With its charming retro graphics, Knights of the Phantom Castle might seem like a simple, mild-mannered throwback title. In reality, it’s anything but: its particular brand of real-time strategy gameplay is about as deep and hardcore as they come. So if you’re looking to invest some time and energy into a game, hop aboard the 16-bit train and let’s get rolling.
The storyline of Knights of the Phantom Castle could have come from a freshman taking Fantasy Writing 101. Basically, your kingdom had been existing peacefully until a mysterious castle appeared in the forest. Now all kinds of monsters are popping up, and it’s up to you to exterminate them as you figure out what’s going on. To do this, you must complete a series of missions using a team made up of a mage, ranger, healer, defender, soldier, and assassin.
Really, there’s nothing revolutionary about Knights of the Phantom Castle at all, but the game’s elements come together nicely once you understand them. Getting to that point, however, takes time. A multitude of tutorials and help screens walk you through the many components of the game, but because they’re so text-heavy and they’re dumped on you all at once, it’s easy to buckle under the load of information.
You speak in riddles, friend.
And even if you digest all of the information presented to you, you’re still left with plenty of questions. For instance, you’re briefed on what the healer’s charge attack does, but you’re on your own to figure out the rest of the characters’ charge moves. But if you motor on and tinker with the game once you’re out of the tutorials, you’ll figure it out eventually. We just wish players were eased into the game a little better.
Before each mission, you’re asked to select which characters you’d like to use and what weapons and armor to equip them with. Characters and equipment have point values, and you have a limited number of points to spend, so you’ll want to plan carefully. You’re then asked to assign strategies for each team member, like whether or not they should automatically attack enemies who come into range. For less detail-oriented folks, you can tap the “Recommended” button to have the computer make these decisions for you.
All this strategizing pays off once the action begins, and fighting is quite fun. Your characters each have three attacks. The standard attack is initiated by drawing a line from your character to the enemy you want to destroy. A quick attack is done by flicking your character in the direction you want them to attack. This method usually doesn’t inflict much damage, but it can halt an enemy’s attack. Lastly is the charged power, which is unleashed by holding down a finger on a character until a bar fills up. These are the most powerful attacks or spells, and they take the longest to recharge. Orchestrating all of your characters to use a combination of these attacks can become quite a task, but when you succeed it’s very satisfying.
Just another day at the goblin fort.
Moving around, on the other hand, is less satisfying. To move, you draw a line from your character to where you want him to go. You can even direct all of your characters to move at the same time, using multiple fingers. However, rather than following the paths you’ve drawn, they walk in straight lines toward their destinations, even if there’s a wall or another character in the way. They just keep walking into the obstruction like brainless automatons. This can cause you to fail a mission if your soldier can’t get around the mage to attack a goblin that’s launching fireballs at your party. We wish they’d given your characters some basic movement AI to navigate around obstacles.
Between missions, you can do things like check your stats, create weapons and armor, see detailed information about the enemies and items you’ve encountered, and read field notes your party members have recorded. The level of detail is immense, and strategy junkies will be pleased with the sheer number of options here.
Probably the biggest drawback in this game is the uneven difficulty. Out of nowhere, missions will pop up that pummel you to a pulp before you can say, “WTF?” On those occasions, we had to go back and grind through missions we’d already beaten in order to get materials to create more powerful weapons and armor. And your characters don’t level up, so upgrading your equipment is the only way to increase your stats.
It should be clear by now that Knights of the Phantom Castle is not for casual players. It takes a significant amount of time to learn the basics, but once you do, the game rewards dedication. The tutorials could stand to be improved, and the game gets maddeningly difficult at times, but the core gameplay is equal parts engaging and deep. For fans of hardcore RTS games, we can certainly recommend this as one of the best available on the iPad at the moment. For everyone else, you’ll probably want to stick with something a little more user friendly.