This review is based on the current alpha build of the game. We'll re-review the game once it is complete.
I return home from a failed burglary, pit bull spit still drying on my trousers, to find my children motherless and my vault empty. This isn't my first dead wife, but I'm determined she'll be the last. Not out of respect, not even out of basic human decency. I play on with a dead wife in the middle of my house because it makes the game easier.
Drastic? Yes, but then Jason Rohrer's The Castle Doctrine is punishingly difficult. It's a turn-based multiplayer game where you play both dungeonmaster (of your own house) and potential burglar of everyone else's, and I'll take whatever help I can get. As my wife is dead, I don't have to worry about her getting robbed of half of our belongings as she flees another burglar.
I build my dungeon up around her corpse and carry on.
In each life you're given an empty house, a family, a vault, and $2,000 dollars. The money is for traps to fill your plot with. Pits, electric flooring and pit bulls can all turn bastard burglars to mush, while a power supply, wiring, switches, modifier switches and walls give you the tools to create a house that would make serial killer H H Holmes proud. You paint the walls, wiring and traps, like an architect and builder rolled into one. Then you refine and fiddle, and try to not kill yourself with your own traps. It's all trial and error – there's no tutorial. Do you know what a wire bridge is? It took me some dedicated and frustrating hours, and other players posting examples online, before I found out.
Every step a burglar makes allows the NPCs on the map – your animals and family – to advance one square. I copy a simple trap I found online that uses a pit bull to stand on a floor switch that engages an electrified floor, then lock the dog behind a powered door.
Why is it important that the dog be caged? Because the game demands that you're fair to those attempting to rob you – they need to be able to get to your vault without tools. They can screw up and die, but as long as you have proved it's possible, you're good to go. I try to subvert the floorplan, hiding the vault elsewhere, and leaving the pit bull to roam so he can re-engage the electric floor. It's time for me to do some burglary.
I thought I was cunning, but my house pride evaporates when I see what others have built. Even though I had saws, crowbars, water to short electric circuits and drugged meat to help me break in, there's some fucked up feng shui out there. For burglars, a house's layout is hidden by an RTS-style fog of war.
I pop into one of the top houses on the leaderboard. Each step is an education in the automation a cunning designer can make: somewhere in this house, cats and dogs are hitting switches that loop a current that sets the electrical flooring off behind me, forcing me into traps. Pit bulls chase me down and doors slam in my face, while others open and release more bloodthirsty hounds. Other houses are nothing but pit bulls in empty rooms – but only the owner knows the right sequence of steps that will allow them to slide past the danger. Those houses are not fun.
If you're comfortable with Minecraft's redstone circuits, you'll probably find a lot to like in The Castle Doctrine. People have made amazing things – but that's in spite of the wilfully obtuse design that left me begging for help.
Expect to pay: $11 / £7 ($22 / £14 when out of alpha)
Release: Out now
Developer: Jason Rohrer