It’s like one of those old spells: Cinemax’s Portable Dungeon. Cast it, and the dungeon appears, tiny dwarves and spiders crawling up and down the old cobblestone corridors. There’s nothing else like The Keep that I know of available on the 3DS, and seeing a dungeon crawler in 3D is pretty neat. The touch screen allows for an active combat system that involves swiping the stylus this way or that to attack enemies in real-time. Spells are cast using a grid of adjustable runes, the placement of which is written on scrolls hidden throughout the game. There are secrets, traps, monsters, treasure, even a little bit of voice acting, and yet I lost interest before I was halfway through The Keep.
There’s nothing else like The Keep that I know of available on the 3DS…
Maybe it’s because The Keep so closely mirrors The Legend of Grimrock with its real-time combat, its pressure plate puzzles, and its teleporting curtains of light. Even the faux Norse runes used to label rooms and doorways is ripped straight from Grimrock. The stylus slashing combat is unique, but everything else is strikingly similar and simplified, flayed to the bone. There’s only one playable character, for instance, and level ups are fairly inconsequential, since there are no classes or abilities. There are a few secrets in each chapter, but I still got the equipment the game wanted me to get and leveled up as much as the game allowed. There are no choices, so few options, and if you come up against a difficult enemy, what are you to do except use all your resources at once? The game sort of plays itself. There’s nothing terrifically wrong with The Keep, but little to recommend it except the rarity of its kind on this platform. It’s not unpleasant and even a little surprising in how coherent it is, but it lacks the atmosphere, the mood, and the mystery of the best dungeon crawlers.
I once read that when your book or game or film is the one to which others are compared, you’ve made it. If that’s true, then Almost Human Games has made it, because The Keep is a miniature Legend of Grimrock, for better and for worse. It’s simpler, smaller, less imaginative, and less evocative, but it’s a pleasant, innocuous little adventure nonetheless. Of course, Grimrock borrows from the past as well, but The Keep feels like a copy, a mimic. And, like the treasure chest with teeth and tongue inside, there’s not much that glitters in The Keep. There’s something special about the dungeon crawler subgenre, but The Keep evokes only a glimmer of that magic.