Mini-Review: Keepsake

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

Keepsake started out with a jumping-pegs puzzle. Not quite that, I should say. It started out with a very simple but very nice puzzle -- an introduction to figure-out-the-rules mechanical puzzles in graphical adventures. The second puzzle was the jumping pegs. The linear one, that is -- the one you can solve in your sleep -- not the nasty leave-one-peg-on-the-grid puzzle that makes you pull up a walkthrough or a solving tool. So I didn't give up immediately, but I did think "Who puts the jumping-pegs puzzle in a game these days? Without immediately showing me their bloody intestines by way of restitution? Have we not said it enough? Have we not wept and rent our garments by the riverside?"

Apparently not. Here it is again: We don't need the jumping-pegs puzzle again. It's been done. You don't have to do it.

And that was an unfair reaction, because most of the puzzles in Keepsake are original. All but that one, as far as I could tell. A couple were of familiar types, and a few more were related to puzzles I'd solved before, but that's fine; that's how the genre works.

The game's structure was a little weird. It was all set-piece puzzles -- devices stuck into doors and walls. They were only barely integrated into the game world. There might be plant-themed puzzles in a garden, and at one point you have to turn on water pumps to water the garden, but that's as far as the integration goes. You were almost never acting in the game world; rather, you were acting in the miniature puzzle-worlds.

If that sounds the same as most graphical adventure games, let me detail the biggest difference. You have an inventory; but there are no inventory commands (except "look at this closely"). There is no command to use this item on that puzzle. There is no command to combine two items. Certain puzzles need inventory items, but if you have the right item, it's used automatically. Even complex recipes are carried out automatically (in cut-scenes) if you have all the ingredients and the information. In essence, the inventory is a progress track and clue repository, not part of the gameplay.

I'm not saying this is a bad design decision. If your complaint about adventure games is that they make you walk the UI through a lot of "obvious" actions, you will favor this design. However, my complaint is much more often that I feel isolated and uninvolved in the story. Keepsake raised that problem to a screaming pitch and then nailed it between my eyes. I rarely reached what I consider the true adventure gestalt -- the experience of looking around the world and deciding which of the disparate elements I've found make sense together.

But, you ask, why are you obsessing about inventory? Don't your high ideals of graphical adventures, the Myst games, eschew inventory items entirely? Or, for that matter, those low-but-terribly-entertaining ideals, the Rhem games?

Well, yes. (Well, nearly they do.) But those games achieve integration through other means. Their game worlds are tied together, location to location, by many obvious and subtle connections. You must observe their worlds, and -- again -- consider what makes sense. Keepsake doesn't do much of that. Oh, in a few places, yes. But mostly, you're looking at encapsulated, isolated puzzles.

Mind you, that has its advantages. Keepsake has lots of set-piece puzzles. When your game contains nothing else, you wind up with quite a list. And, like I said, nearly all of them are original.

On the down side again: the quality varies. Many of the puzzles are quite good, and a few drove me to serious brow-wrinkling and state-space exploration. However, some were badly underclued. You had to pick one of several approaches to a cloud of information, and while the "right" answer was reasonable in retrospect, I was glad of the in-game hint system. Several times.

And the riddle puzzles were terrible. I don't know if it was a translation problem (the development studio is French); but many of the riddles were incomprehensible, even with the answers in hand.

And once, I solved a major puzzle by dumb luck, and never understood what I'd done. That was frustrating.

But enough about the gameplay. Let me wail about the interface for a while. May I say that an adventure game whose save/restore interface confuses me has a serious, serious problem? If you treat it as having one save slot -- which, admittedly, is a reasonable approach -- it's fine. But if you try to open the list of all the save slots, you're suddenly faced with columns of scary, unlabelled buttons -- and a dialog box that says "Warning! Don't do this unless you know what you're doing!" No, seriously, it does. And I didn't know what I was doing. What does this green "+" button do? Will it overwrite the slot I pick? Turn my hard drive to anchovy paste? I still don't know. I chickened out (anchovied out?) and went back to the single save slot idea.

But that's not the real interface problem. The real interface problem is that the dialogue is slow, slow, slow.

It's dialogue trees. I'm resigned to those. Dialogues start up spontaneously, at many points, to liven up run-around parts of the gameplay. That's pretty nifty. Dialogue appears as subtitles, a line at a time, as it's spoken. That's fine.

But you can't skip ahead.

Oh, they lie to you. They offer a "fast forward" button that cuts off the current line. But it doesn't help. See, some interface "designer" (those aren't sneer quotes, those are sentenced-to-death-in-absentia quotes) decided that the subtitles should fade smoothly in and out. Out and in. Try to click ahead, and the game punishes you by fading the subtitle out and the next one in. Two seconds lost. Per click. Every single. Line.

(Many of the puzzles have this problem too, by the way. Not fade-ins, but intricate "you pushed the button!" animations. They look great, but in a puzzle where you have to push the button scores of times, you quickly reach an incandescence of rage.)

It gets worse. The little 3D character avatars have little emoting animations. I think there are about six of these -- you see them over and over. (Wave arms, cross arms, sigh dramatically. Repeat.) And you can't skip out of those. If you hit the fast-forward button, the line cuts off, and then you have to watch the animation sequence anyway. Wave arms, clap hands, jump up and down. In silence. For as long as the spoken line would have taken.

I suppose I wouldn't have noticed if the voice acting had been good. No, that's a lie. I would have been clicking through anyway, because it's dialogue trees, and that means you're being fed a lot of information which is vaguely repetitive but you have to go through it all anyway. But in fact, the voice acting is deeply mediocre. Not that that matters, because the script is absolute garbage. Bone-rottingly awful. Reads like a Saturday-morning cartoon -- the kind that is supposed to be good for you, not the kind anyone likes. That fast-forward button was self-defense for my brain, and whoever crippled it badly needs to be hit with a leaden bell full of dead fish, because that's what a lot of this game's dialogue lines felt like.

Weirdly, the actual story -- if you consider it as a synopsis, or a script yet to be written -- is decent. There are characters; they have emotional arcs; the ending isn't a cheat. The story is even tied into the gameplay. The climax of the story is interactive, in a way which ties back to your experiences throughout the game. You have to look back and them and consider... yes... what makes sense, in the story's terms.

If it weren't for the dialogue and the acting, it would be impressive.

Oh well. Maybe, like the riddles, it's a translation issue. I don't think it is, but I am clinging to the hope.

I do think that the story missed a bet. Did I explain the story? You're a student at an academy of magic. Now you know. (Yes, it's a total ripoff, Caroline Stevermer must be turning over in her grave... what? Oh, she's not dead. That's okay, neither is Patricia McKillip, to whom Stevermer was paying homage.) Anyway. The game makes much of the office of Caretaker, who is responsible for all the machinery of the school. And the game makes much of your mechanical ability. And, in fact, that's pretty much what you do in this game: play with machines. They're magical machines, and there's also some potion-brewing and some other magic, but I was sure the story was setting up a cool "magic isn't everything" theme. Nope -- that was all in my head, it turns out. Once again: oh well.

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