Wizard's Keep

Take on the role of a hero fighting for your home land. Battle in the earth's depths through the armies, traps and mysteries of the dark wizard's keep. From the developers of Miner Dig Deep comes an exciting adventure RPG which can be enjoyed solo or couch co-op.

Will and James Ribaux (now going by Substance Games) created one of Xbox Live Indie Game's first hits with Miner: Dig Deep, a simple excavation game that entertained with its relaxing, addictive gameplay. Wizard's Keep is the Ribaux brothers' second game, a highly anticipated adventure in the mold of Zelda, Beyond Oasis, and other such titles. The protagonist, named by the player at the start of the game, leaves his house with a checklist of things to do: defeat the goblin king, head knight, and wizard. He must also improve his home. Unfortunately, the game doesn't have much of an ending beyond the credits -- and we already know who made the game -- leading to a lot of disappointment after a long, hard fought grind to finish each item on the list. Of course, we don't need to worry about the lack of closure so long as the journey is worth it, right?

Unfortunately, Wizard's Keep makes for such a poor trip. It's a real drag to play, a game devised more about a grind than the exploratory fun which makes games such as Zelda, Beyond Oasis, or even Substance's own Miner: Dig Deep so captivating. There are four dungeons to explore, each with roughly four levels and a boss save one area. The player marches off first to eradicate the land of goblins through the northern cave, starting with the dagger provided to the player which is the game's fast but weak weapon. Wizard's Keep uses an odd combat system based around locking onto enemies with the left trigger, allowing the player to circle strafe and automatically attack and defend in that enemy's direction. Problems arise when facing multiple enemies as the lock-on proves clumsy, particularly as enemies become progressively faster in their movements. One quickly learns that survival means to dart in, stab, and retreat with a raised shield, a tedious pattern which players will likely ride through the game's end. Goblin, human, or skeleton -- no matter how the enemy is drawn, it's going to fight exactly the same as what the hero has faced before, a litany of tedium only broken up by one kamikaze style enemy and the boss fights. Enemies will attack with the same variety of weapons available to the player, and these other weapons can be bought at stores found at the start of each area. It's too bad that money is so tight early on that there's little room to play around with them, and though each weapon has its own strengths and weaknesses, the fighting style remains the same whether swinging an axe or poking with a spear.

Worse is that each and every battle stops the background music to play a few distorted guitar notes, a battle theme which quickly wears out its welcome, the repetitive theme feeling like Chinese water torture or perhaps American waterboarding. Aside from a brief tutorial encounter, enemies are not present in the overworld, but there are hundreds found in the dungeons, waiting to catch sight of the hero. The enemy AI is quite stupid, though, quickly giving up the chase the instant the hero runs around a corner and breaks the line of sight for the enemy. The starting flimsy dagger will encourage players to pick apart the enemy mobs, abusing their nearsightedness by leading a single enemy away from the pack for a safer kill. This, unfortunately, will also drag out battles and thus expose players to more of that horrible music, but it is a necessary strategy early on as the early shields are too tiny to protect the player from anything beyond a direct head-on attack. The player is able to equip armor and a helmet, but unfortunately the first bit of armor cannot be had until clearing the goblin caverns and then is completely miss-able before heading into the knights' domain. Shops only sell weapons and shields until late in the game, and enemy armament and weapon drops are nonexistent during the bulk of the game until the very end, at which point everyone who pledges allegiance to the wizard drops some manner of enchanted artifact which would have been useful hours before the player is finally able to add it to the inventory.

Wizard's Keep is a terribly paced game, though I say that as someone who chose not to grind for experience, beating each boss the first time I stepped foot in its domain. The game and its frequent teleporters seem to want players to play a bit in a dungeon, exit before completing it, and then use loot found inside to purchase upgraded weapons and shields at the shop by the entrance. By avoiding additional grinding, this meant that I was ready to take on the wizard's tower at level 26, meaning I was able to complete supplying the blacksmith and have access to the best armor in the game, all level 40 items given for free and allowing me to saunter up to basically anything in the wizard's tower without fear of injury. Even if I had made repeated trips for extra experience points, the difficulty swing from the first three areas to the wizard's tower is ridiculous, the climax being a cakewalk compared to the first third of the game. This is after one of the most annoying challenges I've seen in any game, too, as the wizard's laboratory concludes with a forced scrolling segment which feels incredibly out of place here and will have players throwing fits as enemies bounce them into the void. Frequent restarts only to die just seconds into the race is normal, and it feels hopeless if players avoided leveling up the hero's speed (as I did). Wizard's Keep does have a handful of admirable elements in its dungeon and boss design, but they are too few to overcome the weak gameplay.

The game isn't much to look at, either. Miner: Dig Deep's Flash stylings were excused because it's such a good game, but it's more difficult to do the same when the game isn't charming the pants off the player. For the most part, Wizard's Keep offers a bright, colorful world of shifting trees and well lit dungeons, but it has a severe lack of enemy variety, both in visual and attack style. Enchanted equipment is given the Rorschach treatment, plastered with wavy blobs of color which look odd on our hero when worn. The hero has an odd, bubbly look about him, and his shakey run animation and lazy attacks keep the game in its cheap, Flash hovel, Substance Games showing little aesthetic improvement in the two years since its debut release. There's a carelessness about the game -- I didn't care to see Cassandra, the woman just outside my home who informs me where to head next, telling me that I need to clean the cobwebs out of my house -- the game's opening quest -- after I beat the game. Also, one would think a game called Wizard's Keep would feature a wizard at some point, but, no, the wizard is just a knight with some additional powers.

I'm rather disappointed in Wizard's Keep due to its bland gameplay and lacking presentation. The game still offers a lengthy, playable adventure for up to two players at a bargain price, and people itching for a new Zelda clone after Sword of Rapier will likely be interested in checking out the demo. While gameplay has never been the hallmark of most overhead adventure games -- The Legend of Zelda, Crusader of Centy, and others lack truly interesting combat systems -- they still excite with a sense of treasure hunting, puzzle solving, and exploration. Wizard's Keep has its share of puzzles and mazes, some of which are well done, but the constant prolonged fighting sours the entire experience.

February 27, 2011
February 25, 2011 | 80 points
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