The Dragonvale Magic Academy is a school for aspiring mages set in a lush, green valley. Its size is overpowering and awe-inspiring, yet it's not as dark as Hogwarts. It's light and airy in a fantasy fairytale way, and it hides a mystery of recent origins as Lydia learns when she arrives to start her first day at school.
Lydia is expecting to be reunited with her best friend, Celeste, but there is no one to greet her when she arrives. It seems that everyone, the teachers and students, and even the caretaker, have simply vanished. Your task, as Lydia, is to find out what happened, and to do that you will need to explore the school and its grounds.
Fortunately you won't be alone. As you begin exploring the parts of the school that are accessible you'll team up with Zak, a mighty dragon. Ok, he looks more like a wolf, but there is a reason for that. Zak will implore you to help him turn back into a dragon and in return he will help you solve the mystery. Along the way Zak will explain some things which may prove useful, but at other times he may be less than helpful. If you don't do anything for a while Zak and Lydia will chat between themselves filling in some of the background story. Later in the game you will play as Zak for a short time, and one puzzle requires that you switch between the two characters in order to solve it.
Keepsake is a third person perspective adventure game with all dialogue subtitled. A tutorial is included as part of the introduction and here you will first meet Mustavio, a merchant, who will guide you through the interface. Interacting with the game is easy, the cursor changes to indicate what action may be performed. Moving Lydia around simply requires you to point and click where you want her to go. If you point to somewhere close to where she is standing she will walk to that spot but at greater distances she will run. This is useful as you have a lot of exploring to do and there is a lot of to-ing and fro-ing as you solve the many puzzles.
The Keepsake game world is huge and you will need to explore carefully to learn all you can. Maps of the lower and upper areas of the school will help you to find your way around, though it's a pity that you can't use them to instantly travel to another location. Once you access the upper school, teleports will aid you to move around but there is still an awful lot of running back and forth. It's no wonder that Lydia is exhausted by the end of the day.
As I said in my preview, there are items to find and pick up but Keepsake is not really an inventory-based game as there are many abstract or manipulative puzzles as well. Using items is simple, if you have keys in your inventory, for instance, and Lydia is faced with a locked door she will automatically try them, you don't need to take the keys from your inventory to use them. The inventory gives you some idea of the items you are looking for. These are indicated pictorially but are greyed out until you find them. Similarly, there are two other 'inventories' one for investigation items and another for visions. Lydia's visions, which begin once she finds the doll she gave to Celeste as a keepsake, will fill in more of the background to the story and reveal something of what has happened in the school before she arrived. In this way the visions (a series of sepia stills) spur Lydia on to uncover the mystery.
In the first part of the game many of the obstacles to progress involve getting machinery to work or doors to open and you will need to overcome three challenges as well. Later there are more puzzles to solve to find hidden objects. These logic puzzles have been quite cleverly integrated into the game world so they don't appear to be too out of context given the fantasy, magical setting of a school for mages.
Like many logic puzzles found in adventure games some are relatively easy to solve with a little experimentation. The key often is to look for a pattern such as observing the effect of an action, maybe pressing a button or moving a lever. If you feel you have messed it up you can simply reset the puzzle. Experienced adventurers will have come across some of these puzzles before in a different context but there is plenty of variety and I particularly enjoyed the moving staircases (shades of Hogwarts) and the gnome and minotaur game. Just for the record, there are no timed puzzles and also none of the tone or sound matching variety.
There are also puzzles that are quite challenging and are sure to hold up play for some time. Unless, of course, you resort to the in-built hint system which will give you three gradual hints and ultimately offer to solve the puzzle for you. The hint system will also show you what you need to do and where to go next if you are just wandering around unsure of what to do. As I said in my preview this will certainly remove the frustration for some players.
Taking into account the simple interface, the friendly inventory, plus the graduated hints, Keepsake is a game for all fantasy fairytale lovers, young and old. However, now that I have played the game through, sometimes using the hints and sometimes not, there is one remaining source of frustration related to the hint system but more properly an aspect of the game design. Quite simply it is only by requesting a hint that you learn that the puzzle you are working on is unsolvable at that particular time. This means that if you choose not to use the hints you can spend a lot of time working on a puzzle for no reward, simply because you may not have completed or even found a prerequisite puzzle. This could have been avoided if more help had been forthcoming from within the game itself. For example, Zak could have provided a warning or, more simply, the puzzle could remained inactive until the prerequisites had been completed.
So whilst the hint system is great, adventurers who want to solve the game themselves should not be disadvantaged for not using hints, they still need feedback and cues from the game to indicate that they are on the right track.
The graphics in Keepsake are fantastic, so intricate and detailed, and create a beautiful fantasy setting that is a wonder to explore. Both Lydia and Zak are interesting characters, it's a shame that we didn't get to know them a little more intimately but this is partly due to the puzzle orientation of Keepsake rather than emphasis on character interaction. A few more asides from Lydia and Zak would have helped and the conversations could have drawn out the characters more. As it is we don't really learn too much about Lydia or her background or even the world and society in which she grew up. The music is gentle and largely unobtrusive, and the sound effects are fine except when Zak is padding around by himself on all fours accompanied by the sound of human footsteps.
For this review I played the Adventure Company version and I note that they have toned down the voice of Mustavio so that now he speaks with a vaguely stereotypical 'Italian' sounding' accent. Other voices have also been redone and the maps have been included. The UK version from Lighthouse Interactive now has a patch available to add the maps to the game. Keepsake comes on three CDs and installs completely to the hard drive. Saving your progress is easy as is continuing your game from your last save. However, loading from an earlier save is more problematical as it will overwrite your current game. But as there is little reason to load an earlier save, unless you want to go back and do a puzzle again, then saving and continuing works just fine.
I enjoyed playing Keepsake, it's an extremely good first effort from Wicked Studios. The puzzles are fun without being too daunting and there is an intriguing mystery to solve which is your ultimate goal. There is a gentle and poignant story and with a name like Keepsake you may be surprised to learn that one of the themes is about letting go. It is also about love and friendship and courage, and in Lydia we have yet another intelligent and resourceful female character.
Copyright © Gordon Aplin 2006.
All rights reserved.
Windows ME/2000/XP, 1 GHz Intel Pentium III processior (P4 recommended) or AMD Athlon processor, 256 MB (512 MB on Windows XP), 4x CD ROM(or PC DVD-ROM Drive), 32 MB (64 MB recommended) 3D accelarated video card (NVIDIA GeForce or ATI), 100% DirectX Compliant sound card (EAX Recommended), DirectX 9.0, 1.4 GB Hard disk space, Mouse, Keyboard and Speakers.