Coming as it does from a relatively unknown developer -- with the name of "Wicked Studios," no less -- one might be a bit hesitant about having too high expectations for a game such as Keepsake. But in this case, any such fears would be completely unfounded. Indeed, Wicked Studios scores a home run with their first offering -- an adventure game with a fantasy theme, whimsical characters, enthralling scenery, and outstanding puzzles. And if that were all that could be said about the game, it would still be enough -- but as the commercial says, "Wait -- there's more!"
The very premise of Keepsake piqued my curiosity from the moment I began playing. Lydia, a young woman traveling to Dragonvale Academy to study under the great mages (and, hopefully, become one herself some day), is immediately confronted with an alternate reality. Things are not as she expected, and it soon appears that her very presence may be the only thing that lies between the centuries-old Academy and its utter extinction -- along with all of its students and staff, as well. Magic spells and runic languages abound; talking animals and trees, teleportation, and ghosts contribute to the fantasy in the game; and Keepsake is laden with all manner of logic puzzles.
Let's begin with the game interface. Keepsake is played as a third-person adventure. Lydia, the young woman at the beginning of the story, is our heroine, and it is the player's responsibility to move her through the game, solve puzzles, speak with other characters, make intuitive decisions, and generally play vicariously through her. Simple mouse functions provide easy point-and-click navigation, as Lydia moves from scene to scene. Most scenes are larger than a single screen, and the game provides scrolling through these areas. At some point, Lydia will walk "out of" the current scene, and into the adjacent one. The only drawback I found to this is that the camera angle will often shift multiple times during her movements through a scene, or into the next one. And a few times I lost my perspective of where she was, and what I was looking at, due to the quick fluctuations in camera movement.
Speaking with other characters usually requires simply clicking on them. And dialogue takes place through the common mechanism of selecting topics of conversation for Lydia from one or more items presented at the bottom of the screen. While not all conversations are necessary to progress through the game, they contribute greatly to the fleshing out of the fairly extensive story line within the game.
At the very beginning of the game, we are already "into" the story. Yet the first five minutes or so are given to a tutorial on the game interface -- a tutorial given to Lydia, by one of the other main characters in the game. I thought that the mechanism of implementing a tutorial in this manner was unique, interesting, and just plain fun. And the entire game retains that atmosphere of fun, not only in terms of the normal exploration and puzzle solving in such games, but by the humor that is injected throughout the conversations, as well. The story, the dialogue, and even the humor have all been developed by outstanding writers.
The on-screen controls are easy to learn and use, and provide access to the inventory, hints, close-ups of (or backing away from) various objects, document viewing, reviewing major videos, etc. The only minor inconvenience I found is that some of the controls required unnecessary mouse clicks, because the game does not utilize the right mouse button. Instead, some actions that could have benefited from a single right-click may take 2 or 3 clicks with the left mouse -- and at different places on the screen. The result is unnecessary mouse activity for simple things, such as getting an item from inventory.
The scenery in the game is breathtaking. (The examples in the sidebar don't begin to do the game justice.) The fantasy theme of Keepsake provides all of the potential for some incredible artwork. The colors are mostly bright, and the scenes are highly detailed. Lydia's own amazement upon seeing Dragonvale Academy for the first time echoed my own reactions. And the more exploration she does, the larger the Academy becomes. It is truly an enormous environment -- so much so that the maps included in the game are not simply "niceties", but necessities. The artwork is pre-rendered, but many scenes have additional animations -- such as birds flying, flags waving, water flowing (all of which are done extremely convincingly). And in some instances, the same scene is shown in the daytime and at night -- or even in various seasons of the year! -- all with the same wonderful attention to detail.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of Keepsake is the built-in hint system. The game contains a two-pronged hint system to assist the player. The first applies whenever the player is not currently in the midst of solving a particular puzzle, and might just be referred to as a "What do I do next?" type of hint. Keepsake is a very linear game. Some of that is required by the story line itself. Even though there are typically vast amounts of non-linear exploration that can be done at any point in the game, there is only one current "goal" -- one task to be performed. Since the environment of Keepsake is so vast, with so much to explore, the inability of knowing exactly what task needs to be performed next could be a serious detriment to pleasant game play. But with a single click, the game will provide a hint at any point -- not only telling, but showing -- what needs to be done next.
The second use for the hint system pertains to solving the many, many puzzles scattered throughout the game. While there are some inventory-style puzzles in Keepsake, by far the vast majority of puzzles are discrete, analytical logic puzzles. Again and again, the player will be faced with a tangible puzzle, requiring mostly analytical skills (although a certain degree of intuitive skills are required in some cases, as well).
The puzzles are presented in relatively increasing degree of difficulty. The first few puzzles can be solved quite quickly and easily; however, as the game progresses, there are a few "stumpers" that will come up. And this is where the second level of hints come in handy. While working on any particular puzzle, the hint system will provide as many as 4 hints for that puzzle. These hints can usually be categorized as follows: 1) What is the goal of this puzzle? 2) How does the puzzle work? 3) What are some general guidelines -- and perhaps even semi-specific tips -- for solving this puzzle? And while those first 3 hints should be sufficient, in most cases, to get anyone through all of the puzzles, there still could be a situation that appears unsolvable after reading the first 3 hints. Thus, the 4th hint for each puzzle is simply a "Please solve it for me."
While this does open the way for the "lazy" gamer to just click through all the hints each time a puzzle comes up, it also guarantees that you can never get completely stuck in the game. And this is good, given the linearity of the game, since there is only one puzzle at a time to solve. Getting stuck on one specific puzzle could certainly be a hindrance to progressing with the remainder of the game. These built-in hints prevent that from happening. And in my case, the hints turned out to be necessary. At one point, I had entered the correct solution to a puzzle, but I still could not continue. In another case, the clues were so ambiguous that it was virtually impossible to solve intuitively. In both cases, I resorted to the hints to complete these puzzles.
Not all puzzles had enough clues to solve completely, without outside help. If, for instance, a particular puzzle has a mathematical probability that says that there are 256 possible combinations to try (to solve the puzzle), clues within the game will eliminate many of those. But when all clues have been found, there still may be, say, 8 different possible answers to the puzzle. And at that point, the only way to solve the puzzle on your own is the "trial-and-error" method on those 8 remaining possibilities. I tend to prefer analytical puzzles where the player can always reduce the puzzle to a single solution, given only the clues in the game, and their own intelligence.
The game has an ESRB rating of "E" (Everyone), and with very few exceptions, it truly does cover the gamut from young players to old.
On the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed Keepsake. Its whimsical nature kept the game light-hearted, even as the numerous "left-brain" puzzles kept it quite challenging. I eagerly hope that we shall see more of the talents of the Wicked Studio developers in the near future.
-- Frank D. Nicodem, Jr.