Reviewed: April 22, 2006
Released: March 30, 2006
The first computer game I ever played in my life was an adventure game - Zork on a TRS-80. A lot has changed since those black and white days of text adventuring in the Great Underground Empire. Sierra pretty much reinvented the adventure game genre when it added color graphics in the mid 80ís and eventually the text parser was dropped in favor of point and click interfaces in the 90ís.
Now, adventure games are huge big-budget productions that rival films in many aspects. You need graphics that challenge reality and professional quality voice acting, and a decent story and intuitive puzzles are required to pull it all together. Itís a fine balance to be sure. Too much story and you feel you are watching the game rather than playing it, and if the puzzles donít integrate into the game world you are taken out of the moment.
Keepsake is one of the latest adventure game to try and juggle this complex formula, and while it succeeds on numerous levels it fails on just as many. There is a decent story to setup the adventure. You play as Lydia, a new student who has been saving for years to attend magic school with your best friend, Celeste, but the day you finally arrive the school is deserted and your friend is missing.
You quickly meet up with Zak, a dragon trapped in a wolfís body (donít ask), who becomes your new companion for the rest of the adventure. The entire game takes place in and around the school, which at first seemed like a rather small area for a game of this scale, but the designers managed to sneak in an impressive amount and variety of unique areas around the school. Somebody has been reading Harry Potter.
This is a third-person adventure, which I personally prefer over those slideshow Myst games, but even so, the game quickly devolves into one of those pixel-hunts where you slide the mouse around each screen looking for hotspots to interact with. You point and click to move around the screens or right-click to open the menu and inventory screen.
Oddly enough, the inventory shows you every item you will be collecting in the game, lighting up each icon as you find the item. Itís a bit weird at first but it doesnít really make the game any easier. You still have to find the items then figure out how to combine them and where to use them. Given the sheer size of this game it ended up being a refreshing change from all the trial and error of normal adventure game inventory manipulation.
Keepsake is rife with bugs that started with a corrupt installer. Once I finally did get the game installed there were at least three fatal crashes. Thankfully, you can save the game whenever and wherever you like and I recommend you do so, especially after the longer and more difficult puzzles.
Yes, what adventure game would be complete without puzzles? When you arenít exploring the scenery or talking with the random inhabitants you are solving plenty of puzzles, many of which are quite inventive and fun to solve. I was reminded on numerous occasions of games like Myst and even the Dr. Brain games where you actually have to think and use logic to solve these clever puzzles. Itís a lot more than just inventory collecting and manipulating it.
Keepsake is a massive game, not quite as long as The Longest Journey but if you took out all that endless dialogue in TLJ I bet they would be about the same. Ultimately, this translates into a 30 hour endeavor, only about half of which is fun. Somewhere around the midpoint of the game the designers seemed to have lost their focus or their vision, almost to the point where the final half is like a distinct and very bad game created by a new team.
You can tell when this point arrives because you think the game is about over and you start to get excited to see the end, but you are only halfway there, and the second half is going to be a royal pain. The puzzles get insanely difficult and start making no sense to the story, the environment, or even themselves. There are also some odd riddles that I still donít understand. I guarantee if you read a glowing review for this game the reviewer only played the first half.
Since I was reviewing the title I felt compelled to stick it out to the bitter end. Things got a lot worse before they ever got better. In fact, the only redeeming quality was the ultimate ending, which I admit was very good, but hardly worth the suffering I was forced to endure to reach it.
The environments are really good in the beginning with architecturally sound designs for the school and logical paths to the various surrounding areas, but once again, when you hit that halfway point and you gain access to the upper levels of the school, things go downhill quick. Youíll want a large pad of notepaper to make maps and take notes if you want to solve the portal puzzle without cheating. And then you have a lot of needless backtracking.
Now comes some good news. Keepsake has a unique hint system built right into the game that saves this game from total failure, at least if you donít mind ďcheatingĒ. If you arenít sure where to go next the game will tell you, but even better, if you are stuck on a puzzle the game will offer you three hints, allowing you to solve it on your own, and finally, if you choose to do so, the game will just solve the puzzle for you. How cool is that?
Itís really cool Ė a lifesaver actually, especially when you get to those insane puzzles in the second half of the game. Most of these puzzles are so ďrandomĒ you wonít even have a clue as to what you are supposed to do. I used up two or three hints just trying to understand some of the puzzles and by then I was so emotionally exhausted I just had the game do it for me.
Itís a shame really, because Keepsake was quite promising for the first 10+ hours. The story was good, the puzzles made sense and integrated into the gameplay and environments, and the pace was just right, but once you hit the midpoint youíll need to resign yourself to a lot of anguish or frequent trips to the hint system.
The graphics in Keepsake are quite stunning, easily on the same level as most other current adventure games. The landscapes are quite natural and the architecture is realistic with a fantasy flair. There is a stunning amount of detail that is crisp up close and blurred in the distance to create a realistic focal range.
Character design is excellent with good-looking characters, detailed textures, and smooth animation. There are also nice 2D portraits that appear next to the text windows that feature a fancy, but legible font. Puzzles are creative, both in design and their inner workings while solving them.
Keepsake is presented from fixed camera views showing creative and cinematic angles of each screen in the game. There is excellent use of foreground and background objects to give many of the shots a great sense of scale and depth.
There is a wonderful soundtrack that fits the theme of the game and also keeps up with the action and even certain locations and scenery. It really is a magical score that complements the gameplay.
Sound effects are pretty standard and included plenty of environmental sounds as well as all the expected sounds of you interacting with the environments.
There is quite a bit of dialogue in Keepsake and for the most part it is all performed extremely well. Zak and Lydia are the two primary talkers and their voices are suited for their characters and easy to listen to for prolonged readings. There are a few bad apples in the cast including one particularly annoying merchant who sounded like a Mario knockoff.
In a time where most adventure games are clocking in at around 10-12 hours I would have probably enjoyed Keepsake much more if it had ended when I thought it was going to Ė about 10-12 hours in. As it is, that is only half the game and the second half is no day at the beach.
Thankfully, the hint system allows you to keep going when you are truly stuck or truly sick of some of the more insipid puzzles. Itís a struggle to the end, but the finale is worth the trip. I seriously doubt you will ever play Keepsake a second time.
Some of the individual puzzles are actually fun enough to replay individually, but there is no way to access them outside the adventure, so you would have to save your game before each of these.
Keepsake is a valiant attempt to bring a quality adventure to the PC and in many ways they succeeded. If only they had stopped while they were ahead. The graphics are gorgeous, the sound and voice acting is solid, and for the first half, you are totally engrossed in the story and intriguing puzzles.
This is a tough recommendation because you have a really great start and a really great ending, but there is this mess in the middle I donít want anybody to endure unless you are a glutton for puzzle punishment or donít mind using the built-in hint system. If this is you, then definitely take this game for a spin.