7levels is a relatively new Polish studio comprised of industry veterans, focusing on projects for Nintendo platforms. Their first game, Castle of Heart, just launched on Nintendo Switch and is a hardcore approach to the platforming and hack n’ slash genres. For a freshman effort the technical skill in Castle of Heart is impressive; it demonstrates talented use of its engine and a suitably polished visual presentation. That being said, the game lacks balance and its gameplay loop needs some work.
The story is straightforward enough. A greedy sorcerer extorts a poor farming village for supplies, gold and slaves. When the town can’t meet the sorcerer’s demands, he curses the whole population by turning them into stone. A lone knight, buoyed by his love for his betrothed, is turned to stone but keeps his heart beating. Now he has to slaughter his way through hordes of the sorcerer’s thralls and several brutalizing levels to rescue his lover and exact revenge for the town.
Castle of Heart is a fairly standard 2.5D side scroller, with hack n’ slash elements. You generally move left to right, killing enemies and hitting checkpoints while collecting secret gems and doing some light platforming. The catch is that the knight’s curse causes his stone body to crumble persistently; his health is constantly dwindling, to the point that if it falls low enough he’ll lose an arm and as a result a huge chunk of his combat effectiveness. This lends a sense of urgency to the game, ever pushing you forward, but it isn’t balanced or borne out by the gameplay.
Unlike 2016’s Doom reboot, which punished you for “cowardice” (backpedaling, taking cover) and rewarded you for courage and sheer bloodlust, Castle of Heart hits a point of diminishing returns, literally. In Doom, pushing ahead and going for risky glory kills gave you health and ammo bonuses, and enemies would ruthlessly hunt you down if you retreated. In Castle of Heart you get health powerups from slain enemies, but it’s never enough to offset the knight’s hemorrhaging life bar. This makes close combat a needlessly risky endeavor; you’re bound to lose some health and often more than you can make up for by killing the enemy.
What’s more, you’re often mobbed by several enemies at once, or projectile-firing enemies perched on hard-to-reach lookouts points. The knight can fire crossbow bolts or toss spears and throwing knives, but ammo is usually limited and the aiming controls are cumbersome; the game needs to auto-select an enemy, item or trap with a reticle before you can hit it, and you typically have several targets to toggle between. I was typically taking at least three arrows in the face before I swapped through all the available targets to the enemy that was raining fire down on me. Bad guys are also annoyingly tough, wearing armor and carrying shields, so it takes time and thus precious health and ammo to wear them down or kill them at range.
There are usually shortcuts and secrets that allow you to circumvent the hairier combat encounters, but exploration is discouraged by the game’s inherent urgency and constantly crumbling health bar. Castle of Heart seems confused on what it wants the player to do; the depleting health encourages pressing ahead and the risks be damned, but the shortcut and secret-littered environment encourages exploration, and neither option is ideal and thus neither approach allows the gamer to tailor their play style to his or her advantage. This leads to a lot of trial and error deaths, replaying sections of a level dozens of times before making it through on sheer luck and willpower. This wouldn’t be as big an issue if the levels weren’t so massive, and the checkpoints few and far between. The unbalanced difficulty, combined with the finicky aiming, floaty platforming and the rest of the awkward controls make Castle of Heart feel like a mobile game hastily ported to Switch. I’m not saying that’s necessarily the case—I don’t know the ins and outs of this game’s development cycle and it is a Switch exclusive—but there were several elements that made it feel distinctly “mobile” to me.
Needless to say, all of these elements make Castle of Heart is an exercise in frustration. Now, I’m loathe to describe any game as “the Dark Souls of etc. etc.” like so many of the lazier game journalists out there are wont to do, but I can tell that sort of grinding Souls difficulty was what 7levels was going for. The difference is that Dark Souls, while punitive, lets you learn from your mistakes and spend your souls to increase your stats. Castle of Heart has powerups and weapons, but most of its issues could be fixed with a simple RPG progression mechanic. The ability to make my knight more durable, make his sword’s bite nastier or his aim better, would reduce the sting of so many early failures and deaths.
It’s a shame that the stout difficulty isn’t tempered by anything but blind luck, because Castle of Heart is a very competently made game from a technical standpoint. It’s surprisingly gorgeous for an indie title on Switch, and if anything I’m excited to see how 7levels can push the platform in the future. With some tightening of the controls and platforming physics it would feel really solid. As it stands, however, the movement system is floaty, the difficulty is a brick to the face, and as a result only the most stubborn of players will make it past all 20 levels.
I hope Castle of Heart gets some much-needed patches and an organic expansion of its gameplay concepts. With some balancing and room to breathe it could be a challenging little actioner, instead of just a pretty chore.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
I've been gaming off and on since I was about three, starting with Star Raiders on the Atari 800 computer. As a kid I played mostly on PC--Doom, Duke Nukem, Dark Forces--but enjoyed the 16-bit console wars vicariously during sleepovers and hangouts with my school friends. In 1997 GoldenEye 007 and the N64 brought me back into the console scene and I've played and owned a wide variety of platforms since, although I still have an affection for Nintendo and Sega.
I started writing for Gaming Nexus back in mid-2005, right before the 7th console generation hit. Since then I've focused mostly on the PC and Nintendo scenes but I also play regularly on Sony and Microsoft consoles. My favorite series include Metroid, Deus Ex, Zelda, Metal Gear and Far Cry. I'm also something of an amateur retro collector. I currently live in Columbus, Ohio with my fiancee and our cat, who sits so close to the TV I'd swear she loves Zelda more than we do.View Profile