STAFF REVIEW of Mystery Castle (Xbox One)

Saturday, May 14, 2016.
by Adam Dileva

Mystery Castle Box art To some, puzzle games may fall into a niche category, which can be true, but to others, they can be just as memorable as some of the biggest and most popular titles as well. I fall into the latter, where I have some great gaming memories that come from some of the best classic puzzle games. For instance, my favorite puzzle game of all time is an old NES classic, Adventures of Lolo, which my current review of a game called Mystery Castle really reminds me of in certain aspects.

Most puzzle games have something unique about them that makes them stand out against the competition in the genre, whether it be the teleportation aspect of Portal or the time powers of Braid. Some simply rely on their charm and clever-yet-challenging puzzles to carry its own weight. While Mystery Castle may not have a special mechanic that makes it stand out brightly against the competition, what it does have is a more tried and true approach to the genre, crafting some very cunning and challenging puzzles that will be sure to stump even the most veteran players. Sticking to the more tried and true path isn’t necessarily a bad thing as long as the gameplay works well and the puzzle difficulty is refined, both of which Mystery Castle possesses.

Most puzzle games simply focus on gameplay and forgo even attempting to try and tell a compelling story. Mystery Castle attempts to remedy this by adding a narrative that follows a stocky wizard who must explore different castles, each of which has over 30 floors to complete, before liberating each one from the boss that has overtaken it. Even though the hero doesn’t have any real magic, he is still the one that the residents of the castles ask for help, presumably since there’s no one else that can take on this task.

Sure, it’s a weak premise for a story, but at least there’s an attempt, and the humorous writing makes it passable. Given that I was fully expecting no story at all, it’s a welcome addition, and the amount of fat jokes from the people he’s trying to help is at times worth a chuckle or two. If you’ve ever wanted to play a puzzle game that had cheesy fat jokes in it, Mystery Castle is your dream come true.

Each of the 180 levels, save for the bosses, has you collecting 5 objects (snowflakes, parchments, diamonds, etc) before the exit door will open allowing you to progress to the next stage. The first handful of levels are incredibly easy and will have you thinking that you will complete the game in no time, but new mechanics are eventually introduced and the intricacy of the puzzles starts to become more and more complex, surely to stump the best puzzle solvers out there for some time.

Puzzles begin with simply having to push (not pull though, and yes, there’s a reason that’s explained) crates to unblock pathways and fill bottomless gaps, but soon you’ll have to also contend with floors that break away after one or two steps, monsters, keys, teleports, bombs, lava, ice, and more. Each of the castles has its own theme and presents its own challenges that are unique to itself, always sure to keep you on your toes just as you start to figure out the basic puzzle designs.

Runestone Games has done a great job at introducing each type of obstacle, be it an item or an enemy, and slowly ramps up the difficulty and complexity without hitting too many walls of difficulty out of nowhere. Mystery Castle is all about trial and error, and you’ll experience many stages where you’ll need to repeat it many times because of a simple mistake or poorly planned movement, but the pride you get when that “a-hah!” moment happens is fantastic as you make your way to the exit door.

Another thing about Mystery Castle is that it is very cheeky about is giving you either extra items (bombs, crates, etc.) or an ‘obvious’ path that you should take, when in reality these are ploys to fool you or make you overthink the solutions. So many times I was trying to figure out what I was supposed to do with the ‘extra’ crates or keys when they were actually simply there to distract or fool me into thinking a specific way (usually completely wrong). Most puzzle games give you only what you need to solve the stages, so once you come to the realization that Mystery Castle doesn’t follow this rule on purpose, you’ll figure things out much quicker.

Once you get a dozen or so levels into each castle you’ll find that each stage seemingly has a simple solution; that is until you get to the final step or object you need to collect, and you come to the realization that you’re stuck and need to restart. Some floors will require you to not only think two or three steps ahead, but way more than that if you don’t want to have to restart after becoming unable to complete it due to poor planning or a misstep. A quick tap of the ‘Y’ button zooms the screen out, allowing you to see the whole floor and strategize with an overview.

There are also some stages that not only require you to find the proper solution, but you have to time your movements correctly as well. These stages aren’t frequent, but they bring another layer of difficulty that forces you to think in other ways, even after you’ve figured out the puzzle aspect of the level. These levels can be tricky given the occasional stiff controls of our hero. Many times I walked into lava or fell into a pit due to the controls when I didn’t mean to at all because I was trying to rush to the exit. I love that there are also boss stages in a puzzle game, requiring you to use three bombs (it’s a videogame, of course it’s three) on said boss to recapture the castle.

Although I found that I enjoyed Mystery Castle, there was one issue that continually reoccured after every stage. When you complete a floor you’re taken back to the level select screen, but instead of defaulting to to the next floor, it stays on the one you just completed. I accidentally selected the same stage more than a few times forcing me to quit out and choose the proper one. Not a deal breaker by any means, just an annoyance that occurs after every stage. This would be alleviated if there was an option to simply go to the next stage after completing one, as that’s the norm for game design.

Mystery Castle is a very friendly looking and colorful experience. The character designs are fun and cartoony but the stages themselves all look familiar to one another for the most part. I get that they should all share the same theme given you’re making your way up a castle, but there’s no distinction between the floors aesthetically. As for the audio, there’s no voice acting for the dialogue, and while the music is suitable, it’s forgettable.

As mentioned above, Mystery Castle doesn’t necessarily do anything crazy or unique to separate itself from others in the genre, but what Runestone Games did perfectly was recapture that nostalgic feel of the older puzzle games, much like my beloved Adventures of Lolo. With 180 levels to solve, some will be completed in moments while others will have you stumped and turning to YouTube for a walkthrough, if you’re like me, to simply get to the next stage. Mystery Castle tends to follow specific patterns for level solutions, but it takes some time to figure out the tricks they use, and even then, you’re always thrown new obstacles to deal with to keep things fresh. Plus, who doesn’t want to laugh at a few fat wizard jokes while solving puzzles, right?

Overall: 8.0 / 10
Gameplay: 9.0 / 10
Visuals: 8.0 / 10
Sound: 6.0 / 10


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