I recently downloaded a flurry of demos from the Playstation Store for my PS3, among them a real gem of a game some of you may have heard of called Castle Crashers. The demo was so incredible that I just had to get the full game. I did and this was my experience with it.

Castle Crashers is a straightforward, side-scrolling beat-em-up now available on the XBox 360 and PS3 as a download for either system. If you’ve ever played anything from Double Dragon to Ninja Turtles to Battletoads to the recent Scott Pilgrim game, you know exactly what kind of game we’re talking about here. Whatever you thought about those games, however, Castle Crashers is better. Here’s how it breaks down:

The game starts and you and your fellow knights are rocking out at a party in the castle when BAM! the door gets busted in and one of your cartoon compatriots flies through the door, hits the ground, and dies. Right off the bat, the evil sorcerer, his necromancer buddy, and their henchmen cohorts have kidnapped the four princesses and stolen some gigantic crystal of what can only be great power. At the beginning of the game and on your first playthrough, you can select from the red, blue, green, and orange knights, each with a signature class of magic attacks (lightning, ice, poison, and fire, respectively). As you play and beat the game more and more, this roster grows dramatically to a whopping 28 characters, seven times what you start out with.

You pretty much jump right into battle with a control scheme that’s so easy, casual gamers and hardcore gamers alike will adapt to it in minutes, if not seconds. You’ve got a jump button, a heavy attack, a light attack, and an item button, then your triggers select what item you’re currently using, activate your magic, or bring up your shield. On the PS3, you can use either the D-pad or the left analog stick to move. The simplistic control scheme lets you get started right away and feels so intuitive that you’ll rarely find yourself thinking about it (except to remember how to do the more advanced combos later in the game, perhaps).

From there, it’s just an action-packed, beat-up-everything romp through a world of barbarians, trolls, giant catfish, warrior bears, fire demons, armored minions of various size, wizards, pirate ninjas, cyclops, massive cats, dragons with sock puppets, and so on and so on. The enemies you come across differ enough that new areas feel fresh but not so much that you find yourself completely hung up on how to fight them. When it comes to bosses, every encounter is tactically different with some bosses spawning tons of minions, others requiring Mega Man/Contra-like pattern recognition to avoid their attacks, and others that are more like playing an arena battle against your friends (Which reminds me; there’s not just a single-player mode, but an arena mode, a volleyball mode, and online multiplayer for every mode of play).

I did say "ninja pirate." These guys show up in one level and ambush you via pirate ship.

The visual style for Castle Crashers is one of my favorite parts of the game, beaten only by the game’s extremely catchy, upbeat, synth-laden soundtrack (available for free download, by the way). Essentially, what you see is what you get in that the cartoon designs by Dan Paladin are omnipresent from the menus to the actual in-game animation. Playing Castle Crashers, from a visual perspective, is like taking part in a real-time, fantasy cartoon; it’s pretty much a seamless experience. After playing scores of games and demos where the entire experience is in shades of brown and metallic gray, the colorful explosion that is Castle Crashers was a real visual treat and proof positive that you don’t have to have crazy, over-the-top, hyper-realistic graphics to look astoundingly good. This game looks almost as good as Muramasa: The Demon Blade and that’s certainly saying something.

Perhaps the best part about Castle Crashers is the local multiplayer. So many games nowadays have multiplayer, but only online or via networked consoles. Castle Crashers does have online multiplayer, but it also has up to four player simultaneous, single-screen gameplay so you can play with your friends or significant others in person. After all, aren’t victory, defeat, and trash talk so much sweeter in person? Local multiplayer is something I really value and Castle Crashers delivers in spades.

All in all, Castle Crashers is probably the best money I’ve spent on a game download since Plants vs. Zombies on the iPad or Canabalt on my iPod Touch. It’s certainly a must-download, especially for the PS3-only players like me who just got access to it on August 31st.

Castle Crashers is available now for the PS3 for $14.99 via the Playstation Network Store and includes both of the XBox 360 DLC packs, Necromancer’s Pack and King’s Pack. I played through all of the single player experience with two players, each of the arenas, and half of Insane Mode.

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