Date: May 17, 2023
Even though Castle of Alchemists, a new tower-defense/action hybrid game developed by Team Machiavelli, just entered Early Access on Steam, it doesn’t really feel like it. Instead, it feels like a complete game, with plenty of polish and thought already put into it. While it is not a perfect experience, it already feels like a finished product, a solid realization of its core concepts. Its many systems are rich and deep, its core gameplay (both the tower defense and the action combat) is satisfying and balanced, and it all flows together smoothly and smartly. The only thing that it really feels like it needs is more content, which is a good spot for an Early Access game to be in.
Let’s take a step back, though. What is Castle of Alchemists. Well, it is a tower-defense game where you defend against waves of invaders by using a variety of traps, barriers, and towers to weave your enemies through as many obstacles as possible so they are taken out before reaching the end. It is also a top-down action brawler, where you control a genetically-altered supersoldier on the ground, making sure your traps do their job as you clear out waves and waves of enemy soldiers. All this wrapped up in thick layers of RPG-esque progression mechanics, seeing you upgrade your soldier, your weapons, and your traps to make you all the deadlier in the game.
So, that all sounds fine — tower defense and top-down action synergize well, and I rarely complain about deep upgrade systems. But, how does it actually play?
Well, pretty good, especially for a product this early in development. Immediately, I was struck by the clarity and simplicity of the mechanics, something which would prove the Castle of Alchemist’s biggest boon and its biggest flaw. Let me explain.
You begin each level (all of which are very well designed) in building mode, where you can play barricades, traps, and towers in order to slow and damage your enemies. This is about as simple as it gets: you don’t upgrade the traps, you don’t need to worry about repairs so long as you don’t block paths, and interactions between traps are fairly obvious (oil pools can catch fire, metal conducts electricity, etc).
While your creations will inevitably become increasingly complex over the course of a level, they are comprised of simple parts. This keeps Castle of Alchemists approachable, but it does make it very simple to know how what to do: you put together whatever traps syngerize best together, and make the route as circuitous as possible around your most important obstacles. Simple.
For better or worse, all you over the course of a level is density, not complexity. More stuff, but not particularly carefully placed stuff. While this makes for a nice introduction to the game, allowing you to immediately understand it and play well, it does sacrifice the mounting complexity that allows tower-defense to stay interesting into the late game.
While sufficiently advanced combat could make up for the simplified tower-defense mechanics — adding in a layer of complexity — instead it follows the same trend. You have two weapon slots, one for melee and one for ranged, and a small hotbar of abilities and “clockworks”, which function like grenades and mines (for the most part). Most of the game, I found myself mash-clicking on the enemies using a ranged weapon while watching cooldown timers on my clockworks.
Thankfully, the combat is meaty and satisfying, and the weapons themselves unique, because the actual loop is just very simple. Once again: it is easy to get into the game and really enjoy yourself, but there isn’t much meat on the bone to keep your attention as the game progresses. Operating at high efficiency is easy. While the game does punish mistakes, I found that I simply stopped making them by the third or fourth level.
Even as new upgrade mechanics were introduced and trap variants came into the picture, there was nothing that substantially deepened those two core loops of defense-building and combat.
In fact, the game’s progression falls into the same loop, though here I found it to be more of a relief. Castle of Alchemists has decided to keep each part of progression straightforward. Weapons and gear is tiered. Traps have a few variants, and you unlock more over time and can only take one to any given level. Your character is upgraded with simple, pure skill points, which give percentage-and-raw-numbers boosts to stats.
It’s all very easy to navigate, despite the many different places to navigate to. This ensures that you can quickly upgrade and fiddle with what you want and get back into an actual level quickly, confident in your loadout and abilities. While a similar kind of simplicity is a small hindrance to replayability when it comes to tower-defense and combat, here, it is welcome and smart. If I had to keep track of complicated skill trees and multi-trait gear upgrades, it would get tiring fast.
All this said, I should be clear that Castle of Alchemists is not simple to the point of mindlessness. There are tactics to how you place your traps, positioning your character to take on the horde is critical, and what upgrades are taken when is important. And all of these aspects are satisfying, well-balanced, and enjoyable (at least for a time). The game is well put together. My only gripe is that the various systems in it lack complexity, making the game less enjoyable as time goes on.
The other aspects of game, namely it’s aesthetics, are similar. The pixel art is well done, with stylized characters and nice environments that really do stand out and look good. But, it is nothing to write home about. You’ve seen this style of pixel art before, and it feels like it just needs some panache to really set itself apart. The music is similar — while it’s rock-inspired soundtrack is suitable, the fast, bloody combat and brutal traps almost demand DOOM levels of metal badassery. In short, the aesthetics are of good quality, but just aren’t quite enough, as is.
But, all that said, we are still early in development. More content will be added, and with it anything might be improved. It is not hard to imagine the systems growing more complex, the aesthetics getting some extra love to put them over the top, and the amount of content increasing to truly legendary proportions.
Unfortunately, that isn’t the game I’m reviewing. The game I’m reviewing is the earliest build in Early Access — a polished title that is great fun for a few hours, and which has a distinct feel and entertaining gameplay loops. But also a game with not enough depth and that is just not quite there when it comes to realizing itself.
If they keep improving on that, I can see this game easily being the kind of time sink that I can lose days to, and one that I could rate a 9 or higher on the merits of its interweaving systems. As is, however, the game’s myriad simple mechanics hold it back, and so my rating is fairly reserved. Assume that this 7 is bursting at the seams, however; I can’t wait to see where Castle of the Alchemists will go.
Castle of Alchemists released on May 17th, and you can find it on Steam here.