Castle in the Darkness

words manifested by: AJ Johnson

A game by Matt Kap for PC, originally released in 2015.
In the kingdom of Alexandria, the king falls ill, and the princess orders the royal guard to protect the castle. Suddenly, they find themselves under attack by fiendish creatures commanded by an evil sorcerer. All of the castle guard fall to these enemies, save one, a lone hero who is knocked unconscious and awakes to find the princess gone and the kingdom overrun by monsters. And so he sets out to destroy these beasts and rescue the princess.

Castle in the Darkness is heavily inspired by games in the Castlevania and Metroid series, with a dark tone, macabre enemies, and sprawling environments. The action is supported by RPG elements that allow the player to gain new abilities and more health, stronger weapons and armor, and a number of relics that act as passive buffs.

The game world is indeed large, certainly on par with the 2D entries in the aforementioned series, but it is structured quite differently. Rather than tightly-packed interlinked rooms, Castle in the Darkness offers a largely linear left-to-right world, with a number of branches that lead out from the main path. While there are some new abilities to be gained, exploration and backtracking generally reward the player with better equipment, giving him an advantage when taking on the game’s wide assortment of enemies and dozens of bosses.

Technically speaking, the player can treat the game like a linear action-platformer experience, just running from one room to the next, taking on enemies and ignoring the branching paths. However, this approach will leave the player underequipped to deal with tougher enemies and bosses in later levels. As such, backtracking is very much encouraged… but also somewhat difficult given the fact that there is no map.

Games that offer large worlds with branching paths usually supplement the experience with a metroidvania-style map showing which areas have been explored and where to find important things like warps and save points. But that is not the case here. Often, a key or new powerup is found a great distance away from the spot where it must be used, placing the burden on the player to recall the layout of the world and its many branching paths. Warp points help to alleviate this somewhat, but even these are spread far apart, requiring a great deal of on-foot travel between locales.

The knight begins the game with a minimal moveset. He comes equipped with a 2.5x variable jump and a short-range sword attack, and he is not able to walk and swing his sword simultaneously, but he is able to jump and strike. His movement speed is quite fast when compared to other games of this sort, which makes it easy to traverse large environments but somewhat difficult to line up landings on narrow platforms. The knight’s speed occasionally gets him into trouble when crossing screen transitions, as it’s easy to walk straight into an enemy and take damage, or worse, walk into a pit of spikes and be killed instantly.

Screen transitions are unusually problematic, and this appears to be due to the fact that the game is rendering entire areas and then chopping them up into smaller sections. When walking off the right side of the screen, the camera snaps over from left to right to reveal the new area, and the opposite is true when walking from right-to-left. However, the camera’s starting point is not always calibrated correctly, leading to situations where the player transitions onto a screen and the camera starts out a couple of screens away and then jarringly snaps over to the correct screen.

Since the screen transitions are simply parsing larger areas, unusual things can occur, such as enemies moving off the edge of the screen but continuing to interact with the environment… or instances where an enemy fires a projectile and it follows the player through the screen transition, which is atypical in games where screen transitions occur. Strangely, other areas of the game simply scroll horizontally or vertically rather than resorting to screen transitions and camera snaps.

The knight begins the game with a long health meter, but he can be killed in just a few hits. This is due to the fact that the health meter represents the percentage of health remaining rather than a specific number of health units. As the player gains a higher maximum HP – by killing bosses and finding relics – the meter drains more slowly.

The only way to regain health is to pick up a heart from a defeated boss or to find a save point. Save points appear with some regularity, and this is the only place where the player may view his stats and change his weapons, armor, and magic abilities.

Save point design is a bit strange on its own, as reaching a save statue allows the player to press UP to instantly save his game or press DOWN to access his inventory. However, the statue has a recharge time between uses, meaning that the player can equip a new weapon and exit the menu, and then has to wait a couple of seconds before he is given the option to save. Another interface oddity is the fact that there doesn’t appear to be an in-game method of pausing the game. Clicking outside the game window will pause the action, and the player may press “P” to unpause, but pressing “P” while playing does not pause the game.

The knight’s starting sword is quite short and doesn’t do a great deal of damage, making it more difficult to use once the player leaves the starting area. However, a number of additional weapons may be discovered, including longer range swords that deliver more damage, as well as projectile weapons, including a bow and arrows, a boomerang, and axes that fly in a high arc, per Castlevania standards.

These weapons are supplemented by a magic system, allowing the player to equip a single magic type that can be used by holding the ATTACK button for several seconds. The long charge time makes magic use impractical for basic enemy combat, but more useful when facing bosses and other large enemies.

Some boss creatures (and regular enemies) are immune to certain types of weapons and magic, and weak against others. However, save points are rarely placed immediately outside of boss rooms, so it can be troublesome when you walk into a boss room and find out that none of your attacks will harm it, and then find yourself defeated and restarting several rooms away. Even then, it’s possible to return to the boss with a different set of equipment and magic and still find your attacks ineffective.

The game offers dozens of enemy types, with many appearing only in specific themed areas, and several that appear only once in the game, which offers a great deal of combat variety. The knight’s high speed makes him highly effective against these enemies as he can move in quickly and dodge away, or unleash a flurry of strikes, as there is no cooldown period between sword attacks. Players with furious fingers (or a turbo button) can deliver tons of damage in a very short span.

In addition to the host of patrolling foes, the player also has to contend with platforming challenges and environmental obstacles, the most dangerous of which are spikes. Spikes spell instant death for the player and there is no shortage of them throughout the experience. Sometimes they can be difficult to spot as they are only a few pixels in height and don’t always stand out when appearing alone or in pairs (as opposed to rows of spikes which are easy to spot).

Even more difficult to notice are stalactites, which are also quite small and often placed individually. Falling stalactites are a common obstacle in video games, but seldom are they presented as 1-hit kill objects when the player has a life bar. But here, they are the same as spikes, killing the player instantly when making contact… except for the ones in the caves. In a bit of design inconsistency, falling stalactites in the cave area just remove a bit of the player’s health, but as soon as the player leaves the area, all other stalactites kill him instantly.

In later areas, crumbling blocks are frequently placed over spike pits, requiring quick movement to navigate, and a ready eye to spot them. There are two types of crumbling blocks. The first are the traditional variety that crack when the player lands on them and give him a second to react. The second type crumbles instantly when touched, requiring that the player hold down the JUMP button to bounce upward a bit… often in an attempt to land on another crumbling block before making it to solid ground.

While progress through the game is primarily centered around gaining new equipment and magic, there are a few new abilities to be gained, per metroidvania standards. These include a gauntlet that allows the player to break certain blocks, a mermaid statue that allows the player to swim, and a double jump that opens up a large number of alternate paths… although this ability is gained quite a way into the game, requiring an extensive backtracking session to fully utilize it.

There are numerous secret passages and optional side paths available to delight the explorative gamer, often leading to optional boss encounters and new equipment. The open world design allows the player to return to any previously-visited location whenever he likes. Once the player has access to more powerful equipment, he can breeze quickly through earlier sections of the game. There are even some areas that require advanced techniques to reach, such as using the knockback from an enemy in order to reach a higher ledge.

Fighting enemies rewards the player with coins, and enemies respawn on screen transitions, allowing them to be farmed, although there are only a handful of items that actually require currency to purchase. Still, exploration sometimes leads to caches of coins rather than specific equipment, and paintings in the background often hint at actions the player can perform to gain these rewards. Getting killed also leads to some additional rewards, as a number of unlockables open up (including previous demo versions of the game) as the player reaches certain death count thresholds.

The game is positively packed with video game references. Among these are a Super Mario Bros.-style warp pipe that drops you into a pit of spikes (a joke that would have been funnier if the save point were a bit closer), a Legend of Zelda-inspired moment where the player is told “It’s dangerous to go alone. Take this!” and is presented with a treasure chest with a single coin inside, and a blue spear-hurling knight whose armor can be broken to reveal an underwear-clad Arthurian who dies in a single hit.

A number of basic enemies are modeled after classic foes, including falling Thwomp-style enemies (Super Mario Bros. 3), crawling Zoomer-style enemies (Metroid), blue hedgehogs that spin and move quickly (Sonic the Hedgehog), wandering mushrooms (Wonder Boy in Monster World), and what appears to be a blue version of Firebrand (Ghosts ‘n Goblins).

Castlevania is referenced frequently throughout the game, including an extensive castle wall sequence, a clock tower that features skulls that fly in a sine wave pattern, bone-tossing skeletons, axe-tossing knights, and even a mysterious chicken dinner hidden in the wall below a familiar-looking staircase. Enterprising players will also find references to Cave Story, Mega Man, Monster Party, and numerous other games.

Castle in the Darkness was developed by Matt Kap, the lead artist behind The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth and artist/animator for 1001 Spikes. The game was developed in his spare time over the course of a couple of years.

The game was published by Nicalis, which also published Cave Story, La-Mulana, 1001 Spikes, The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, and the console versions of VVVVVV, among others.