While the Switch is a haven for ports of older games, it’s also a port of call for indie developers looking to grasp the spotlight. For some, it’s by having an original idea, and for others, it’s reigniting the flames of a forgotten style of game. Switch exclusive Castle of Heart is perhaps the closest we’ve come to a classic 2D Castlevania game in years, perhaps since the WiiWare remake of the first Game Boy game. As much as I admire that commitment, Castle of Heart is not on the same level.
The premise is hardly as original as the developers seem to think it is. A sorcerer wreaks havoc on a village after being denied tribute, resulting in a knight being turned to stone as a maiden is kidnapped. Thanks to a tear, the knight is able to move, but his time is limited thanks to his curse. We’ve all heard of Ghosts ‘n Goblins before and aside from being turned into stone, it’s as generic a premise as one can get. It does give a good excuse for the hero to have a purpose, but it’s hardly groundbreaking.
While I’m being frank about the claims from the development team, the game also hardly looks “beautiful”. Sure, there’s a certain grittiness that is akin to the likes of Dark Souls, but once you’ve seen one environment, there’s little variety until you finish the five levels that each locale features. What’s worse, the same music loops constantly for each level until you change environments and it’s nowhere near as memorable as it is annoying.
But enough about my grievances with the game’s aesthetic choices, what about the gameplay? Castle of Heart is meant to be difficult, and so it gives players infinite retries should the knight crumble into dust, but where the game hits a stumbling block is in its combat, as trying to defend is a futile endeavour. Enemies have barely any hit stun at all, meaning that it’s usually faster to either wail on them or jump over them and run away. It’s unrewarding too, only netting a small bonus to health and the meter at the top of the screen.
Levels have a variety of collectables, from liberally dispersed blue orbs that fill a meter to increase the knight’s maximum health. Since health is constantly draining, the numerous health pickups and checkpoints were a godsend, but just encouraged me to run for them rather than fight enemies. On top of that, there are five gems hidden in each stage, which I’m relatively certain unlocks a secret ending upon collecting them all, but by the end I felt little motivation to do so.
There are tools that the Knight can use to make things easier. Many sub-items or sub-weapons are scattered throughout each level, though their utility is situational at best 90% of the time. That said, one weapon was clearly better than the rest as it could freeze enemies on the spot, making combat a breeze in comparison to the norm.
Naturally, there will be comparisons to classic Castlevania, in that it’s a taxing 2D platformer with sub-weapons and a supernatural aesthetic. I like that the game tried, but Castle of Heart is not even close to capturing that particular magic. It’s largely down to the level design and enemy variety. Enemies do look different as the locales change, but they are otherwise interchangeable.
When it boils down to whether or not the flying enemy shoots a projectile, or if the ground enemies can suddenly now teleport, but still sport the same weapons, shields, or projectile weapons from the very first level, it doesn’t really show much imagination. Castlevania, on the other hand, had multiple varieties of skeletons alone.
On top of that, the levels pull off the same tired tricks. Long stretches of crumbling floor, rope swings, and plummeting platforms may surprise the first time around, but by the final five levels these were the easiest bits by far. On two occasions there was a segment where the water rose, and there were also two segments in a lift with oncoming obstacles and enemies to dispatch.
By the end of the game, I was as frustrated by the bombardment of enemies as I was bored by everything else. Even bosses showed a surprising lack of challenge once I’d deciphered their patterns. At only 20 levels, Castle of Heart is mercifully short, but the entire time I was aggravated by the whole experience. It didn’t break at any point, which was a blessing, and is certainly appropriately priced for what the game ultimately is.
Castle of Heart is a generic, infuriating, and ultimately underwhelming experience. It doesn’t even come close to emulating what made the old Castlevania games classics, as it just crams enemies and traps into levels and hope it works, rather than having coherent level design. If anything, all that Castle of Heart has done is reminded me of how good the old Castlevania games were and that this doesn’t fill that void that has been left behind.