Right now, it's a great time to be an adventure fan. In recent months, we've had a variety of comic adventures, engrossing horror stories, and mysteries to solve, in games both innovative and traditional. Whatever one's preference, there's been plenty to keep us occupied, and now we have Keepsake, which is catered to those who love fantasy settings and plenty of mind-bending puzzles. After the release of the UK version a short time ago, the North American version has finally arrived, and it is this edition being reviewed here. Offering a few important tweaks over its European counterpart, Keepsake has proven to be worth the wait, and comes recommended despite some flaws which prevent it from realizing its full potential.
After a required tutorial which is obviously geared to genre newcomers, the player takes control of Lydia, a young woman who has arrived at the Dragonvale Academy of Magic to begin her first day of school. Upon arriving, she discovers that her friend Celeste is not there to greet her as promised, nor anyone else at all besides a travelling salesman named Mustavio who has also just arrived. The castle is locked up and already a puzzle has to be solved in order to open the gate, which is only the first of many more to come.
What will strike you upon entering the castle is its sheer scale. The castle is a huge, formidable place that manages to make a person look like an ant in comparison, further emphasized by the magnificent dragon statue in the hallway. Thankfully, a map has been included for reference, which was sadly amiss from the UK version originally, and is really essential to prevent you from getting lost. Inside, there isn't a person to be found aside from Zak, the "mighty dragon" who has been transformed into a wolf by mischievous students. With Zak by your side, you must explore the castle and find out why the school is so mysteriously deserted and how to restore things back to normal. The storyline is a simple one that slowly develops throughout the game, and although it doesn't have any major twists and turns, it is nicely done and at times very moving.
As a sidekick, Zak is a great character. He is genuinely endearing and provides humour at opportune times with his fears of heights, ghosts and the basement. At certain points in the game, Lydia and Zak will have to work together to solve some of the puzzles, and conversations between them flesh out the two characters and add more to the story. There aren't many other characters you'll encounter due to the nature of the storyline, but those you'll see such as Elvander the magical tree and a trio of Guardian statues are interesting to communicate with. Despite promises of improved voice acting for this version over the original, Keepsake still has its problems, with Mustavio having the most exaggerated Italian accent you'll ever hear. Thankfully, the voices of Lydia and Zak are reasonable enough, which is a good thing as you'll be spending the bulk of the game in their company.
One of the most impressive aspects of Keepsake is the visuals. The natural surroundings of the castle are stunning to behold. Everything has a fairy tale feel to it, and the interior of the castle is appropriately ornate. Scrolls, banners and bookcases line the walls, and various rooms are adorned with medieval furnishings, fountains and statues. Manual machinery and water wheels generate power for the castle, while mechanical devices open gates and doors. The attention to detail is really impressive and although only a few sections of each room will ever be used by the player, having the additional fixtures add to the sense of being a lived-in academy. While some rooms appear similar on the lower levels of the castle, the scenery is a wonder to behold once you reach the upper levels, from castle spires basking in the glorious rays of the sun to the beautiful greenery featured in the outdoor classroom. It's the sort of thing that you expect to see in a storybook and the different settings of the castle make exploration really enjoyable. One room can actually change seasons and the effect is truly magical.
Where the visuals break down are in certain areas of the castle like the basement and stairwells, which appear unfinished and grainy. Another issue is with the sequences used to progress the storyline, which differ from traditional cutscenes by using still images accompanied by voiceover narration. These sequences have an intentionally faded look to differentiate them from the main game, but they are quite pixelated and lack polish. The voiceovers during these sequences aren't very impressive, either, with Celeste sounding as if she was reading from a script and Nathaniel, her father and head of the Academy, lacking any presence or authority. At certain sections of the game, there are short, animated cutscenes such as the growing of a flower or the movement of staircases, and although these are a nice touch, they also suffer from a reduction in visual quality. The 3D character models and animation are also relatively poor, often seeming crude and out of place against such detailed backdrops.
Musically, the pieces that play in the background are orchestral and calm, giving the game a relaxing feel while you explore. Quite often, however, music doesn't play at all while exploring the castle, but rather than this being a negative point, it adds to the intended feeling of abandonment, especially when you can only hear Lydia's footsteps echoing in the hallway.
Control of Lydia is done using a point and click interface, with handy on-screen icons for accessing such features as the map, inventory, hint system, and saving games. One strange thing about the save game option is the inability to load a game while playing, meaning you have to quit to access a different save slot. Lydia will run in most places, and hotspots turn the cursor into gears so you know you can interact with them. Although exploring the castle is enjoyable, its size means you will be doing a lot of running back and forth from various rooms to get to the next puzzle. This is cut down slightly in the upper sections of the castle with the use of a teleport system, but even then it can be tedious after a while. There are also times when the camera will change the view of an area so it is hard to see where to go even with the use of a map.
Puzzles are almost entirely logic-based. Specific items will need to be collected during your adventure, but they'll be used automatically by Lydia at the relevant place or puzzle, so there are no actual inventory puzzles in Keepsake. There are also key papers and diagrams to discover, which you'll need to constantly refer to as you progress in order to help solve puzzles. Many of the puzzles share similarities with Myst, but they are interconnected quite successfully, and the third-person perspective also adds some originality to the proceedings. As a result, those who are deterred by a hatred of first-person, Myst-style puzzle games may find Keepsake a refreshing change. The puzzles are enjoyable to think through, reasonably clued, and vary in difficulty. Machines require rotating levers or connecting gears in correct order, and there are board games to be played and potions mixed by collecting ingredients. You'll get to solve riddles, match colours, and mix paints to reveal hidden pictures. And without spoiling things too much for you, there are some truly original and inventive puzzles such as exploring inside a miniature ship-in-a-bottle, growing bridges and even moving staircases. The variety is quite immense and while some are easy, others will tax your brain to the limit. The biggest problem with some puzzles is the way the game thinks: it is possible to be halfway through solving one, only to discover that you can't progress, as it is not yet time to complete it according to the game's structural design. This can be annoying, but the hint system helps to prevent it from being too much of an issue.
This hint system is fantastic and is something that we need to see more of in adventure titles. If you are unsure where to go next, which can easily happen given the non-linear nature of the environment, clicking on the hint icon will let you know, although at times it can give things away a bit too easily. Stuck at a certain puzzle? The hint system has three levels of clues and can point you in the right direction if it is unclear what you are supposed to do. It is even possible to ask for a full solution if you still can't progress, ensuring you never remain stranded at a taxing problem. (I confess to using this feature on one puzzle that proved too much for my brain cells to comprehend.)
The biggest complaint I have about Keepsake is its tendency to crash, and from reading through forums, it seems that others have had the same difficulties. While trying to solve a particular puzzle, the game froze and then rebooted my machine, continuing to do so at the exact same area. After several instances of this, my saves then managed to delete themselves, resulting in having to replay a section of the game. This happened again further on during a cutscene that wasn't possible to bypass. Updating drivers for my audio and graphic cards did seem to improve the situation, but even then, I still experienced crashes and error messages which sent me back to the desktop occasionally. The game also has a tendency to run really slowly after playing for prolonged periods of time. Don't let possible technical issues prevent you from purchasing the game, however, as most players don't seem to have any problems at all.
Keepsake has plenty to recommend, but it really isn't for everyone. Those whose idea of a good adventure involves inventory puzzles and plenty of characters to talk to may be put off by the emphasis on solitary exploration and puzzle solving, particularly given the game's surface resemblance to other quest-style adventures. But the beautiful setting, along with an interesting storyline, clever puzzles, and lots of little magical touches all help to bring the game to life. And if some challenges prove too taxing, the sophisticated help system prevents you from getting stuck for too long. It certainly has its flaws and weaker areas, but overall Keepsake is a lovely game that will appeal to those who enjoy their puzzles injected with a little bit of magic.
Keepsake is a charming adventure that overcomes its flaws and difficulties to be an enjoyable and magical experience.