The Castle Doctrine is a horrible game and it doesn’t like you. That’s not to say that it’s a bad game as such, it’s just not a friendly one. Designed by Jason Rohrer of ‘Inside a star-filled sky’ fame amongst others, ‘The Castle Doctrine’ has a point and it’s not afraid to irritate the players in order to drive that point home. It’s an admirable quality really, sticking to principles rather than giving in to popular tastes – but you have to understand what is being done before you decide to purchase. Rohrer is quite clear on his beliefs and is a fine example of a truly indie developer, the game even includes a file which expressly forgoes any kind of claim on copyright so you can do what you want with the game. That’s a brave move if you’re trying to make money from the industry but it’s also a breath of fresh air and a reminder of the strengths of PC gaming.
The game itself consists of two parts. You start in a house with $2000, a wife and two kids and a safe. The idea is that you build a series of traps in this house in order to protect the safe and your family from intruders. The budget of $2000 is quite restrictive at first but every piece is available straight away so you can build walls, pits, wiring and trapdoors as well as placing shotguns and guard dogs to try and catch intruders out. Once you have set up your maze of death and confusion you must run it yourself to prove that it’s possible without any tools. If you die, you actually die – but more on that later.
Once you’ve proven your house is possible to rob, you are presented with a list of other houses. Each house has next to it a number for how many people have attempted the house and then a number in red for how many died. There’s also an indication of the amount of money on offer. Before you go in you can buy tools that let you circumvent or destroy certain objects (including an expensive gun for shooting dogs) and then you can try the heist. At any point during the heist you can go back out the front door to abandon the run, or you can go for the vault. If you die, that’s it, no retries. If you get to the vault you get whatever’s in it, potentially stealing all of the hard earned money and items from a player. Of course at any time (including when you’re logged off) someone could do the same to you, depriving you of everything you’ve earnt. The paranoia of this happening is what leads to less than fun house designs. Most of the houses you encounter will be based around pitbulls because they chase you and kill you in one hit. In gameplay everything is turn based, everything moves one square when you do. Technically the dogs can’t ever catch you if you keep running but most houses are designed to block off your path to the exit as soon as possible, sealing your fate.
This death mechanic is what’s most interesting about the game. Rohrer has explained that it is a comment on the ridiculous lengths people are prepared to go to in defending their possessions, even going so far as to put their own lives at risk. When you try out your house your traps and guard dogs are just as vicious towards you as they are to anyone else, and if you die you lose everything. You don’t just lose your money, you lose your house too, you have to start the whole game all over again. This can be extremely frustrating when you’ve spent ages perfecting a house then die because you moved one square wrong or found yourself in an impossible to survive house. Obviously it makes death important and something to be feared (although the point would have been made better if your family could also be caught by your dangerous animals) but death comes so easily in the game it’s a constant cycle of building your house then dying, building your house then dying. Once you get better at the game you learn when it’s time to back out, but many players will never get to that stage due to immense frustration, and Rohrer seems fine with that.
The house I had built while we were testing the game revolved around a cheap but very common tactic. There’s a long corridor with an array of doors down it. Open the wrong door and a pitbull will chase you, get stuck down a dead end and you’re dead. Pick the right door and there’s a path to the vault. It’s basically cheesing the game but the satisfaction of watching tapes back ( you can see the progress of everyone who attempts your house at any time) and seeing a steady flow of money trickle in almost outweighs the same. When I logged on today to take some screenshots I checked my house and noticed no-one had robbed it for ages and nearly everyone was dying. Turns out someone had drugged one of the dogs while they were right next to the door and the houses save a certain amount of permanence. This meant that every new player who came in could take precisely one step and then they were killed, making the house impossible. As I mentioned it’s possible to notice these situations and turn around to get out, but it’s immensely frustrating to be killed by something that should be impossible, it should be possible to complete every level without tools but that’s clearly not the case.
The Castle Doctrine is definitely an interesting game and the lo-fi graphics and brutal mechanics help it to stand out from anything we’ve seen – but that doesn’t necessarily make it fun. There’s definitely a compulsive and addictive aspect to it, but it’s also immensely frustrating and troublesome. No matter what you do you’re likely to die or be robbed at some point and it’s likely to be sooner rather than later. For many that will be the end of their time with the game and they’ll simply give up. For £12.49 it might be worth it to some as a curiosity, for hardcore strategists it’s definitely worth it as an almost insurmountable but ever changing challenge. For casual gamers or anyone with little patience, it’s best avoided as it feels almost designed to make you ragequit.