The Keep is a first-person, tile-based 3D dungeon-crawler that harkens back to the days of ye olde and brings with it a satchel full of nostalgia that’ll get your 10-sided die rolling and your sword+1 swinging. Developer Cinemax has weaved together a marvellous, albeit fairly uninspired, fantasy romp that brings together pleasurable exploration, light environmental puzzle-solving, character leveling, a robust combat system and a rather unique spellcasting system and wraps it up neatly in a ‘crawler that is both engrossing and a ton of fun, but is somewhat held back by its conflicted identity-crisis.
The story takes place in the Kingdom of Tallia where an evil mage called Watrys has been up to no good. Watrys has been kidnapping children from the local villages and forcing them to work as his slaves. You, the hero, arrive on the scene and it is your job to venture into Watrys’ nefariously designed tower and rescue the lost children. The narrative is reasonably straightforward stuff and, as a vehicle for delivering the gameplay, works well and sets the scene nicely. Though there are a couple of poorly delivered lines here and there, the voicework on the whole is pretty decent for such a small-scale title and really helps to lift the narrative beyond its humble been-there-done-that setup.
From the get-go it’s pretty clear that this game has been heavily inspired by Almost Human Games’ brilliant ‘crawler The Legend of Grimrock, so much so that it could quite easily be referred to as a clone. The puzzles, user interface, combat and dungeons are pretty much lifted straight out of Mount Grimrock’s dark and dingy mythos. Despite a lack of any real innovation and a distinct lack of personality, The Keep still manages to deliver a satisfyingly enjoyable experience.
The controls are well designed and are reasonably intuitive. The 3DS’ stylus and touchscreen are used to control the in-game cursor which is the player’s way of interacting with the environment, managing their inventory, unleashing magic spells and going toe-to-toe in melee combat with the numerous enemies that are waiting patiently in the dungeons below. The 3DS’ buttons are used sparingly and the game relies heavily on touchscreen inputs, which to some maybe a little off-putting. Yes, it does take a little getting used to, and yes, I would’ve appreciated a more button-focused option to control the game. Nevertheless, despite the slightly finicky and occasionally unresponsive nature of the touchscreen inputs, overall The Keep’s controls do an ample job of bringing you into the game’s world.
Melee combat within The Keep is real-time and does take a little getting used to. The touch-screen in combat is made up of nine-squares, a little bit like a game of noughts and crosses (or tic-tac-toe). Swiping the stylus through three squares in one row executes a spatially-related strike from your weapon. For example, swiping the bottom three squares from left to right executes a low, sweeping strike with your sword and vice-versa, swiping the top three squares from left to right will perform a high weapon strike.
A big part of the combat is mixing up the angles of your attacks as enemies often carry shields or possess vulnerable spots that need to be exploited to bring them down quickly. I know what you’re thinking: I’m going to swipe the screen as fast as I can and take those badboys down quicker than you can say “Dungeons and Dra-” …wait a minute, hold on there! – that plan is unfortunately scuppered by a stamina system that prevents you from spamming the attack button ad nauseam. The stamina bar helps balance the game’s combat and much like the other magic and health attributes, can also be upgraded as you level up your character.
Casting magic spells is also pretty neat in The Keep. As you progress through the dungeons, the player will discover runes that can be used to cast spells. Magic spells in The Keep have a “recipe” which is made up of the different types of runes and the order with which the runes are to be used in. Swiping over the runes will unleash that particular spell and it’s super fun experimenting with the magic system and building up a menagerie of pain on your magic touch-screen.
Visually, The Keep is a lovely looking game with a pleasant, though slightly unimaginative low-fantasy art-style. Some of the game’s lighting stands out and adds a little much-needed atmosphere into the mix. It also looks really great in 3D. The music is unfortunately a little bland and uninspired, but it doesn’t interfere too much with the overall experience.
The Keep is an engrossing, pocket-sized dungeon-crawler that, despite being somewhat overly familiar, is a genuine pleasure to play. If you’re on the look-out for a healthy dose of nostalgia, or hankering for a slow, methodical crawl through the cruel, dark depths of arachnid-infested dungeons, then The Keep may well be just what the witch doctor ordered.
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