Castle of No Escape 2 is not afraid to make fun of its own retro aesthetic. It pulls off its stylistic approach to the point where even its unintended bugs look like a throwback to the classics it pays homage to. Not only that, but it does this all while still managing to put a fresh spin on old ideas in order to become something unique in its own right.
Genre: Action, Arcade,
Hack and Slash, Dungeon Crawler
Developer: D.E.X. Team
Release Date: Dec 21, 2016
Castle of no Escape 2 is another title filling the ranks of the nostalgia market. This sprite-based dungeon crawler is targeted at both fans of classics like the original Gauntlet and more modern titles such as The Binding of Isaac. With that in mind, it is refreshing to see it has managed to develop its own unique spin on the genre rather than just mimicking that which has come before.
The game places you in a dungeon of randomly shuffled pre-designed rooms in a 6x6x6 grid (the number of the beast is a reoccurring theme they are very committed to, it’s even the price of the game) which wraps around Pac-Man style. Even moving down on the bottom floor takes you to the top and vice versa, leaving you with ‘no escape’.
The game tasks you with collecting 10 artifacts scattered throughout the castle. While the five pieces of the sword and the five gems are all you technically need, exploring for the others varieties of power-ups is encouraged as the abilities they grant you will keep you alive while your character grows in strength. Fake pieces of the sword also litter the castle which will make you weaker instead of stronger, so finding the artifact that lets you see which is which is a priority. On the way, you will also find armour and emblems you can use to enhance that armour at anvils. Gold statues will grant you one of a dozen or so blessings or curses and, once again, finding the artifact that makes you immune to curses ahead of time is very useful.
As much as exploration is encouraged, the game also motivates you to keep moving and not to dwell for too long. Crystal orbs will give you grid co-ordinates directing straight to the various artifacts. As you gain power, the boss will start to take notice of your progress and the various helpful NPC shopkeepers (your main renewable source of healing) will start getting murdered and removed from play. Statues will awaken as living gargoyles, filling previously cleared rooms with new enemies and further discouraging backtracking. All the while the game periodically spawns minotaurs which will track and chase you between rooms, punishing you for standing in place for too long.
A successful run takes between 1-2 hours on average, though no doubt a skilled player can do it in much less. The items are the same in each playthrough so ignoring the fact that many runs will end in failure, the bulk of the replayability comes from how different the attacks of each character are. The rule of thumb seems to be the more powerful the attack, the less dependable it is. The strongest hitter out of the gate shoots fireballs in random directions, requiring much more patience and finesse than the brute force of the attack would suggest.
The game also includes a level editor which lets you design your own custom rooms to be added to the pool used to randomly make up the dungeon. You can totally abuse this to make the game much easier of course but you can also use it to add even more challenging rooms to the line-up to squeeze a little more life out of the game once you’ve mastered it.
If you die, it’s right back to the start. There is no progression between games so it’s all or nothing. You’d be forgiven for thinking the developer forgot to include a save feature and the best you can do is use the same seed to replay the same dungeon again from the beginning. But backing out to the main menu while in the middle of a run will create a save that will let you resume that run at a more convenient time. Additionally, if you are having a really good run, 1 of the 216 rooms in the dungeon gives you a password which changes as you progress in power. Entering this password in the ritual section from the main menu will let you restart the dungeon from the password room with most of the gear you managed to collect up to that point. So, a balance between challenging the player while still respecting their time has been struck.
The skill curve is pretty linear. You are expected to fail initially but you are also expected to get better with practice. One might anticipate veteran gamers would pick up the game and breeze through it, but the game’s rather unique combat mechanics and the originality of some of its enemies means even veterans will be challenged initially and will have to take the time to learn their limitations and the vulnerabilities of their foes. The creativity of the enemy design really stands out as there are a lot of little things that will make you stop and rethink the standard “hit it until it dies” approach. I could not tell you which enemy types I most dread seeing when I walk into a room as there are several candidates vying for the top spot.
Although the game can be undeniably challenging, with practice comes progress. The character I initially thought was the most difficult to play with also wound up being the first to reach the final boss. The one I found most reliable and most enjoyed playing seemed to take just as long to master. Despite their varied play-styles and the random nature of the castle, everything seems to be well balanced to ensure that as long as you keep trying, you will keep getting closer and closer to victory.
The developers went for the 8-bit retro aesthetic and their complete commitment to the style paid off. The music in the game is an excellent approximation of some of the best tracks chiptunes had to offer. While they are completely new compositions there were moments where I felt like I could almost recognise them from old games I’d forgotten. The artwork manages to carry that pixel charm while avoiding falling into the trap of having sprites become blocky, fuzzy, indistinguishable messes. In an action game it’s important to be able to recognise objects at a glance and this is thankfully the case. The cut-scenes very much showcase the character design of the era.
There is some good humour sprinkled in as well. A few references to very old memes but more significantly the developers weren’t afraid to make fun of some of the quirks of retro games. The difficulty settings are PAL or NTSC. A reference to some games (most infamously the early Sonic the Hedgehog titles) not taking into account the difference in display format in PAL regions resulting in everything being slowed down. This speed decrease of course makes the PAL mode easier.
Everywhere the games logo is present you’ll find “copyright 1990”. Another of the options in the game is scanlines that make objects flicker if there are more than eight in a given row. Not having heard of the series before, I even wondered if the 2 in the title was also a joke. But there was in fact a Castle of no Escape 1 and the characters from the original appear as mini-bosses in this sequel. They can even be unlocked as additional playable characters (bringing the total to six). On top of this the games manual is a beautiful recreation of the crappy booklets of yesteryear.
The game is sadly not without its flaws. Reading the manual isn’t just compulsory to get a feel for the full retro vibe. Even having read it, many of the functions of various objects remains obscure. Occasionally the text box in the game (which annoyingly covers the stamina meter) will deign to tell you what something you just picked up does, but it is very rare. It is pleasing that the game has a lot of secrets which the English-speaking community has yet to discover and make common knowledge. However, some things which should be obvious are not well telegraphed within the game. I was six playthroughs in before I realised armour came in five quality levels which determined how much it could be enhanced, a vital part of character progression in preparation for the end boss.
The dedication to keeping things a mystery also meant that quite often I could not be sure if something was a bug or not. Similarly, I can’t tell if things like the ‘Engrish’ in the opening cutscene stem from developers non-English speaking background or if they are another reference to old game ports. Some things, like the harpy feather getting stuck on statues becoming permanent deadly hazards, definitely are bugs. Still, others such as fixed objects jiggling lose and vibrating around the room (resulting in migrating floor traps, blocking off doors and merchants and items getting unreachably stuck in the corners) instead turned out be a side effect of unwittingly collecting pieces of the false sword. That is amusing and avoidable, but there are no work-arounds for legitimate bugs like the menu option for turning off the scanline flickering not actually working.
Most of my initial frustration was directed at the controls. Being a small developer, they could not test many controller setups. This is a damn shame as gamepads were pretty much invented for this type of game (or possibly the other way around). You can rebind the controls on gamepads but the process is not very clear. However, a much more serious bug means that if you are using a controller you will not be able to move diagonally and worse, movement will occasionally lock up entirely unless you first go into the control options and reset the controls to default every time you start the game. Thankfully, knowing this work around I can confirm most popular controller setups do ultimately work.
The retro theme both obscures and accents the games slight jankiness, yet isn’t too much of a problem once it gets going as the game is reasonably stable. The most vexing thing I kept encountering in the game are the gotcha moments. These aren’t the good gotcha moments like stumbling into a clever trap you could have avoided if you paid attention. For example, entering another room with only one health remaining is potentially fatal. In theory, the game is setup such that you could step into a room, assess it at a glance, and back out if you think you can’t handle it. However, there are several things the game does that make doorways instant death traps you simply can’t avoid. This requires constant health maintenance just in case the next room goes way more wrong that it really should.
The most frequent are ambushes. When you enter a room there is a chance that you will be ambushed. When this happens a bunch of additional enemies will spawn and the floor tiles in the doorways will temporarily transform into trap tiles. Most of the time you can immediately move off the door tile without walking directly into traps in the middle of the room before this happens, but the same can’t be said for the enemies that spawn out of the doorway directly on top of you before you can react. If there are traps in the middle of a room, you will get sandwiched.
The extra minotaurs the game periodically spawns out of doorways (even doors you are currently walking towards to exit a room after clearing it) will also land right on top of you, not to mention the spinning blade object that occasionally spawns on an unavoidable collision path. There is an achievement for completing a run without taking any damage. With these factors in play, this will boil down more to good luck than careful planning. A simple check that the player isn’t nearby before spawning anything and an indication the doorway is about to fill with pain would have gone a long way.
Even with these problems, the game is quite fun to play and can still very much be completed. They are just blemishes that stand out on an otherwise gleaming gem that just needs a little more polish.
Despite the limitations of a small development team and an oversaturated market, Castle of no Escape 2 manages to overcome its shortcomings and deliver some original ideas to make a fresh entry into the genre. It’s a shame how little attention the game has received since release. Given its low asking price and the quality of its gameplay, this is definitely a title that deserves a second look.