Review – Castle Morihisa
The video game world is not a binary place of winners and losers. Whenever a title launches, critics like to dub it with ridiculous monikers like “The God of War killer” or “The Resident Evil rival.” But multiple games for similar/same genres can coexist peacefully, often without impacting the community or sales of other games. So when I found out there was an upcoming deckbuilder that contained roguelite elements and was suspiciously like Slay the Spire, I took it as a good sign. After all, Slay the Spire is one of my guilty pleasures when I want to just play a game for five minutes and then lose a good hour or two. Honestly, if Fights in Tight Spaces ever wanted to do a Switch release, I’d probably double dip and get that game for mobile play, as it also had some great deckbuilding elements with more of a linear approach. But I digress: a directly influenced game that nodded towards Slay the Spire sounded right up my alley. Also, saturated in Japanese lore? Yes please.
Castle Morihisa is the first game from Smokingbear Studios, and it’s ambitious as hell right from the getgo. Set in the distant Edo era, you play one of several spies sent forward by metsuke Munenori Yagyuu to investigate Castle Morihisa, where it’s believed that the Ishikawa family is planning to overthrow the emperor. This is mostly because every emissary sent there has failed to return, making me think that Ishikawa Shinjuku (the head of house) might be murdering people instead of actually trying diplomacy. The path to Castle Morihisa is a turbulent one, full of demons, ghosts, and evil entities that have aligned with the Ishikawa clan. Thankfully, you are, in theory, one of four brilliant spies who have strength, cunning and endurance on your side, and you can make the journey and find out the whispered ideas of the Ishikawas once and for all.
Castle Morihisa is a multi-pathed roguelite card game that’s broken into various stages. Each stage may be one of several things, which are combat, treasure, camping or a happening. Combat is where the card aspect of the game comes into play the most, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves too quickly. You’ll have a choice per movement on the map which kind of encounter you’ll have, giving players a chance to shape the game as they see fit: sometimes you might have no choice and decide between three combats, or sometimes you’ll be able to go multiple movements before needing to fight anything. It allows for some interesting strategy, as the payout to combat isn’t necessarily as lucrative as others.
I’ll do my best to stop dropping Slay the Spire into the review too much, but it’s the best frame of reference to understand how the game works on a surface level. Draw five cards per turn, play them using a set amount of action points, and each card has a different value. For Castle Morihisa, cards are attack, defend, skill and tactics. Skills and tactics can create additional effects on the battlefield, with skills happening in the moment and tactics lasting until the battle is over.
You can use defense cards to reduce or prevent the damage the enemy does next turn, you attack to whittle down their hit points, and various status ailments can occur that’ll change up how the game is going. Most of it feels self explanatory, and there’s a decent attempt for the game to allow you to navigate through the game fields with the right joystick in order to see what literally anything can mean. For example, the enemy will have small markers underneath their health bar, and some you might have no idea what they mean just from sight. I would think a cross would mean holy damage or something, but apparently that means the enemy will come back to life after you defeat them. Awesome.
When combat concludes, you’ll get some cash and an additional card added to your deck. The money can be used at a store that is literally always available as long as you’re not in the middle of the fight. The store of Castle Morihisa is interesting: not only does it allow you to purchase additional cards, they also have one time use cards that’ll appear in your deck only for the next combat, kind of like a temporary boost when you’re feeling a bit down or unsure about the future. Since the store always exists, it also has the option to pay to refresh the store’s inventory, giving you a fresh chance at some new cards. Lastly, and this’ll segue into the next unique aspect of the game, you can buy trait points, which are used to unlock permanent buffs and changes on a skill wheel. Let’s take a look at that wheel, shall we?
The skill wheel of Castle Morihisa is both uniquely interesting and excessively frustrating. On the one hand, there’s no way to really make it in the game without utilizing the skill wheel: being able to create circumstances where the enemy gets extra damage if you do one thing, or you heal up yourself if you do another, is a major tide turner. On the other hand, most of the skills worth having are on the outermost ring of this concentric setup, and those both cost the most and cannot be accessed without unlocking skills that connect you to it.
For example, I really wanted to have the skill where I dealt five damage to each enemy every third turn, as the combats run long and that’d be super helpful. Yet, if I want that, I first need to unlock a bunch of bull skills, like “earn 20 coins if you deal the exact damage needed to kill an enemy.” I get that you need to put the good prizes with the higher price tag, but I don’t like that I first need to claim the tin whistle and the slap bracelet before I can finally win a teddy bear. Dick and Busters would never work if that were the case.
Conceptually, I really enjoy the look and feel of Castle Morihisa. The design of the world and incorporating in lots of yokai inspiration and ancient Japanese magic ideas is a clever one, and not something unfamiliar to the ecosphere. The mixing of real life Edo era figures as good guys fighting very fictitious bad guys is a great setup and keeps things engaging. Also, the designs themselves translate very well into how they look in the world.
Instead of a potentially bland map, the layout feels like an ancient plotting of ancient Japan, complete with great markers for elite enemies (mini bosses with better rewards) and the bosses themselves. When I dive into combat, each monster feels a bit different. Whether its a zombie villager, some kind of demonic samurai or a firebreathing karakasa, it all looks incredible. Smokingbear really hit the nail on the head with the artwork, and it even translates well into the different cards.
Also, there are extras within the game that lends itself to potentially fantastic strategy. For example, elite monsters and events can give you quests, which are parameters set in a scroll that then give you some kind of benefit (upgrade a card, give you cash, heal, etc.). The quests and their rewards are scaled to make easier tasks give you little perks and more daunting ones (finish a combat in under four turns) give you much better rewards.
Once the quest is complete, it’s up to you to decide when to claim it. So if you just scored a recovery of 15 health but you’re doing well in the HP department, you can just hold onto that until you’re ready. It makes a lot more sense than just defaulting to wasting such a great reward simply because you don’t need it at the time.
The use of spiritual skills was also interesting. You can channel a fallen hero at the start of each level to gain a new, limited use function that can drop anytime during combat. For example, you can instantly deal 30 damage to someone, destroy their armor, or quickly heal 10 damage, which are all game changing moments. However, you can only do it three times for the entire run, so, if you’re oldschool Final Fantasy like me and kept your elixirs until the final battle, you end up forgetting you can even do these skills until after you’re dead.
So, here’s where things get tricky. Now that we’ve established a bit about Castle Morihisa, it becomes imperative to look at the good and bad and I am trying to be objective about this. The reason I say trying is because I am very, VERY frustrated with how much the game crashes. I keep putting off finishing my review because I was hoping that Smokingbear would release a patch before the game launched, but it’s looking less and less likely.
There are cards that simply don’t work, and cause you to enter a failstate that you can’t get out of. The onmiyoji, one of two initially available character classes, has cards that allow you to look into the deck and toss some away, but they don’t work. The combat just freezes when I look at the cards, and the only thing I could do was start the fight over again and choose not to use that card. In a different battle when I played as the monk, the game continually started chugging and crashed if I defeated the enemies in the wrong order.
I had to figure out, through trial and error, how to fight these three monsters and finish them before the game decided it was tired. Even then, when I did it successfully, the crash message still appeared, but the game let me keep going. I played about two more encounters before I had to force quit because the crash error wouldn’t go away.
As of this writing, a final patch before launch (126.96.36.199) has been applied, and, at the very least, it seems to have resolved the onmiyoji card issue, but I haven’t been able to duplicate the conditions for the monk battle, so I can’t confidently say that THAT has been fixed. Seriously, am I just supposed to pivot my entire review at the zero hour because a patch invalidates the complaints I had for a majorite of my playing? The reason I haven’t gotten back to that exact battle is my biggest complaint with Castle Morihisa: it’s really, really freaking unbalanced.
I understand that certain other deckbuilding card games have had the benefit of being out for a while and slowly patching in better cards, new mechanics and balancing out baddies, but Castle Morihisa is apparently launching with the idea that punishing players for RNG is a totally legitimate approach. There are runs where I can’t get past the second combat encounter because the card conditions simply are unfavorable.
The base decks that each character have are pitiful, and the balance of damage dealt vs. damage received is often very one sided. The incentives for completing each round help, but that also depends on what your skill wheel looks like and how quickly you can unlock something to help boost at the beginning of the fight. Campgrounds are common enough, but RNG can sometimes limit them to once every five encounters, resulting in you being down to single digit HP in a game where early enemies have no problem dealing 12-15 damage in a single round. Then, if you manage to pull the right cards early (healing cards for example), the balance swings wildly around, and now you’re placated with surprisingly simple combat right up until the level advancement and now you’re back in the shit.
The final insult is that there’s no point in re-running the game. When you conclude a game of Castle Morihisa, you earn nothing. You get a point total that unlocks nothing, and then you can start over again if you want. I imagine that things might be different if you can unlock those two additional character classes, but that would involve getting past the third level, which I was unable to do in spite of at least a couple hours a day for over a week now. There’s no incentive to keep playing if you feel the game is unfair: it gives you a number, a pat on the head and tells you to start the whole cycle again.
We believe and know, as consumers, players and insiders for the video game industry, that it’s expected that a game can be patched and tweaked to improve on its performance and enjoyment. That’s why I sincerely like Early Access on Steam, as it sets expectations appropriately. But a title that hits the eShop with brazen fanfare needs to capture my heart the first time around, not the eighth or the twelfth. Castle Morihisa is a pretty facade with some unique ideas and the skeletal integrity of an arthritic horse. It might carry you a short distance, but it’s going to collapse, and definitely before you get to where you want to go. Some players might find satisfaction in conquering a game that feels stacked against them, but that’s just not my cup of tea.
Superbly designed sprites and gorgeous card work mesh well with the historic ideology and maps.
There’s a lot of balls in the air in order to keep the game moving forward, and it can get daunting.
A solid set of sound effects combined with a decent ambience, it’s good, just not great.
Hitting my head over and over again just to be told to “do it better” is the opposite of my idea of a good time.
Final Verdict: 6
Castle Morihisa is available now on Steam and Nintendo Switch.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.
A copy of Castle Morhisa was provided by the publisher.