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.