Developer:  Lion Entertainment
Publisher:  SSI
Year Released:  1996

Review by Rosemary Young (August, 1996)

dkeep.jpgDeathKeep is a Windows 95 only game. After the initial introductory sequence it opens with a menu screen providing a bank of buttons allowing you to do all the necessary things such as start a new game, restore a saved game, quit and access the options menu.

Press the start a new game button to begin your adventure and the next thing you must do is select a character. You are given the choice of three: a male fighter, a male mage/fighter and a female mage. For me this was the first in a string of disappointments -- not being able to resurrect my faithful female fighter/mage character. Hence I had to forgo my prowess with sword and bow and be content with casting spells and throwing the occasional dart. Depending on which character you choose in this game, you will find different types of weapons and armour specific to that particular character strewn around the dungeons.

The Quest
As is generally the case with fantasy roleplaying games your objective in DeathKeep is to locate and overcome the 'evil' that is threatening the land. And I'm not going to say it's all been done before, because it has, and it doesn't really matter so long as the story is sufficiently varied and engaging. And so long as it develops with minor plots and twists along the way. Well, DeathKeep is let down badly in this respect as it is fairly bland in storyline and plot development.

Your immediate task is to search the dwarven dungeons and find the three orbs. You learn this as you enter the game then, when you succeed in this, a skeletal figure mounted on the wall will give you some information about the 'evil one' and allow you to progress further. As you pass from dungeon to dungeon you will then see several short cut scenes but, unfortunately, that's the sum total of any plot enhancement. Neither the information supplied by the skeletal mentor, nor that given in any of the cut sequences, contains vital components to help you solve or find anything during your adventure -- they just serve to fill in the background and break up the game a bit. Thus there are no side quests and no non-playing characters who might tell you something useful. Really, it's just a relentless dungeon crawl.

Difficulties and difficulty levels
As well as allowing for you to choose between three characters, DeathKeep provides three difficulty levels: easy, moderate and hard. Though the 'hard' level comes with a lot more monsters, at least in the 'mage' mode, it wasn't too harrowing. To make life easy there are plenty of restoratives to be found and plenty of ranged magical weapons.

Still, despite the combat not being too difficult, I wouldn't recommend this game for novice players. It's just not inspiring enough in the story line, in the graphics department or in the music or sound effects. I had the latter turned off in the first 5 minutes, the gurgling water and, later, the belching lava, drove me to distraction. As did the maniacal laughter during some of the combat sequences. Not to mention the dreaded taunt 'Now your failure shall be complete' that rings in your ears every time you quit the game.

Also, as far as novices are concerned (and maybe even many experienced roleplayers) the writers of DeathKeep have committed a fatal error. Play begins in the most frustrating of locations -- the ice caverns -- where controlling the movement of your character is near impossible. It just wasn't fun for me trying to get used to the game interface whilst endlessly sliding out of control and into dangerous, health sapping pools of water.

The interface
And speaking of game controls, movement in this game can be controlled by either keyboard or mouse. There is no curser on the screen at all, either for movement (an arrow) or for carrying out actions. You pick up items automatically when you walk over them or, alternatively, you can opt for the game to display a prompt asking you whether or not you want a particular item. I found the latter mode more manageable as it was annoying picking up every single thing, and then having to find a place to drop off excess items where I wasn't likely to pass by and promptly gather them up again. Although, as far as I'm concerned, the lack of an action curser on screen somehow limits game involvement. You never actually 'feel' as if you are 'doing' things because you can never 'really' hold any object in your hand and do anything with it. In fact, I acquired the first all important orb without even knowing I'd done so, which wasn't conducive to making me feel as if I was participating in the story.

As I mentioned earlier there are lots of useful goodies strewn around the tunnels for the convenience of the intrepid adventurer, many a time there were more than I could possibly carry. Deciding what to keep, and what not to, was often a problem, especially as there was no way of checking how many charges were left in a wand or other magical item. On the whole this game lacks a lot of 'touches' like this, the little things that always make a game more engrossing. For instance, there is no way knowing if you have a spell such as 'armour' protecting you at any time and, I never once recognised that I was poisoned. Either I somehow missed the 'signal' here, or I was fortunate enough to evade the fangs of every single venomous creature.

As for the character statistics, they are quite simple. You have experience points that increase as you progress, as does your adventuring level (ie. you will progress from a lowly mage or fighter to a level 14 or so), but your actual character statistics never change. Once a mage with a 15 wisdom level, that's the way you stay, no matter how much experience you gain. Therefore these stats are more or less redundant.

One way journey
The DeathKeep box cover promises 'over 25 eerie dungeons -- each with 8 levels within' and, although you don't actually traverse all 25 dungeons (there are alternative routes cutting out a few of them) it is still a reasonably long game. Each dungeon is separate and unique in that you can't jump around from one to the other. When you have completed each one you must exit through a portal, and there is no return. As you enter the portal the 'end screen' tells you how many monsters there were and how many of them you managed to overcome. You then have the opportunity to repeat that particular dungeon/level or to continue.

Other claims made on the box cover include that you must 'avoid insidious traps' and 'solve brain busting puzzles.' I must admit I didn't find the puzzles too problematic and nor did I find them particularly varied. There were a few keys to find and a sprinkling of secret doors (fairly easy to spot), but mostly the obstacles consisted of gaps to jump across or elevating pylons to jump on. The biggest puzzle for me was sorting out the map. I did get used to it in the end but I wouldn't say this feature was good by any stretch of the imagination. You cannot write to the maps, and for each dungeon they are presented layer upon layer simply highlighting the level you are on. Sorting out exactly where you want to go and how to get there isn't all that easy

On the whole I can only say that DeathKeep is a very ordinary role playing game. Of course, for players like me who never give up, there is some challenge in getting through to the bitter end but, I must admit, it was one of the few games where I wasn't particular about searching every single corner. No point. Apart from the three orbs there was nothing else crucial to find. rating:  

Copyright © Rosemary Young 1996. All rights reserved.

System requirements:
486/66 (Pentium recommended), 8MB RAM, 3MB hard drive space, 1MB Video RAM, Win 95, Windows display accelerator recommended, 2xCD-ROM (4 speed recommended).