by Matt Porter
reviewed on PC
Size isn’t everything
I’m not sure what’s so tiny about this keep, it seems pretty big to me. Rogue-likes are ten a penny these days, but each one tries to bring something slightly different to the table. In TinyKeep, you find yourself to be prisoner in some dark cell in an age long past - over a thousand years ago. One day you wake up to find a note and your cell door unlocked. It seems like it is time to escape the keep!
The keep is split into various levels which are randomly generated each time you start. While the dungeons are randomized, the objective is the always same for each level. In the first one, your objective is to find a sword to fight off guards and other beasties that present themselves further into the keep, as well as a shield to protect yourself from harm. In the second level you will be introduced to the idea of a boss character who you must defeat to progress. In the third, you’ll have to find coloured keys to open corresponding doors, and so on. If you die, you have to create a new prisoner and go all the way back to the start. It’s formulaic, but the randomisation keeps things interesting.
Time to die
TinyKeep is hard. I still haven’t been able to escape the dungeon with any of my prisoners, who now number in the dozens. Each time you reach a new location that you’ve never been to before, you feel a new sense of hope. That is, before some spikes impale you from below, or a huge monster comes round the corner and bludgeons your face. The character design has a cute sort of podgy style to it. Enemies amble around and become startled when they see you, before running towards you and flailing their weapons.
The AI isn’t good, but this is partly intentional. You are able to lure enemies onto the very traps that have been set to hinder you. You can lead them round a corner so that a spiked door swings back in their face, or through a room with a gigantic spinning mace thing. They’ll stupidly walk right into whatever’s in front of them, and you can reap the rewards of their idiocy by picking up the gold they drop when they die. In fact there’s an achievement for escaping the keep without actively attacking any guards. You can add that to the list of things I’ll never be able to do.
Gold is used for offering up at shrines. There’s usually one with a 100 gold pieces fee hidden in the level somewhere, as well as one next to the exit which costs a more reasonable 15 gold pieces. This is where you upgrade your character for the tasks ahead, and you will most certainly need to, as enemies get bigger, tougher, and deal more damage as you progress through the levels. When you pay, you get a random benefit. For example you might be able to run quicker (backwards or forwards), deal more damage, hit more than one enemy at once. Standard stuff. I found some to be fairly useless, particularly running backwards and being able to jump higher. Which made it all the more frustrating that I didn’t get to manually choose which upgrades I got.
The randomisation woes didn’t stop there either. On one playthrough, in the level where I was tasked to find coloured keys to open doors, I was faced with a long corridor without exits. Only a green locked door stood at the end, but my inventory was devoid of green keys. I backtracked several times to make sure I hadn’t missed anything and even attempted to jump through the geometry but to no avail. I was forced to give up and make a new character, though thankful that I had not been further into the game when I got stuck.
Intro to Rogue-likes
I admit it is odd to be comparing TinyKeep to Dark Souls, but that’s exactly the kind of combat loop I was experiencing, particularly against harder enemies. Block, move backwards, counter attack, repeat until dead or victorious. Of course in Dark Souls it’s more nuanced. Here it’s just basic. You get knocked out of attack animations by taking damage, and if you get swarmed by enemies - which happens every now and then - there’s not much you can do beyond take it and die. You can run away, but if you’re surrounded you’re going to be taking a lot of hits regardless. Also you inexplicably run at about half speed when you’re on fire, at which point you may as well just put the controller down.
It’s frustrating in more ways than Rogue-likes usually are. It’s fairly fun to play when the enemies are light and you can plan your routes, leading them onto traps and so on. But when melee combat is a necessity, things take a turn for the worse. You get stuck on objects that litter each room, which you then have to jump over, and you can’t block while jumping, obviously. It’s all just a bit of a hassle which, to be fair, I imagine escaping from a keep would be. That said, I like the style, and could potentially see TinyKeep as a light introduction to the genre but it is hard to recommend to veterans.
Fun character design, enjoyable to lure enemies into traps.
Randomness becomes frustrating at times, combat isn’t that good.