Publisher: The Adventure Company
Developer: Wicked Games
Release Date: March 31, 2006
There used to be a time when all adventure games were more or less like this: set in far off fantasy worlds with themes of wizardry, dragons, mages guilds, and an ever-lingering sense of journey. It seems that as we grew up, the genre did too, adopting darker themes of crime and murder, mystery and history. Keepsake would appear to aim for our nostalgic sweet spot, re-invoking those heady days of yesteryear and relying on our imaginations to be just as good as they were at filling in the gaps. While it may inspire children and young teenagers, Keepsake's return to tradition is not likely to succeed in bringing back memories for a generation of gamers who have long since moved on.
A cryptic and mournful introduction sets the game up detailing motifs of bereavement, regret and loss. "How did this school become so empty?" asks the melancholy narrator. This is the question that will preoccupy you for most of rest of the game. As Lydia, you arrive for your first day at the Harry Potter-esque Dragonvale Academy to meet with your old friend, Celeste, only to find she has stood you up. Not only that, but aside from a talking wolf and an enthusiastic traveling merchant, the entire school of mages appears to be playing truant. The story unfolds very slowly from here in a mostly linear fashion, pieced together by economically animated sepia toned visions of the past, and other people's memories.
All of the adventure takes place in and around the academy, and it's a vast environment bedecked with dragon motifs whose twisting illogical corridors make you think M.C. Escher was the architect. Thank goodness for a map. Although Keepsake is laid out as a third-person point and click adventure, it has more in common with the Myst games. You'll spend a lot of time simply running from place to place through the cavernous deserted corridors figuring out the awkward fixed camera angles, and of course, the puzzles. This would be fine, if there were anything to look at, but Keepsake's environments are devoid of interactivity. There are no descriptions and no details.
What's more, the bizarre design always seems to conspire so that the next place you need to get to is as far away as possible from your present location. It won't be long before you'll be searching for the non-existent fast travel option to avoid traipsing back and forth through the same areas. Although the hand-drawn backdrops are often beautiful to look at, they are static, somewhat blurry and not outstanding in comparison to other adventure games on the market. Worst of all, Lydia's poorly animated character looks twig thin, jagged, and blocky. Perhaps it's all the running around?
As you'd expect from a game that takes place in a voluminous, deserted castle, it's pretty quiet. Aside from the ambient chirping of birds, there's little to be heard aside from the echo of your own footsteps as you travel to and fro. Thankfully, the game's classical themed score kicks in from time to time with jaunty little melodies, somber melancholy odes and a tune that sounds not unlike The Sorcerer's Apprentice.
Zak, a cowardly, vertigo-afflicted talking wolf that thinks it's a dragon is one of the more interesting characters and becomes your sidekick early on in the game. You'll strike up conversations with him at random intervals, which help to alleviate the long periods of silence and serve to flesh out his character. It's pretty apparent that he knows more than he's letting on and is not being entirely straight with you. Discovering the skeletons in his closet is one of the more interesting diversions. He has at least twice as much personality as Lydia, which isn't saying much, and it's strange to think that the sidekick has a more fully developed sense of character than the protagonist does.
After listening to some of Lydia's dull comments, you begin to think that maybe the reason the school is deserted is they heard she was coming. Despite the paucity of characters, the voice acting leaves much to be desired. It often comes across as forced, disingenuous and missing the right emotion for the moment. On top of this, the dialogue is poorly conceived and naïve, making you feel like it's aimed way below the IQ level of anyone who can solve the more challenging puzzles. You'll be thankful for the ability to skip through this banal banter but irritated by the way you still have to wait for them to finish their slow gesticulations before you can move on.
Keepsake suffers from the malady of locked door syndrome to limit your movement and test your wits. Prepare for the following responses: "Why doesn't it open?", "It's locked!", and my personal favorite, "This door isn't locked, but I can't open it." It's a stale, unimaginative and over-used design for this genre and one that needs serious reconsideration. The puzzles that tend to block your passage are not overly taxing. Some attempt has been made at originality in presentation, but the underlying problems are basically the same ones that experienced adventure gamers have played and solved in other games of this style.
Curiously, all of the possible objects you can pick up are already laid out in your inventory interface and are simply grayed out until you find them. While you could see this as a useful progress meter, it also acts as something of a spoiler which limits the range of possibility, as well as your imagination. Beyond taking a closer look at items, you cannot interact with your inventory. Unlike some adventure games, there's no possibility of combining two objects, and there's no way of using something from your inventory with the outside world. The emphasis is almost entirely on solving riddles and brainteasers, which will suit some gamers, and turn off others.
Perhaps one of the most interesting additions is the in-game hint system. It actively responds to your position in the game with useful advice on where to go, and what to do next, including a couple of screenshots from the area you should be exploring. For the many parts of the game where it's not immediately apparent where you should be going next, and you've had enough pointless meandering through the same environments, it's a truly welcome addition. In implementing this system, the designers realized the importance of the journey and not the end, and it's great to have hints that gently nudge you in the right direction instead of a walkthrough that you might find on the Internet that immediately lifts the curtains and spoils the surprises. The hints also work for the various puzzles, offering you up to three detailed hints, and even an option to completely solve the puzzle, thereby entirely bypassing the need for any intelligent thought.
Keepsake ultimately feels like a lot of conundrum strung together loosely around a lackluster storyline and lots of jogging. If you're yearning for a return to the fantasy worlds encapsulated in some of the older adventure games, or don't mind a quiet, slow-paced experience with an emphasis on puzzles instead of journeys, inventory juggling and character interaction, you'll probably fit right into the lonely halls of Dragonvale Academy. Otherwise, you might want to give this yawn-inducing yarn a miss.
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