Mr. Bill's Adventureland Review
Reviewed by Mark Hasley
The spring of 2006 may well be remembered as one of the greatest seasons in the history of adventure gaming. Not very long ago ĎAdventurersí were sure that the genre was quietly being ignored, but this spring has seen the release of Scratches, Barrow Hill, Dreamfall, the much-awaited Paradise, and several others. And in the midst of all this abundance came a game that I have been waiting for quite some time. It was described as a fantasy-adventure game that had magic, dragons, disappearing characters, and beautiful graphics. I preordered, I fretted, I waited, and the game eventually arrived. It was the final game in the perfect gaming season. The game was called Keepsake, and it is... adequate.
It begins with an interesting introduction. The player watches an opening cut scene and then, before any gameplay actually starts, the main character (whose name the player does not yet know) meets Mustavio, who is actually another character in the game. He takes the girl through a brief and very helpful tutorial that describes all the controls and techniques for Keepsake. It is a rather helpful and clever approach to starting a game. Mustavio then simply turns and walks down the hill, the girl follows, and the game actually begins.
The basic plot of the game is simple. The gamer plays the girl, Lydia, who has arrived at Dragonvale Academy to meet, and join in study with, her best friend Celeste. The problem is that when Lydia arrives at the school it is deserted. There is no one there. The game then becomes Lydiaís quest to find Celeste and everyone else at Dragonvale. However that part of the plot quickly becomes complicated when Lydia befriends a talking wolf named Zak who claims that he is really a dragon but has been turned into a wolf. He joins Lydia in the quest and, as they converse, it becomes clear that he is not what he seems. The plot is further muddied when Lydia has a series of strange visions that tell various parts of Celesteís life. Some of the visions are memories of Lydiaís youth with Celeste. Others involve what has happened to Celeste recently. And the plot becomes even more complex as the player learns that Celesteís father, Nathaniel, is the head of the Dragonvale Academy, and his wife has died, and... Rather than add a bunch of spoilers, I will simply say that there are a lot of subplots and further complications. The plot becomes very confusing, until at times the player wonders if there isnít so much story that it gets in the way of the game.
The gameplay and the interface should be fairly simple to illustrate, but there are some wrinkles that make it less than simple. Keepsake is a third person point & click game, which any gamer has seen before. The cursor is the usual multi-function type. It shows a little gold arrow that indicates the direction that Lydia can go. A red X appears to indicate where she cannot go and a glowing star shows a spot where the camera will change focus. The cursor turns into the proverbial magnifying glass when an item can be looked at and into a gear when something can be used. The problem with it is that the 'something-that-can-be-used' may not be usable until later in the game. Itís possible to stop, look, and even ask for a hint only to discover that you canít use that item yet.
Although the system generally works well, there are a few spots where, as the camera changes focus, itís impossible for the player to see Lydia. She winds up hidden behind a wall, a bush, or (often and irritatingly) behind or below a monstrous statue of a dragon. This was never a big deal. It was just bothersome. There was also another minor but irritating movement problem. Lydia seemed to run or walk whenever she felt like it. There is no control to change her pace, the change just occurs and it seldom occurs at a logical place. Lydia will slowly walk through some of longest hallways ever seen in a game. She will then run across a fairly small room. It would have been an improvement if I could have decided when she walked or ran (as I could with Kate Walker).
There are some unique control options in the game. In the bottom left corner of the screen is a small, permanent, control panel that allows the player to access the menu. From here he can also ask for hints or check a map of the academy. If the player clicks the large red button, the option list pops up and allows a player to read various documents that Lydia has picked up. He can also check to see what items are in the inventory and which ones have yet to be found. He can make some very limited game adjustments and sound adjustments (volume and gamma adjustments only). And notice here that he canít save the game in a traditional manner. When itís time to stop playing, there are only three choices. The game will then allow a player to 'Quit and Save', 'Save', or 'Quit'. Apparently the game will not allow a person to go back to a previous spot. It stores only one save and will begin wherever the gameplay was halted.
The other two buttons on the control panel are rather special additions for an adventure game. One of them allows access to a map. This addition is quite important since the academy and its surrounding areas are huge and so the map will probably be used quite often by anyone playing this game. The other button is a Ďhintí button that serves two functions. In general gameplay this button can be pushed and the player will find out where Lydia is supposed to go next. The same button will provide one, two, or three hints that will help solve a particular puzzle. After three hints, the player can access this button for a fourth time and the game will automatically solve the puzzle for him. This is a unique approach and Iím still not sure if I liked it. Itís extremely tempting to hit that button four times and have the work done by the game, but Iím not sure whether or not that's a good idea.
It should also be noted that these two buttons donít always coincide, and that was very irritating. There were a few times that I asked for a hint as to where I should go next. The hint was clear and said, "Go to room..." The problem was that particular room didnít appear on the map. I later discovered that the suggested room did appear on the map, but it was labeled with another name. I found it irksome in that after selling my gaming soul to ask for a hint, the hint I received was of no assistance.
When it came to actually playing the game, I assumed that this was an old-fashioned adventure game where I was required to wander around, find stuff, read materials, and solve things. And that is basically true. The problem is that the academy is so incredibly vast that just wandering will take a player a good portion of his next few years. I remember when Riven came out and a reviewer stated that wandering through Riven was like wandering through Colorado without a map. If that is true, then wandering through Keepsake is like wandering through Texas. The gaming area is so huge that use of the map section is almost mandatory. The school has dozens of levels, hundreds of hallways, a vast collection of classrooms, and many special areas that exist at or near, but not connected to, the school itself. Indeed there are often thousands of steps that must be traversed in order to go from place to place. It would be virtually impossible to keep track of where Lydia is without the map. This means that when the map doesnít have the proper information, several lonely hours will be lost looking through nooks and crannies for an unidentified something.
Playing the game, like virtually every other aspect of this game, has several positives and as many negatives. As far as the general story line goes, it is fairly easy to follow. Lydia must find and save Celeste. However the subplots surrounding Zak, the questions about Nathaniel, and the concerns over getting from the first level to the second level of the academy all seem to require that different puzzles be solved. So it's easy to forget, or lose track of the fact, that Lydia is supposed to be seeking Celeste. In general each of the puzzles tie in to an element of the plot. But sometimes the plot becomes so convoluted that the player is not sure why he solved a particular puzzle at a particular time. If it all sounds confusing, you're right. There are times that you will be confused.
And the playerís confusion will increase when he begins to deal with the puzzles in this game. They run the full range of difficulty. There were puzzles so easy that, quite literally, a child could complete them. There were also several puzzles that were so difficult that I lost two or three days on one puzzle and then gave up and allowed the game to complete it for me. There was another one where the answer was fairly obvious fairly quickly. But the process was so tedious that I had the game complete it even though I knew how to do it myself. There were no timed puzzles in the game, but there are a few puzzles where the player is allowed only three or four attempts before the whole thing resets itself. There were no mazes, but it is important to remember that the entire academy is one giant maze.
Most of the puzzles are well integrated into the plot, but I couldnít always remember which plot. My major gripe was that there were several puzzles for which there were no clues. The game simply assumed that I would eventually figure out what to do. There was also an oddity in several puzzles of the 'pick-up-stuff-and-combine-and-use -it' kind. The strange thing was that once all the proper materials for a particular puzzle were found, and Lydia was in the proper room, the game went ahead and did all the combining. Again, I donít know whether or not I objected to this. It simply seemed strange to have a game do what I have had to do in so many other games.
I havenít mentioned much about the music because there seems little to say. There is music. Itís pleasant and inoffensive, but neither adds to nor detracts from the game. Itís simply there.
I will assume that by now it is clear that I am ambivalent about this game. For virtually every element of game play that I liked, there was another element that bothered me. There were good and bad plot elements, good and bad puzzles, and good and bad details to the interface. So far, every gaming characteristic has had two sides. However that is not true of the last two items that I wish to discuss.
The voice acting in this game is, quite simply, terrible. Lydia is far too bland for a main character. She runs the emotional gamut 'from A to B'. There is little subtlety or change from one point to another. And Iíll grant that the character is a young girl, but she seems to whine all the time. Zak, no matter what manifestation he adopts, sounds like a fairly unpleasant teenage boy. He sounds like a mopey, gloomy 'doof '. Every other character is played so stereotypically that the gamer is never convinced about any of the people. Even a talking tree is boring! The voice acting was, by far, the poorest element of this game.
HOWEVER... if a reviewer should save a gameís strongest point for the end, then I have written this one correctly. There are many problems with Keepsake, but let it be known that no matter what other game a person may have played, be it Syberia, Still Life, or whatever, no gamer has ever played a game as beautiful as Keepsake. From the opening of the game to its final moment, the player is constantly bombarded with some of the most exquisitely beautiful scenery that has ever been placed in a game.
The academy itself is a complex and magnificent structure. There are brilliantly tiled floors and stairways with wonderfully detailed walls and decorations. The walls are covered with exquisite tapestries. There are several stained glass windows, varied in size and hue, and each of them adds a different glow of color to a particular room. The exterior of the academy is a sort of Gothic fantasy-style castle that will take the playerís breath away. The outside areas are equally excellent. The forest is a place of multihued greens where grow dozens of different trees and shrubs. The river that flows through the forest babbles and runs precisely as it should. There are flowers and paths that arenít photographically real... they are somehow better than that. The water effects are perfect. The wind blows through when and as it should. Virtually every frame of the game is visually stunning. When Lydia finally gets to the second level of the Academy, she spends some time in a library that is the most amazing exercise in colored and textured tranquility that I have ever seen. To add to the beauty and the fantasy, every indoor scene is lit with some sort of white, glowing, and crystalline Ďdragon lightí. The whole game is graphically astounding. There are simply not enough superlatives to do justice to the visuals in this game.
Again though, there is a Ďhoweverí. Playing this game requires so much travel and movement that even the most incredible scenery will begin to pall. As an example, when Lydia enters the main hall early in the game, she must climb a huge, magnificent, dark blue, stone-covered stairway. Anyone playing this game will look up that stairway and feel all the appropriate 'oohs and aahs'. The only trouble with it is that it is really tall and there are many dozens of steps. And so after Lydia climbed up and down those steps about thirty times, the staircase was not impressive anymore. It was just another long part of the trip to wherever she was going.
Even as I end this I realize that I have summed up very little, but that concept seems to accurately reflect my impressions of Keepsake. All through the game, and even after I finished it, I wasnít sure exactly what I thought. The game has elements of genius and elements of carelessness. It has entertaining puzzles, simple puzzles, and one or two very awkward puzzles. The plots are all interesting, but there are too many of them. The voices are rather poor, but the graphics are magnificent. I fear that if it were possible to take all the good and all the bad that is in this game and somehow calculate an average, the person doing that would come to the conclusion that, despite all its hype and promise, Keepsake, while indeed beautiful, winds up being just... adequate.
© May 2006 Mark Hasley
Visit the Official Keepsake Website to learn more about the story, view more fantastic screenshots and more.
Developed (2006) by Wicked Studios and published by The Adventure Company.
Rated: E for Everyone (mild language)
Minimum System Requirements:
PC: 1 GHz Pentium III or AMD Athlon Processor; Windows 2000 / ME / XP; 256 MB RAM (512 MB on Windows XP); 4X CD-ROM Drive (or PC DVD-ROM Drive); 32 MB 3D Accelerated Video Card (NVIDIA GeForceô or ATI); 100% DirectXģ Compliant (EAX Recommended) Sound Card; 1.4 GB of Free Hard Drive Space; DirectX 9.0; Mouse, Keyboard and Speakers
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