The “retro” style platformer has had a major resurgence since the release of Super Meat Boy. It’s a market flooded with poorly designed games. Many of these would qualify as “rage games”, made solely for the purpose of making you angry. Castle in the Darkness, created by Matt Kap, the lead artist of Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, could have easily fallen into that trap. But it winds up being brutal and satisfying as well.
Castle in the Darkness opens with a princess going missing after a castle is besieged by evil forces. Being the last remaining knight of the castle, you must try to find her, while trying to lay waste to the evil forces that have taken your kingdom by storm. This will lead you, not only into the titular Castle in the Darkness, but through sunken temples, dark caverns and buildings that house demonic ghosts. It’s a daunting task made all that much tougher by the incredibly difficult enemies.
When you first begin Castle in the Darkness, you quickly realize that the game is not only a side scrolling platformer, but a “Metroidvania” style game, as well. Well before you reach the castle, you’ll find areas that are seemingly closed off from you until you upgrade your arsenal. Initially, Castle in the Darkness may seem like its content is limited, especially considering its low price point, but once you’ve invested a number of hours into it, you realize that each of these mostly optional branches house all sorts of new weapons, magic and dungeons.
To get all of this content, however, you’ll have to have a massive amount of patience. Early in the game, your character is massively underpowered. Your weapons are weak, your armor doesn’t do much for your defense and your health is minimal. Make no mistake, you will die a lot.
This is made even more difficult by the number of hazards waiting for you throughout your quest. Spikes are insta-kills and they are everywhere. It’s clear that Mat Kip knew exactly how players would move throughout the stage, as there are moments where you will make a jump perfectly, feel great about yourself and then fall through a hole you didn’t see and die. Thankfully, the platforming is almost perfectly precise. There are plenty of areas where you will land perfect jumps around spikes, avoid enemies and make it to a save point and feel like you’ve really accomplished something in the game.
Another massive accomplishment you feel is how the game opens up to you over time. There is a moment when you unlock the double jump where you feel like everything you’ve seen laying around the environment outside of the castle is now open for you to explore. You can, literally, go back to the very starting screen of the game and re-explore every place you’ve been and find something new. Doing that will unlock even more items you can use to explore. That massively adds to your time with the game and makes the world feel full.
However, combat in Castle in the Darkness leaves something to be desired. There are certain weapons that are only really effective in specific areas. Using the axe in the sunken temple of the game becomes a necessity, as you throw it in an arc towards enemies who will be waiting on the other side of a pit. However, at close range, the weapon is useless. You can use spells but they take a noticeable time to charge and if you’re not ready when an enemy pops up, you will die and be forced back to a respawn location.
This might not be so frustrating if not for two facts. The first is that save points are few and far between. While it’s invigorating to reach one of these spots after having one bar of health left, it’s also frustrating when you keep dying and have to backtrack each time you respawn. The second problem is that these are the only areas you can re-equip your weapons and spells. Considering that certain spells and weapons are only useful against certain enemies, it’s a massive pain when you are trying to do trial and error by backtracking from a save-point that’s far away.
There are also a few weird glitches that occur. In one boss fight, you can jump in the air and get thrown out of the bounds of the boss fight and refill your health. When you return, though, you have to fight two of them at once. However, instead of them attacking you, they just kinda move back and forth a lot and jump. At another point of the game, you can jump through a wall that really seems like you shouldn’t be able to, causing you to just be able to sidestep the challenges in the next few rooms.
All of that said, though, there are few moments when you will actually get mad at the game. It’s a game designed to be incredibly tough but is far more fair than others in this genre. Yes, the save system is a pain but the platforming is precise and if you are careful, you can easily avoid repeated deaths. Some weapons are nearly useless but when they do come in handy, you wonder how you lived without them. There’s a ton of content for replayability and, frankly, it’s pretty well put together for such a low price. It’s not perfect but it’s one of the better (if not best) retro platformers that have come out in quite a while.
SCORE: 8.0 out of 10
A code for Castle in the Darkness was provided to Pixel Related for review.