“We are always rushing to an appointment or trying to meet a deadline.”
-Menachem Mendel Schneerson
Steam has seen the rise and fall of dozens of indie developers, and while it has proven to be fertile ground for some, the majority of the small-time teams have found the greenlight arena too tough to cope with. Single man/woman/troglodyte teams simply flounder under the gaming community’s expectations, and all too often this leads either to the release of games that never leave Early Access, or half-baked catastrophes that are rushed to completion for the sake of a deadline. Castle Heist feels slightly like the latter, and though its episodic structure might allow developer GoffaGames a chance to slow down and put actual effort into quality production, the first episode was found largely wanting.
Set in an unspecified realm during a generic late-Medieval century, Castle Heist: Chapter 1 dresses the scene for an adventure rife with missing uncles, deserted towns, and an evil alchemist. The main character, who is up until this point only referred to as ‘Nephew’, is tasked by his missing uncle to sneak into the local castle and steal a device called ‘The Artifact’. The town’s local alchemist has been using The Artifact to further his research into the use of black powder, and apparently the cabal our character’s uncle works for hates progress. Off to halt scientific advancement for decades to come!
The entire game is based on stealth. Had I not constantly been holding a map, whose intrusive nature we’ll brush on later, I would’ve thought myself to be a mute double amputee. There’s nothing to open, pickup, push, or brandish, save for a map that changes based on what room you’re in. You can walk, jump, crouch, and reflect on the poor choices you’ve made in life, but not much else. This certainly cuts back on the number of things that can go wrong mechanically, but it makes for very stale gameplay, reducing each level to a slow dance of run-wait-run-crouch-run.
As with most stealth-based games, each level of Castle Heist consists of a decently open map and a series of patrolling guards. The levels in the castle were rendered fairly linear due to the single objective of each area and the inherently enclosed space, but the maps in the open air of the town were varied enough to allow players a level of geographical creativity. Mapping out the guard routes took little more effort than opening a particularly stubborn can of soda, and the objectives were oftentimes made painfully obvious with the help of the ever-present map. With a minimal amount of patience and an average short-term memory, running through maps unseen and unscathed can be nothing short of second nature.
Along with the notable absence of any weapons, pickups, or actions except for basic movement, Castle Heist also lacks any type of health or stamina counters. Guard encounters inevitably lead to your death, as grubby clothes are often no match for flintlock pistols, and there’s no running option, so keeping track of traditional measures of health or wellness have been rendered moot. This is all fine and dandy if the stealth mechanics are in check, but more often than not I found myself flopping back, dead as a door knob, because the pillar I decided to hide behind suddenly decided to become see-through, or my steps, which had failed to make a sound, suddenly alerted every guard within a quarter mile. One-shot deaths are fine so long as I can count on the game to play fair and reward me when I actually hide, but there seems to be a few bugs to iron out in terms of what counts for concealment.
Castle Heist is extremely pleasing to the eyes. As someone who has logged more hours on Skyrim and Styx: Master of Shadows than I will openly admit, the visual aesthetic truly appealed to me. While perhaps a great deal of the set pieces were generic prefabs, their organization throughout each map made each room and building feel unique and unexplored. The majority of the music was fitting, though there was one section early in the game that busted out tunes that would be at home in a Pink Panther theme song. What little voice acting I found sounded like it all came from the same thickly-accented Swede, yet the snoring noises were eerily spot on and varied slightly across characters. The sound effects are all rather limited, and the lack of the player’s footsteps made it impossible to gauge whether or not the guards could hear me. Overall, the setting is lovely, but caters only to the sense of sight.
Castle Heist: Chapter 1 is the first episodic installment of a three-part game. While a lot of attention has been paid to the map design and visual appearance, little has been done in the way of actually tuning up the stealth gameplay. With a run-through of less than forty minutes, this first chapter feels extremely lackluster and horribly rushed, and I can only hope GoffaGames picks up the slack for the next two.