Review: Stronghold HD

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It’s strange that there aren’t more castle-builder games out there. It’s the thing that literally everyone who goes to the beach or gets in the vicinity of building blocks does, after all. But even after 15 years, we really just have the Stronghold series to fall back on. I’ve been looking at a lot of classic builder games lately and many don’t hold up well at all anymore, but I have to say that the original Stronghold managed to surprise me.

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As you’ve probably gathered, Stronghold puts you under the heavy brow of a king in command of a castle. Arranged much like an isometric real-time strategy game like Command & Conquer, most maps start you off on an undeveloped piece of land on which to place your keep and granary, and then fill in the buildings and walls from there. The maps are fake 3D, which is to say they’re 2D tiles placed at elevations to give the illusion of 3D, but they work better than the imperceptible voxel messes of early Tropico games.

The development of your castle is a pretty interesting balance of peasants and resources. You have a respect rating with your people, and as long as it’s positive new peasants will come to your keep to work for you. They’ll man the buildings you construct, from woodcutter sheds to apple orchards to blacksmith shops, and produce the raw materials you need to build and trade. As long as you keep up with their needs for food and shelter, your castle can continue to expand into a sort of walled town, complete with social edifices like churches and taverns and little decorations like flower beds.

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Your people also need security, which is what the walls and barracks and blacksmiths are for. Stronghold doesn’t just look like an RTS, it plays like one too. Depending on the scenario you might have to fend off wolves or bandits on the regular, or you might be scrambling to build an impenetrable castle before a siege-ready army arrives. Fielding your army is as simple as producing their weapons and churning them out of the barracks, but commanding them can be a bit touchy as it often is in older games like this. The lack of detailed commands almost makes the game play like a tower defense, watching the enemies stream in from marked paths and positioning your own troops as effectively as possible on your towers and at your gates.

There are two full campaigns to conquer, along with numerous single missions and an open-ended Siege mode. The military campaign features an entertainingly British story of betrayal and intrigue, and missions that have you both building castles to withstand sieges and besieging other castles. The economic campaign is much thinner on story and challenges you to produce certain goods under not exactly ideal circumstances. The HD upgrade the game got awhile back makes the visuals quite crisp and pleasing, and the sound design benefits from some excellent voice acting, detailed sound effects, and a terribly appropriate soundtrack. In the end it’s not such a bad thing that there haven’t been so many castle-builders in the last decade, because Stronghold still stands as an excellent execution of the concept.

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