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The Castle Doctrine Review: Trying times

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Title: The Castle Doctrine
Price: $16
System(s): PC (Windows, Mac, Linux)
Release Date: January 29, 2014
Publisher (Developer): Jason Rohrer (Jason Rohrer)
ESRB Rating: N/A, though I’d say ages 13 and up would be appropriate.

It’s 1991 and everyone is out to get you. You’re just one man, out to protect his family in what looks like an Atari 2600 world. But all isn’t lost. There is hope, if you’re willing to reconsider your moral landscape. Set a few deadly traps here. Arm yourself with some destructive and deadly weapons, and you may not only survive in The Castle Doctrine‘s bleak world, you could end up being one of the few people ruling it. However, after my hours of playing it, I am assured I’m not one of them.

castle doctrine jason rohrer

Defending yourself, then go ruin someone else’s day.

Every player begins Castle Doctrine as a middle-aged man with a wife, two kids, $2,000, and access to a bevy of materials that could make a home a practically impregnable fortress. There were three kinds of walls, doors, switches, power sources, pits, pressure plates, switches, trapdoors, panic buttons, shotguns for wives, cats, chihuahuas, and pitbulls. Cats and chihuahuas can throw switches. Pitbulls can kill. Electrified floors, pits, and trapdoors can surprise. A careful combination of multiple elements is needed to make a home truly safe.

Once a player enters this world, they must customize his or her house. The family has to be able to safely flee, and the player must prove he can reach the vault without using any tools or dying. Beware though, as there’s no way to save and an avatar can die at this point in the game, a victim of his own traps. Once some proves the home could be robbed, you’re then free to leave your house and start robbing others.

Upon breaking into someone else’s home, the fog of war covers everything. The house is completely dark and only a few spaces around the player is visible. They must carefully explore, hopefully finding their way to the home’s vault. If it is reached and breached, you can help yourself to whatever’s inside. If you have a weapon, you can even kill the home owner’s wife and get half of his money as a “reward.” Single use tools, like wire-cutters, saws, bricks, doorstops, drugged meat, explosives, and ladders can be purchased to make each breaking and entering a little easier. However, you never know what traps and secrets a home may hold, and

castle doctrine jason rohrer

Pitfalls and pratfalls

I think The Castle Doctrine‘s premise is brilliant. There’s so much potential here, but the execution is lacking. Nothing is explained. It happens, and I could accept that if this were a game with some leeway towards players, but there is none. People are thrown in with nothing explained, not even controls, and expected to make due and learn from experience.

This can lead to unfortunate and frustrating circumstances. You can spend 10 to 20 minutes setting up an initial security system with your first $2,000 and think everything is just right. Except, when you run the initial test proving you can reach the vault without dying, you can actually die. Which means that your initial plotting and work can be a total waste if you’re just starting out and don’t realize your own pit bulls don’t recognize you as their master and are waiting to nosh on your femurs. You have to start all over.

A grace period would be appreciated. Many times, I didn’t attempt elaborate traps or scenarios because testing to see if it would actually work as intended would result in my own demise. Sure, you can see Security Tapes of other invaders failed and successful attempts into your home to see if what you have would work, but this could also result in the loss of your family and damage to your security system. I understand, there are no grace periods in real life, but there should be some level of forgiveness in a game. Even rogue-like RPGs offer some kind of tutorial, or option to retain one or two weapons upon death.

Then, there’s the first time you successfully rob a house and realize you aren’t going to get anything out of it. When you head into someone else’s home, you can kill their wife to get half of their cash and raid their vault. Except, someone else may have already been there and killed the wife, and the vault might be totally empty. I don’t know if I was perhaps missing something, due to there being no explanation, but there were two times when all my efforts and money spent on home-invading tools was for naught because there was nothing for me to take once I successfully broke into another home. I entered the home and saw the wife’s body on the ground. I reached the vault and it was empty. I could have sworn when I looked at the house in the list, it said the owner had money. But I came away with nothing.

Not to mention the joy of learning you can lose all tools and weapons just for setting foot in an opposing house, seeing more pitbulls coming at you than pieces of drugged meat on hand, and backing out. I developed a system where I would walk in, scope out the scene, walk out, buy any tools I may need, then head back inside. You have to learn these little tricks to avoid frustration, but even they might fail you when you realize most people will play “cheap” and turn their homes into free-range pitbull kennels. For every one home that actually houses a brilliant security system, there are 10 with pitbulls everywhere. While I appreciate the freedom to customize our homes however we’d want, some kind of checks-and-balance system to prevent “cheap” houses would be appreciated.

Frankly, it got to a point where Castle Doctrine wasn’t actually about playing the game. After about two hours, I had a good house layout that I liked. (I won’t share its layout, because my current house uses a variation of it and that’s exactly what you’d want me to do.) I’d even caught 7 other players in my “web,” collecting their bounties. My wife was dead, so I didn’t have to worry about her losing a cut of the money. I was just waiting for other fools to try and break in, so I could use those funds to build up my home. Castle Doctrine turned into a puzzle game for me, where I’d see how many people I could take out with my traps. It was fun, in a way, but not always satisfying when I knew I was only enjoying part of the experience.

And then, I got impatient. Tired of waiting, I suited up with some weapons, tried to bust into someone else’s home, and died. There was a cat I only saw for a moment. It ran onto a pressure sensitive plate and I died. My home with a $10,000 security system, my pocket change, and my virtual life were gone. It was two days before I was able to bring myself to go back and start over, and I’m a changed woman.

I’m gunshy. I enjoy the world, the environment, seeing other people’s homes, and watching security tapes of people invading my house, but I’m not having fun anymore. I’m just biding my time and surviving. Castle Doctrine has become work for me. I attempt to build a massive complex, and let other players test my traps for me to see what works. I savor the detailed, yet retro graphics and the game’s potential, but don’t dare risk my life and recovered fortune again.

castle doctrine jason rohrer

Castle Doctrine is trying.

It’s clear from playing The Castle Doctrine that Jason Rohrer has a vision and is setting out towards an uncompromisable goal. It’s admirable, especially since there are glints of genius. Players are given everything they could possibly need to make the most formidable and uncrackable deathtrap, even though we all logically know there must be some way to solve it without any tools. It perfectly combines roguelike and puzzle attributes in a melange of mind-wrenching glory.

Yet, despite that genius, Castle Doctrine is a game only some will actually enjoy. I see people out there with amazing homes, tons of money, and I’m guessing they’re having an amazing time. They’ve mastered the game. I’m not sure how, because even 10 hours invested, I still can’t come close to making mansions like theirs. And, I’m dissuaded from leaving my own home to rob others to get ideas and more money, because I don’t want to lose the progress I’ve made to one of the numerous “cheap” traps.

I will say this, The Castle Doctrine conveys a sense of hopelessness and despiration unlike any other. The learning cliff (there’s no curve here), permadeath, and other players’ reliance on cheap tactics leave you wondering if its even worth the effort. It is for some, but others should appreciate such a game exists to offer this kind of challenge, and move on.

The Castle Doctrine

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