I have a huge amount of respect for the indie game scene. While my heart will always be with the big, expensive AAA titles whose sheer scope and potential to shake the very foundations of the industry will always impress me, the little indie stuff will always own my mind. They are the heartfelt frontier of gaming, where new ideas, both good and bad, are tested out. A good deal of my favorite experiences with a game this last generation were with these smaller budget experiences, and I'm always on the lookout for the next thing to take my breath away.
The Castle Doctrine is not one of those games. It's an interesting concept that has a lot of potential, but is little more than that. The Castle Doctrine is so dedicated to itself that it's constantly in utter contempt of the player, with little to offer those who are stalwart enough to stick around.
There have been a lot of articles on fellow video game websites about the controversial themes of The Castle Doctrine. Specifically regarding its name which evokes a certain group of men in the United States of America who are fiercely protective, to the point of committing "justified murder", of their liberty and their "property": their family. Murder is something that is commonplace in video games, but is usually manifested in a grandiose fashion (Storming a beach, invading a nation of dark-skinned people, zombie apocalypse, etc.) We aren't used to games commenting on commonplace violence in our own backyard. But despite these myriad articles, there's nothing truly controversial about The Castle Doctrine apart from its loaded name, with the game design bearing very little of the thematic baggage that the game's name carries with it.
Similar to other top-down strategy games like Dungeon Keeper, you start off The Castle Doctrine by transforming your house into a deathtrap to protect your valuables, which includes your vault of money and your family. Your start off with some money to start constructing an effective defense. Your options include the likes of rabid pit bulls, an electrical system that can power trapdoors and electrified floors, or even giving your wife a shotgun to carry around. There are two rules that you must follow when building your fortress:
- Your family must have a clear, unobstructed pathway to the entrance to your house.
- You must be ably to run your dungeon and reach the vault unscathed yourself, without the use of any tools or equipment.
Once you complete both of these requirements, your house is uploaded to the game's server where other people can run it, trying to steal the money in your vault or kill your family to take the little bit of pocket change that they carry on their person. You can also do this act of breaking-and-entering yourself, as you can browse a server list sorted only by the amount of money other peoples' vault's contain, which you can steal to make your deathtrap of a house even deadlier. The catch is if you die, then you have to start from the very, very beginning. As in, building your house and defenses all over again.
It's an exhausting and frustrating process as you not only lack the ability to save blueprints of your designs, but a much bigger issue is the atrocious building interface. The space you have to work with is huge, and you are only shown a tiny section of the space at any one time, forcing you to navigate it by physically moving your character around. This is very annoying especially when you have to start tearing down walls and carefully designed structures just to get to a new section of the map that you want to build on. This resulted in me only making very, very basic dungeon designs just to move on.
The process is even more painful as The Castle Doctrine refuses to communicate anything to the player at all, including basic tutorials. Most of my knowledge of the game is result from guess work or conjecture. The electrical system is especially complex and intimating, lacking even basic descriptions. And after having to reconstruct my complicated dungeon puzzles from scratch, I just gave up on my spirit quest of learning to successfully utilize the electrical system.
There are items that you can buy which can help make exploring other people's houses easier. These tools, like a handsaw to cut through walls or a handgun, lack any descriptions of effects or how to use them which made me hesitant to experiment with them. Also, the game will take away all of your items if you enter and leave a dungeon without using them for a laughably contrived reason, discouraging my further use of them.
Even the production values are lacking. The Castle Doctrine is an ugly looking 2-D game with a hideous art style which gave it zero identity of its own. The menu and UI design are all poorly optimized and unappealing to navigate, which you'll unfortunately have to do many, many times as you die and die again. The soundtrack is nonexistent except for a poor excuse of a "moody" and "atmospheric" track that plays while you raid someone's house. It's more annoying and distracting than actually engrossing.
There's a brilliant game to be had somewhere in The Castle Doctrine, but the current incarnation of the game feels like a very, very rough draft. The game is abusive to the player, refusing to communicate with them on even very simple levels and punishing them for things they can't possibly know or understand. Its miserable interface and building system pushed me pretty hard away from the game initially, and having to do it over-and-over again didn't help the issue any more. Even its name tries to draw the attention of the player immediately, calling attention to a morally questionable issue in the United States, but does nothing meaningful or interesting with it, like the actual game design itself.
If The Castle Doctrine's objective was to be actively hostile and uncompromising, then it's a resounding success. It's a game that's hard to recommend to anybody, regardless of taste or preference. There isn't much for anyone here.
TWO OUT OF FIVE
(A bad game with an abundance of flaws which outweigh its positive aspects)