This first, special, release of Interplay's Stonekeep brings with it lots of promise. We have been waiting for it for a long time, and it comes in a sleek dark box featuring a 'hologram' on the front, and inside there is a hard-cover novella that you can read to fill you in on the background and move you into the story. It is grand. But nevertheless, whilst it's going to please some players it's also bound to bring disappointments for others.
First up you are presented with a quite spectacular video sequence introducing you to your character, Drake, a young boy on the verge of adulthood. It reveals an idyllic medieval setting complete with castle and fair maid, pleasing and teasing the hearty men-folk with her offerings of apples. All is wonderful when she chooses to bestow her attentions upon you, and toss you a rosy red apple -- but very quickly everything turns sour. Destruction suddenly rains from the skies as the castle disintegrates around you whilst your companions are frizzled right before your eyes. Just in the nick of time a mysterious benefactor pops in and zaps you to safety.
Time moves on 10 years, now a young man, you return to the scene of destruction. As you stare into the abyss that was once your beloved home Thera, the Goddess of Earth, appears and enlightens you on your destiny. You must "descend to the lost city of Stonekeep and retrieve the 9 receptacles". Failure will mean a fate worse than death -- entombment forever by the forces of darkness.
You start out on your quest alone and it's a longish hike with a good deal of hacking and slashing before anything much happens and you really begin to make contact with the story. Don't be too put off by this low-key beginning as things do improve. However, during this initial exploration there are few puzzles. You will be mainly disposing of nests of territorial ants plus a few other miscellaneous unfriendlies. You don't even get to use magic till you find your first runecaster.
For all the mighty mages out there, this is probably one of Stonekeep's bigger failings. You can't in any sense 'be' a mage. Although the magic system is interesting as you find a selection of runecasters and collect lots of rune scrolls to eventually scribe onto them (including runes that modify basic spells and make them stronger or of longer duration) ultimately you never possess magic. Disappointingly, this somehow turns the runecaster into just another range weapon.
As I have said it takes a while for the story to unfold, but you do finally begin to get involved and learn what you must do. This 'disappearance' of the story is due primarily to the lack of character interaction, but you will eventually meet people and do them favours to get information on completing your quest. During the course of your journey you will have to learn how to drain Stonekeep's sewers so you can pass, seek out the components for a secret dwarven weapon, free a captive dragon, and find the lost love of the Fairy Queen, to mention just a few examples.
It's a biggish game and there are lots of locations and pits and gates and buttons for the intrepid explorer to negotiate. For me this was the best part, finding my way into secret rooms and working out how to bypass obstructive pits in search of that elusive key or code, or that special weapon essential to further progress. Many of the locations are visually similar although the sewers had some interesting water effects. The Fairy Realm is probably the most annoying part of the game with the 'child-like' voices of the fairies and the troop of entertainers that plague you endlessly. This location is closely followed by the 'Pits" which are tricky and great fun to find your way around. I thought the name 'Pits' more aptly fitted the Fairy Realm.
The graphics are very respectable, if not startlingly varied. And remember, Stonekeep is underground so it is essentially a dungeon-crawl. This will displease some players but the scenery doesn't matter so much to me so long as the game is fun, and this one had its fair share, along with some frustrations which I will get to in a moment. As for the sound, I was quite impressed, although the voices were a bit wooden, probably due to the fairly ordinary dialogue. But on the whole I was happy to listen rather than opting for the text substitute. Initially I loved the rhythmic sound of my characters traipsing around but ultimately, when I had to spend some time on a problem, the noise became grating and I turned off the sound effects. Of course, this had the disadvantage of blocking out the sound of approaching enemies.
Though you start out your adventure alone before too long you will pick up a companion and by the end of the game you are four in all. You can decide which weapons your fellow adventurers use, but you never really control them. They do their own fighting whilst you concentrate on your character. I guess it's a matter of preference, but I would have preferred complete control.
The combat is real time which may disappoint some RPG fans who prefer it to be turn based. Fortunately, I don't mind either way although sometimes Stonekeep became a bit 'Doom-like'. The problem is, you will very soon learn that firing range missiles is the way to go and, if you are not careful, you will find yourself creeping around with your readied bow preceding you. It doesn't feel right, not really like an RPG, and I advise caution here. Don't just shoot everything in sight because the creature in the distance may be friendly and have some important information to impart. It's best to approach other characters and note how your companions behave. If they start slashing away, then follow suit.
Also, this game is lacking in-depth character statistics which I found disappointing. All the characters are predetermined. For me at least, half the fun of role-playing is creating my characters and keeping a careful eye on them. Still there is some compensation, there are limited stats, but not sufficient to feature in game play. And they are too difficult to access, requiring lots of effort (opening your journal and turning pages) to view each character separately. Also your party members don't gain experience levels.
A final comment on your companions. There are no women! Well you do get to take 'Sparkle' the fairy along with you for a while but she hardly counts since she is just a 'ball of fluff'. I won't labour the point, but I can't ignore it. Most recent RPGs have included women characters so in the game evolution stakes Stonekeep takes a step backwards as far as this omission is concerned.
It is a quite respectable game, but not a great one. There is lots to do but the story slips into the background much of the time. Also it has its fare share of bugs which will frustrate many players and there are other frustrations that I should mention. Firstly, movement is only keyboard controlled, I found this problematic in the beginning, but soon got used to it. Also there isn't free 180 degree movement, which I didn't mind so much except that it also lacks sideways stepping. Hence it is extremely tedious checking out walls for buttons, etc. The mapping system is a little antiquated in that you can only leave markers on your map with related notes on a separate page of your journal, you can't write directly to the maps themselves. Still, by selecting your markers you can access your notes individually. It's cumbersome but you get used to it. The endless scrolling inventory is harder to get used to, organising and locating items is a puzzle in itself and, even more annoying is the inability to identify items directly. Your journal records everything you find, but after a while it is near impossible matching up some inventory items with journal entries.
On the plus side, it is useful to have clues automatically recorded in your journal and the translocation rune is great. It saves lots of heartache. You just cast a magical marker outside a useful 'mana' supply and you can return at any time to renew your supplies by casting the appropriate spell. Then another zap of your runecaster and, presto, back to your original position and on with the fun. Very useful -- though it does shave a huge slice of difficulty from the latter part of the game. So long as you keep enough magic in reserve to cast that one return spell, there is no need to ever worry about running out.
Copyright © Rosemary Young 1996.
All rights reserved.
486/33 (486/66 or Pentium recommended), 8MB RAM, 40MB hard drive space, CD-ROM, DOS 5.0 or higher, VGA (SVGA recommended), mouse