerful spells that recharge almost instantly. Enemies don't level along with you, so returning to the early stages with a character that's finished the game is embarrassingly easy.
None of these irritations are enough to dim the sheer fun of the game though, especially when played as intended - with four players, either locally, online or whatever mixture of the two best suits your social circle. Characters are carried across from one game to the next, and you can develop all your characters on the same saved game, so you're always earning gold and experience regardless of how you play. It's just a shame there's no drop-in option, given the sheer size of the game. Of course, that's if you can get a game started. The rather basic matchmaking options have been compounded by some terrible connection issues - despite trying all day and night on launch day, we were only able to get a couple of two-player games going for a couple of levels before the connections were lost.
This is a pretty major problem, since the game is clearly designed around the four-player co-op concept. It's perfectly playable for solo players, and there are few moments that feel like they need a full contingent of players to survive, but the appeal comes from the combination of silly humour and the raucous atmosphere of friends playing together. It's mostly a co-operative experience, but there are PvP arenas, and each time you find a princess you battle among yourselves for the right to kiss her. Basically, the player with the highest level wins - usually by blasting everyone with ferocious magic attacks the instant the battle begins.
Despite the occasional design niggles, and the clunky matchmaking system, there's still more than enough fun in Castle Crashers to justify its 1200-Point price-tag. It's a big, bright and bold dollop of irreverent fun, and it could have been truly phenomenal with a little more attention to the finer details. As it is, it's brushing against greatness but falls frustratingly short of its true potential.
8 / 10