Imagine, if you will, a world in which Capcom was founded in Spain, with their early arcade classics influenced by the folklore and history of Iberia rather than Japan. In that alternate Earth, Cursed Castilla is exactly what Ghouls ‘n Ghosts would look and play like. Cursed Castilla captures that credit munching arcade feel perfectly, and as soon as you add in the obligatory extra features of trophies and visual filters, you have a textbook example of how to pull off a modern retro game.
The original setting for Cursed Castilla makes for an interesting departure from the standard Arthurian template followed by almost every game featuring a knight. Whilst it doesn’t really affect the gameplay itself, it does lead to some novel monsters. There aren’t many games that present you with a metal Don Quixote as an end-of-level boss, for example.
The lore is supplemented by the welcome inclusion of a codex that offers brief descriptions of the various items and enemies that you will encounter. Each of these entries is unlocked after you first pick up an item or fight the respective foe. It is a shame, however, that the level of translation is pretty poor, with many of the descriptions making little sense. Even the introductory screens, wonderfully retro as they are, suffer from odd translation choices. Fortunately, this isn’t a game that relies upon its narrative, so this is a minor quibble.
The backstory, as far as I could decipher, revolves around a king sending his most favoured knights on a quest to close the gateway to Hell, having been opened up by a demon taking advantage of a witch’s sorrow. This results in the player taking Don Ramiro on a perilous adventure through a range of pixelated Spanish settings. There’s the traditional forest, town, swamp, and castle that will be familiar to anybody who has played a fantasy arcade game, but within these locations are an assortment of demons and monsters, all of which have individual patterns and behaviours to learn.
This learning often takes place through a frustrating amount of trial and error, but rarely feels unfair. Don Ramiro controls well and, aside from a couple of floating platform sections, deaths generally felt like part of what makes the game enjoyable rather than detracting from it. In this sense, the genealogy from Ghouls ‘n Ghosts to Dark Souls can be seen, with dying being an essential part of improvement. I was soon completing levels without dying that I had initially thought overly difficult. That’s perhaps the greatest compliment to the quality of level design to be found here.
The overall difficulty of the game is well set, and I always felt that I was making progress. At least until the endgame, where a sequence of three boss fights proved particularly punishing. Even here, though, most deaths could be attributed to lapses in concentration or foolishly trying to sneak an extra hit in. Strategies for combating enemies also require a good knowledge of the various weapons available and picking the power up most appropriate for what you’re facing.
Chest locations and their contents are set, which can be refreshing in this age of procedurally generated levels. This again adds to the process of learning the levels and becoming more skilled. Personally I found the bolas to be the most useful weapon for much of the game, but guides online recommend the powerful but difficult to aim fire bombs and speed runners go for the rapid fire of the sickle. It is impressive how much of an effect the various weapons can have on the way you play, and is particularly fortunate given games of this genre live or die based on their controls and level design.
Finishing the game through normal progression results in missing out on the ‘true’ end level and receiving the bad ending, butj replaying to get the final level is actually more fun as you can feel the ways in which you have improved. A few of the hidden items are a little obscure, some requiring you to kneel in front of statues or destroy specific parts of the scenery, but the linear nature of the game means that you never need to spend hours backtracking. I surprised myself by forcing my aging reflexes through to the true end boss and one version of the real ending, but am unlikely to improve enough for the best versions which are locked behind continue counts.
Cursed Castilla is one of the best modern retro games that I’ve played, successfully capturing the look and feel of its influences but also improving on the controls and level design. It feels just like the way I remember the arcade originals. Add in the extra challenges from trophies and you have a great retro title with bags of replayability.
Version tested: PlayStation 4