As I keep harping on over and over again, I’m an old man. I grew up on the NES just as it launched. Back then, we didn’t have crazy shooters like DOOM and BioShock, or monstrous story based adventures a la Tomb Raider and Uncharted. What we had were mostly platformers, “sports”, and puzzle games. AND WE LIKED IT. Damn kids today… Anywho, those puzzle games ranged in quality, style, and difficulty. Dr. Mario, Bubble Bobble, and Adventures of Lolo, things like those. And if you remember that last game, you may already be familiar with how Mystery Castle by Runestone Games plays. Not entirely, of course, but, in spirit. And if you’re like me, you’re happy with that.
The basic gist of Mystery Castle is this: you play as Monty, a wizard-in-training, who travels from castle to castle helping the inhabitants get rid of the monster problem they have suddenly inherited. And that’s that. That’s the entire plot. There’s no reason given why he suddenly enters the first castle, and there’s really no reason (other than he’s already done this before) that he goes into the others. That’s both a good and bad thing, but relatively speaking, it’s fine. It doesn’t hurt the game in a major way, but in the end, it does some harm, though I’m getting ahead of myself.
At the outset of (not so little) Monty’s escapades you’ll notice that each area has a specific theme to it, and we’re able to choose only the first castle, The Fortress Underground. That’s actually a good thing, because the way the game is set up, you learn the ropes here and with each successive castle, you carry over the lessons and mechanics learned to help out in the new area. With that comes tougher challenges the further into the game you get. So, while you can eventually go to any place you want with a certain numbers of levels beaten, I’d recommend sticking each castle out until the end. And since we’re on that subject, I would like to point out you can essentially play just about any level in each castle, save for the final boss level. Again, recommending sticking to the numerical order (for the reasons stated above), but, skipping over a tough puzzle and going back every now and then won’t kill you (although poor Monty sure is in a heap of trouble). Oh, and did I mention there’s 36 levels for each of the 5 areas? Because there are. Yeah, that’s a total of 180 possible mind-shattering puzzles to put your brain through. You better put your cap on. I’d start off with the Thinking, but you may end up swapping it for the Dunce by the time you finish up.
Within many of the levels you’ll have the opportunity to speak with that specific castle’s resident. There’s unfortunately no spoken dialogue, but, we do have plenty of humor to the rescue. There are a couple of threads I don’t want to spoil much more than I already have, so keep an eye out for those little nuggets of chuckles. The funny writing is certainly appreciated, though I do think it would have been even more wonderful were it voice acted. Just a small gripe, but, something that could have taken the audio to the next level. As for the music? Well, the game isn’t bursting with a full score – a natural thing for a smaller-style game – but what we do have is a pretty decent medley of tunes that fit thematically with what castle you’re in. I doubt you’ll dislike any of them, but because each castle plays basically the same song throughout each level, you may end up muting and putting something else on if you get bored with hearing the same song. Which did happen to me, I must admit, but, not as often as I thought it would.
As you can see, the game’s graphics are really colorful. In motion, they don’t disappoint, either. The hand drawn style on display really does this game justice. From the enemy designs to the death animations, and everything in between, everything I saw was charming to look at and I never got bored with it.
By now you’re probably wanting to know how the game plays, so you know what? As a favor to you, I’ll hook you up with the info. Just keep in mind, you’ll owe me one later at a time of my choosing. As I said, the game is kind of in the spirit of the Adventures of Lolo series, and by that I mean moving things around a single screen, collecting 5 items to unlock the exit door, rinse and repeat. I know, it sounds boring on paper (is a web article OK to be considered paper in this context?), but if you like stretching your brain-y muscles, you’ll be right at home. Monty moves in a 4 directional pattern, so I find it easier to use the D-pad, though you may feel otherwise. With that comes some control miscues every now and then if you’re being too loose or not paying splendid attention to how you execute each movement. This can really suck and frustrate you, not only because it ruins the run you’re on, but because it could potentially be after you spent 2 minutes setting everything up and on your way to victory. Many times I wished for a rewind feature of some sort. Like, I would need to move a block to a certain point, know I needed it there, but carelessly pushed 1 direction too far. Welp, now that level needs to be restarted. Situations like that can happen often, so do your best to pay attention so you can possibly avoid that. Another nice feature missing is that there’s no quick restart. It’s a nit pick, for sure, but going into a menu 15 times to restart a level because you’re either testing out a solution or just screwed up in general can really put a damper on your experience.
Because of this style of game, I often found myself playing just one-handed for much of the game. You can’t do it completely, but I found it kind of relaxing to just use my left hand and push the directional pad where ever I needed to go and only that for the levels that was available. I know, that’s very likely not something you’ll get pleasure out of, but, hey, it’s true, and now that you know it helped me, you can take the 12 seconds to try it out. You might find it fun, too.
As puzzle games are known to do, the further you get, the harder the levels become. Well, that works on a castle by castle basis. Because Mystery Castle on Xbox One is a combination of the 5 mobile games (each castle was its own game), the first handful of levels for each area are pretty much gimmes. You won’t have any troubles. But, once you get to the meat of the bunch, you’ll find that you may be longing for the easier go ’rounds. Fear not, because there are actually some really simple ones buried in the middle of each castle. I’m not sure if this was on purpose or not, but it was appreciated. Still, many levels require plenty of quick reflexes and paying attention. This game can put your brain into overdrive. When you start getting a feeling of rage where you’re ready to murder the next living thing you see, take a break. Your loved ones will thank you.
So as the whole “paying attention” thing is a mantra I love to push in my daily life, it really does behoove you to do it here. Plenty of times you’ll find hints to how you can beat a level. I’ll help you out here, too: the level titles can help, the dialogue from the resident may help, the actual level layout may help you. Keep your eye out for hints, and you just might find them, because I don’t think brute forcing your way through this game is very possible. Plus, there are MANY red herrings. Everywhere. It’s actually kind of neat, if you think about it. The puzzles and level design is wonderful throughout. Though, you may have to think about it once you’re removed from it, because those misdirections can really piss you off in the moment. I appreciated them, though. It just shows how involved a game like this can really be. Finally, working backwards can sometimes help, and if you can find the main thread of a room, you probably have the answer. It’s just not so easy to find it quickly every time.
The Achievements for this game are actually pretty simple to get, because pretty much all are things you’re either going to have to do or will unfortunately do. All but 1, anyway. The biggest (and toughest) is to beat all 180 levels. Now, as I said earlier, you don’t need to do this to beat each castle and essentially the game, but if you want that bad boy, you’ll need to earn it. So, it’s an easy 850, but you’ll work for that 1000 completion.
One final thing before we wrap it up, I wanted to talk about that ending. Each ending to a castle ends the exact same: a single screenshot showing your victory celebration and thanking you for playing, like this. That’s clearly because, as I said before, this version is a combo of their mobile games, only this time, all levels are included in 1 package instead of having each castle come out separately. That’s a great thing, of course. However, because of this, that end screen I just showed you is the end. Period. Once you beat the last castle, you get that same style screen and get bumped to the map. It’s a major let down. Maybe I could accept that if you didn’t beat every level, but if you conquered all 180 and that’s all you get for it (besides the points)? It’s a huge bummer. The wind was totally let out of my sails. I can’t help but be sad the devs didn’t have the foresight to think designing a true ending for the console version would a good idea. Maybe they did, but for some reason couldn’t get it off the ground. Whatever the case, it sucks putting in the blood, sweat, and tears (possible metaphoric meaning here) and getting nothing out of it. If there’s more I’m missing, please, someone tell me, but I couldn’t find it.
The bottom line here is, this is a fantastic puzzle game. A brilliant old school feeling puzzle game. It’s a game I definitely recommend to old bums like myself who grew up with stuff like this, or young bucks looking to see just what good level design can feel like. Hell, if you just want a good puzzle game, this is one to download. I really hope this does well enough to elicit a sequel (or even more castles through DLC). Sure, it’s not DOOM, or Fallout, or Uncharted, but, not every game has to be, and you know, I’m glad this one isn’t. I like exercising my brain. Sadly, it seems it’s the only part of my body I like to work out with.
Mystery Castle is out now on Xbox One and Steam for $9.99. A code was provided by Runestone Games for the purpose of this review. And if you must know, I am embarrassed it took me so long to get this up. I blame Monty.