As an action RPG, Solomon's Keep is not a traditional "roguelike," but I think I'll always remember it as the game that taught me the meaning of the word. The levels are random, as are the enemies and item drops, and before the game is over, you're going to die. But it's addicting enough that you'll just start again, do something different, and hopefully last longer before you die again.
In Solomon's Keep, you play as a young wizard tasked with climbing a tower to rid the world of the evil necromancer, Solomon. That is the entire extent of the story. The game is so short and action-oriented that I never felt the lack, but I still didn't feel justified in giving a story this "weak" a higher score. Still, unless you're the type of gamer who sees story as the only reason to play RPGs, don't let that low score keep you away.
As I said, you play as a wizard, so the choice you get in terms of class is which spell you'll use as your primary weapon. At the game's beginning, you can choose between Magic Missile, Fireball, and Lightning, each of which has its own strengths. Magic Missile can be upgraded to cast multiple missiles at once, and to improve the missiles' initial speed and ability to curve and home in on enemies. Fireballs can explode and drop embers, and my favorite, Lightning, can chain to multiple enemies and stun anyone it's zapping. As you level up, you can choose to learn another of those skills and then meld them together to make a new, even more powerful attack. There are also myriad secondary skills to choose from, both defensive and offensive, and although you'll probably find your own favorites, many are useful.
Rather than being given a skill tree, each time you level up, the game offers you three semi-random skills to learn or upgrade. The lack of direct control is occasionally frustrating, but only occasionally. It generally just keeps things fresh in your replays, because you never know what skills will be available to you. The game also offers optional goals, from finishing in under an hour to letting the game pick your skills when you level up (a challenge I found pretty entertaining). In addition, the game includes three difficulty levels, and finishing one difficulty with a character allows you to start over at the next harder level. If that's not enough of a challenge, you can always play in hardcore mode, where death is permanent.
There are any number of viable approaches to skill building, but in general, your biggest challenge will be mana management. As you improve your attacking abilities, they take more and more mana to cast, at what feels like a punishing rate of increase. As you get into the higher difficulty levels, unless you've been able to put a number of skill points into skills that increase your mana or decrease spell cost, you'll find yourself quite often running away to wait for your mana to recharge. I've found myself at the final boss battle (against the titular Solomon) on a couple of occasions, with no hope of winning because I couldn't recharge my mana quickly enough to take down the minions he summoned. Of course, I've probably fought that final boss somewhere between 50 and 100 times, so a couple of failures aren't a huge deal.
And that last comment, I hope, will give you a sense of just how addictive this game has been for me. I've played it over and over, and it's never gotten old. There's always the question in my mind of what items and skills I'll get the next time around, as well as the challenge of tackling those optional goals. I have had Solomon's Keep for months, and I only completed the last goal ("beat the game in under an hour") last weekend. As I mentioned above, the levels are randomly generated every time you play. The same four bosses appear on the same four floors, but you don't know exactly where on the floor they'll be. Aside from the mana issue, my only disappointment in this game has been that the final boss doesn't drop anything when you beat him, the way the other bosses do. This made sense before the game got multiple difficulty levels, but it doesn't now.
Visually, Solomon's Keep is a fairly simple game. The 13 floors are identical, except for having different layouts. That makes sense, however, because you're simply climbing the floors of a tower. The action keeps things moving quickly enough that more detailed environments would probably move into the realm of "clutter" rather than enhancing the experience. There is not a huge variety of enemies, but the ones that are there look good, and they are distinct enough from one another that you can immediately recognize what you're dealing with and act appropriately. The spells you cast look really good too, although certain combinations of spells and huge numbers of enemies did cause occasional framerate issues on my 3rd generation iPod Touch. There are also some little touches that I love to see in games, like the fact that the screen gives a little shake any time an enemy dies. This is extremely helpful for those times when you fire at someone (or more likely, a group of someones) and run away. There are prettier games on the system, but this game's cartoonish visual style matches the feel of the gameplay in a way that more realistic graphics wouldn't.
In terms of audio, this is one of those games that absolutely benefits from being played with headphones. Solomon will taunt you from time to time or make comments such as "Oh, look. Another mini-boss," and that's fun, but unimportant. More important are the many audio cues you get, like when you run out of mana, when you're running low on health, or when you've broken through an enemy's shield. There are visual cues for these items as well, so those who can't listen aren't out of luck, but the audio information is very helpful. The music is good too, although I believe that there's only one background song through the entire game. Still, as always, I appreciated the fact that I could turn it off and listen to my own music.
The game is easy to control as well. It's one of the many dual-stick shooters available on the iTunes store, and that's a formula that works well on this platform. In case anyone's not familiar with that format, you've got two virtual joysticks on the screen; the left stick moves you around, and the right stick fires in whatever direction you point it. The developers have done a good job of making those joysticks responsive, and the innate enemy-seeking qualities of the Magic Missile and Lightning skills further help to make sure that you won't waste shots when using them. The Fireball spell can be tougher to aim, but I don't tend to use it, so it may be an issue that would improve with practice.
Your secondary skills appear as icons on the right, along with an icon that allows you to change your primary firing skill, if you've put points into more than one. My only complaint is that it sometimes seems that you can't move and cast a secondary skill at the same time. That can be a problem if you're trying to run away and turn on your shield to avoid dying. It's not always an issue, but it has caused me a few deaths that I thought were perfectly avoidable.
In brief, Solomon's Keep is a quick, action-oriented, addictive game. You can pick it up and play for as long or as short a time as you want, and that's exactly what a portable game needs to be. It's true that most RPG players look forward to epic games with sweeping stories – games where we can lose ourselves in another world and plan a character's evolution from start to finish. But sometimes, we need a break from those weighty experiences, and in those instances, games like Solomon's Keep are invaluable.