Having games on the go has been a very important part of my life. I have been moving from one place to another quite a lot, because I had to, wanted to, or simply was curious if this new place was the one I could call my home till the end of my days. Because of this, games I could play on my laptop and handheld consoles like the DS and PSP were important to me. I always sought out games for these consoles that could be unknown and more obscure, just to see if I could experience something unique or at least entertaining. Through browsing the 3DS E-shop one day, I came across The Keep, a dungeon crawler that was exclusive to the 3DS. This intrigued me for two reasons. First, I love dungeon crawlers as they often combine intense combat-strategies with challenging puzzles. Secondly, it was made specifically with this console in mind. Whenever a game wants to take advantage of a system’s unique features, similar to how Castlevania titles for DS noticed they could use one of the screens for the map, I always grab it. Is this a keeper though?
Descend with a stylus equipped
As an unnamed hero, you are on a quest to end a wizard’s terror and free the children he has kidnapped and sent to the mines to find more powerful and dangerous crystals. The story gives a decent setup with a weak hero discovering powers for ending evil forces, characters providing a certain atmosphere, and neat lore for why children are captured and not adults. Despite this, the story is clearly only there for giving you reasons to crawl through the dungeons and to have a tad more story than a platforming NES-game usually had.
Speaking of which, you are set in a first-person, tile-based dungeon-crawler with the top-screen showing what you see. The bottom screen is used for a map that automatically updates as you traverse through the dungeons, item-pockets that have a lot of space, a combat-screen, a magic-screen, and one last menu for stats and equipment. It seems like a lot to manage, but the game automatically changes its setup depending on the situation you are in and you can freely change this should you wish for it. For example, if you are approached by an enemy, the game will change to a combat-screen automatically, and you can use the D-pad for quickly swapping between the bottom screens.
From here, we can basically split the game into two aspects: puzzles and combat. When the map-screen is up, you can touch the bottom-screen to interact with the environments on the screen above, point and click style. There are plenty of secrets held in these caves, and finding them will demand you looking around and being aware of your surroundings. Not to mention finding keys for doors, carefully avoid traps, and discovering hidden buttons or fake walls are always a treat. These secrets to find treasures to aid you are not terribly hard to find if you just pay attention, but always feels rewarding as you must take caution of your surroundings. Making this exploration-aspect fun, are the puzzles accompanying them. Either by figuring out the right pattern for traversing carefully, finding out what the switches activate and deactivate, throwing rocks at the right tile depending on the strength of your throw and much more, are always good brain teasers. They never overstay their welcome, but are challenging enough to never make a segment dull.
When it comes to combat, it is in real time and upwards to two enemies in the front and two enemies behind them can appear in one tile alone. When activating melee-combat, you will be presented with a 3X3 grid on the bottom screen. Here, you must slide the stylus depending on where you want to hit the enemies and it really matters where you attack. For example, a small spider must be sliced with the lower row in mind, though a fighter with a shield might lose balance if you slice from the side and try to knock him over. It is really engaging and interesting to see how much your swings matters, and this also affects you, making armor not only important for overall defence, but also where they defend you.
You will also be able to use special combo-attacks which are unique for each weapon, should your attacks hit. Even better, is if you hit one or two more times without sliding your stylus to use the special attack, it will become stronger. However, don’t think you can just slice in just the right spot and hope to win easily. Besides your items, is a yellow gauge that functions as your stamina and it will deplete with each swing and the amount you lose depends on your weapon’s weight. This is great for making strategies for what stats you want to focus on when you level up and what items you will equip as they often are specified for what kind of fighter you want your player to be.
A neat element for leveling up is that you gain XP both through finding new areas and killing enemies, which makes both combat and exploration equally important. With each level gained, you will acquire three points that can be spent on strength, intelligence and dexterity, which will affect, health, mana, stamina, armor, and attack differently. You can also level up your melee-level by using weapons and your spell-level by using magic. Yes, as you might already have figured so when intelligence was mentioned: magic will also be an important asset to your abilities.
Throughout the game, you can find hidden runes for combining and casting spells, which are very powerful, but hard to come by. Presented by a grid with 4X5 tiles, you must rearrange the runes to be able to connect them quickly with the stylus to cast spells. These range from healing and supportive magic, to offensive spells such as freezing enemies or frying them. However, finding out how to cast them will require either tinkering with different combinations or finding scrolls that show in which order you must slide your stylus over to cast what spell. Though these can be powerful, you will have both a mana-gauge that refills automatically though slowly, and the runes themselves have cooldowns depending on how rare they are. You can also find crystals to make individual attacks stronger, and that’s about it. It might sound complicated, but you are eased into this so nothing becomes overbearing.
The best part about this game however, is how the levels focus on being always aware of your surrounding, both with exploration and combat in mind. These are short levels, but there are no shops so you must scavenge as much as you can and decide if attacking an enemy will be worthwhile or your doom. While you can slowly heal yourself automatically, both with health and mana, it is incredibly time-consuming and some enemies can heal themselves too, unless you find a way to stun them. Approaching the exit to a dungeon will tell you the number of secrets you found, enemies you killed, and children you saved, all giving you valuable XP. It is your choice on what to do though; if you neglect to seek out more danger, you might save up on potions, but maybe you will lose some valuable loot? It is also hard to run out of space as you do have plenty of it, as long as you don’t hoard unnecessary armor you won’t use. I love this risk vs reward system, especially since it makes it so you choose your challenge.
I also love how these dungeons can combine your skills and test your ability to think diversely. I want to elaborate on a favorite example of this: when I activated a door for proceeding, a bunch of soldiers came at me and it would have cost me plenty of potions and time if I tried to handle them directly. Then, I noticed a switch and by flicking it, I activated a magical trap. Running the opposite way to avoid the attack, I disposed of every soldier and escaped unharmed. This was fantastic, but I was on the other side of my destination and couldn’t deactivate the trap without getting killed. I looked through my scrolls and found a spell that made me immune for 12 seconds and with no other possibilities, I gave it a shot. I made it barely through and this is only one example of how being creative can help you make this game easier and I love The Keep for it.
There is so much to enjoy in this game, making the setbacks thankfully minor. There are only ten stages in total, and while they are lovely challenges and don’t overstay their welcome, the game could have used more variety when it comes to the enemies. There are plenty to choose from, such as soldiers, ghosts, zombies, and spiders, but they don’t change enough to really become interesting and some appear more often than others. They do make you change your strategy by having some foes be immune to melee attacks or neglect magical attacks, but more variety inside the dungeons could have gone a long way to make fights more engaging. The last and only boss is also quite easy to stun and kill without being hit yourself. However, he can be a demanding challenge if you didn’t look thoroughly in each area. Still, what I got overall was a great time and since the game is short (7 hours), a seasoned expert in this genre might be intrigued by the permadeath option.
Gameplay Score: 8.5/10
Standard, but serviceable
For any 3DS title, the quality of the 3D-effects will be a topic of discussion and it is well utilized here. The enemies pop out nicely with their attacks reaching you, and the effects work great to create immersion. The caves themselves are also nicely designed and the characters and creatures fit with this fantasy world. Sadly, the caves can become incredibly repetitive thanks to reusing the same layers on the walls, and almost half of the game uses one style for the caves instead of varying them up. It makes it a bit of a bore to venture through, despite the tension a dark cave can provide. There is a decent variety in enemy-design, but they lack an interesting art-style or details, and are rather traditional and unimaginative. The soldiers can also have quite blocky designs.
Despite this, the interface is actually quite nice with neat details such as having a rocky background with sheets of paper for a map, fitting the concept of crawling through caves, and the animations for the enemies are decent. What is the best part about this game’s presentation are the sound effects. Hearing crawling critters around the corner, torches sparking with fires, and cries from imprisoned children echoing, give these dungeons an uneasy vibe to them and you never feel truly safe. The music accompanying these areas are also mindfully composed, with plenty of dark instruments used to create moods, such as cello. A good set of headphones are recommended.
There is some voice acting for small dialogue-segments, but these are very hit and miss. The evil wizard has a sarcastic and rusty, though generic tone, and the same goes for the soldiers, but the prisoners sound like they just got a script and tried their best to nail it in one shot, and the hero sounds incredibly bored. The storyteller is my favourite as he has a soothing and grim voice, adding to this dark world. The cutscenes accompanying our storyteller’s voice are lovely paintings and set the mood for the next chapter you will venture through.
Presentation Score: 6.5/10
The Keep simply knows what it needs to do. It takes the traditional dungeon crawler and makes it work with the 3DS-capabilities in mind, with some very admirable concepts. Using the touchscreen for combat, magic, and puzzle-solving was a lovely touch and who doesn’t love to have a map available at all times in an exploration game? The presentation is standard, which makes this a forgettable dark-fantasy universe, but you will definitely remember your accomplishments. Sadly because of being made specifically for the 3DS, it makes it harder to recommend the Steam-version as it is a bit clunky to control. The visuals are nicer though, so if you can get over the less functional controls, it might be suitable. For any brave warriors with a 3DS though, you definitely should consider a short trip through these caves.