by Llewelyn Griffiths
reviewed on PC
CONJURED FROM THE 90s
Many niche genres from 30 years ago were momentarily forgotten when video games truly started to gain popularity in the mid to late 90s. However with the recent influx of indie games these past several years, developers have been dipping into this vast well of inspiration. The Keep decided to pull Stonekeep from the depths of 1995 and see what goodies it might behold for a modern reimagining. What you get is a grid-based, first person dungeon crawler with an emphasis on solving puzzles, finding secrets and vanquishing foes.
Movement is a little cumbersome at first. W, A, S and D are used for moving forwards, backwards and side to side, while Q and E are used for rotating at 90 degree intervals. It undoubtedly takes some getting used to, you’ll be lurching around corners, spinning around one turn too many and repeatedly smashing your face into walls. This might sound a bit maddening and honestly I’m over exaggerating, but it begs the question; in this day and age, why not stick to formal first person controls? Fortunately there’s a good reason for this, with grid based movement each action is very deliberate. Combat may be in real-time, but you still get the flavour of a turn-based system, allowing for intelligent play over brute force, at least, in theory, I’ll talk more about the combat later. The deliberate design also ensures puzzles are never ambiguously frustrating. The worst aspect of a bad puzzle game is misunderstanding the underlying systems, and the grid-based movement ensures this never happens. Allowing the player to enjoy the experience of figuring out a solution, without a voice in the back of their head questioning if they have missed something.
WORD-SEARCH FOR WIZARDS
There are two major aspects to the combat, melee and spellcasting. Melee combat has you swiping enemies on-screen with your mouse, sapping your stamina bar with each attack. With each consecutive hit you gain a combo point, unlocking another attack which requires a slightly more complex series of mouse movements. These attacks are portrayed as a watermark over the enemy’s body, with some attacks requiring you to swipe in the shape of an upside down letter L, or back and forth. Some combos never registered my mouse movements, though. Maybe this was due to my own incompetence, but regardless, it’s a system that doesn’t translate from the original version on the Nintendo 3DS.
Fortunately the spellcasting combat is much more rewarding, it also involves swiping the mouse, but the mouse and keyboard controls are better for this. In order to cast spells you will need to place a number of runes on a five by four grid. Swiping across the runes allows you to cast the spell. This is simple at first, but during the latter half of the game your entire grid will be covered in runes, and you can choose their position. If you’re like me you’ll be trying to optimise the space and the runes you have, allowing you to cast as many spells as possible without reconfiguring the grid. It’s sort of like a word-search for wizards. The incantation for a fireball is almost identical to an ice ball, so this means you can use a single common rune to help you cast more than one spell. But it doesn’t stop there, each rune has a separate cool down, making it harder to spam the more powerful spells.
You can probably tell I adore the spellcasting system, as it’s simple to begin with but it gives you enough room to experiment. However this potential is somewhat wasted, because most enemies have a distinct elemental weakness that you can exploit really easily. More worryingly, the game rarely throws more than one enemy type at any given time. This means there isn’t much of a necessity for creating efficient spell configurations, even at higher difficulties. My favourite part of the game had me frequently fighting two enemies at once, one weak to fire, and the other to ice and electricity. After a few minutes of head-scratching, I had configured a spellcasting grid that allowed me to fight both enemies at once. The process of figuring out that solution was very satisfying, it’s just a shame the game rarely gives you this opportunity.
KEEP IT UP
The puzzle solving usually involves finding keys, throwing stones to activate pressure plates, pressing buttons and pulling levers in the correct order. None of the puzzles will take you longer than a minute or two, and they begin to get repetitive as you begin to near the end. However they are satisfying enough to never get boring, and you’re always pressing onwards. Secrets are also abundant, rewarding exploration. My first playthrough had me discover less than half the secrets, and many secret rooms contain fairly considerable rewards too, such as new spells or armour.
Amongst these systems is a backdrop of light RPG mechanics. Progressing through the game and defeating enemies you will gain experience points, letting you improve your strength, intelligence or dexterity each time you level up. These three attributes never have any noticeable consequence, for instance all weapons can be equipped no matter what level you are. This robs you of any feeling that you’re actually specialising your character. Likewise with the armour, the decision of which pair of boots to wear is either obvious, or relatively non-consequential. Maybe I’m missing something, but I found it hard to experiment with different armour and weapon configurations when the inventory management makes it so difficult. It might sound like a minor issue, but when you can’t do basic actions such as swapping a stack of health potions with another item, any inclinations to experiment are diminished.
At the end of the day, I enjoyed my time with The Keep. I wouldn’t go as far to call it especially memorable, but the accessibility of its gameplay deserves recognition for anyone not-so familiar with dungeon crawlers. It’s the sort of game you can dip into, kill a few monsters and hop out again with a nice sense of achievement. Admittedly there is an elephant in the room, Legend of Grimrock from 2012 does almost everything The Keep does, except better. That isn’t to say The Keep doesn’t have a place, as if you aren’t familiar with RPGs and would prefer a much more casual experience, it’s still worth a look. The spellcasting has a surprising amount of depth too, so maybe if you’ve already tried Legend of Grimrock and want to play more, The Keep will keep you satisfied.
Very accessible, unique magic system, abundant with secrets
Awkward melee combat, frustrating inventory management, repetitive puzzles, lacking interesting decisions