On paper, Crimson Keep is as pure a Roguelike as we’ve played at Finger Guns for quite some time. Procedurally generated levels? Check. Permadeath? Check. Resource management necessary to survive? Absolutely. Descending into the depths to defeat some evil at the deepest level? Of course. The main differences between Crimson Keep and most other purist Roguelike’s is that it’s played in a First Person perspective and it’s not turn based.
Crimson Keep begins with a cut scene which is all the framing and plot that it deigns to serve. You play as an adventurer banished to the underground and must go deeper into the cursed land of Larkstead which has sunken into the earth, the Keep of which is now home to an evil necromancer. It’s your job to head down there and put an end to her. The only other tidbits of plot are provided by a skeleton at the end of the tutorial which drops a new line of droll and foreboding dialogue each time you visit him (and you’ll be walking by him a lot). As fantasy plots go, this one’s pretty pedestrian.
Much like any roguelike, Crimson Keep relies on ‘runs’. Each new run at the dungeons below begins with choosing between 3 different classes – a warrior type with a sword and axe, a wizard with a magic twig or a drifter who comes into the game with nothing but his fists. Once you’ve chosen which character type to take a run with, you’re free to go through a short tutorial level (each and every time you play. *sigh*) and then down in the procedurally generated depths.
There’s a fair few mechanics at play in Crimson Keep. Your combat, pulled off by 2 disembodied hands that float in front of you, is triggered with the shoulder buttons on the Dualshock 4, complete with a standard physical attack (which varies depending on what weapon you’re wielding) along with various other attacks which can only be pulled off once their ‘Mana’ bar is full. Mana can be restocked over time, by defeating the deadly foes that’ll attack you and by using certain items that can be found in barrels or dropped by fallen enemies. As you defeat monsters, demons and the ilk, you’re granted Experience which will eventually amount to a ‘Level Up’. At each level up, you’re allowed to choose a new skill from a new set that is unlocked and randomly generated. These skills can be anything from a new type of attack, a passive boost to damage with certain weapons and more. While you’re adventuring, you’ll also have to manage your hunger. Food offers a small Hit Point boost but also staves away hunger. If you don’t eat for a while, you can starve to death.
Managing all of this – fighting beasties, equipping the best gear, keeping your health and mana up while keeping your hunger down – is quite a number of plates to keep spinning at any one time but Crimson Keep makes this far more onerous on the player by making things a little too random. Item drops, for example, don’t accommodate the players situation. I’ve played entire dungeon levels and not picked up a piece of useful gear, a single healing item or some food. On other runs, I’ve been armed to the teeth with weaponry and armour but starved to death because I couldn’t find the exit to the next level and none of the monsters I’d vanquished had dropped a bite to eat. While there’s some very obvious limitations to the drops and items you’ll receive per dungeon level (like stopping you picking up good weapons so you become over powered), the random nature of everything else means the success of any given run seems purely determined by luck. It doesn’t feel like item drops are tailored to encourage progress but rather around a handful of meaningless criteria like how deep you are in the dungeon.
The game is structured with alternating procedurally generated mazes then static boss battles. Each level of the dungeon is filled with its own specific enemy types. To start off with its headless zombies, fire and earth golem’s, big trolls and nasty imp like creatures. Then it’s flying skulls and ghosts. There’s a decent variety of beasties in Crimson Keep that’ll likely surprise you the first time you meet them head on. That’s part of an incredibly steep learning curve with this game and one that becomes painfully punishing. Most of the foes you come face to snout with have just one attack and mindlessly walk towards you but until you’ve learnt how to pre-empt these swipes by tracking their animations, even low level enemies can tear a big chunk of health out of you and often kill you off.
Combat in Crimson Keep can be quite irritating too. Your hands, floating ahead of you, attack in a forward motion from their position which means for many fast moving enemies, it becomes almost impossible to fight them off if they surprise you and get inside your invisible arm span. Monsters can attack you through their companions too. If you’ve stacked up demons ahead of you and you’re dealing with the threat directly ahead, it’s common to see an arm swipe through the body of your immediate target ahead and deal you some damage. When you’ve got 3 or 4 beasties all backed up on one another, they just become a flailing blob of arms that’s not worth dealing with.
Then there’s the game’s UI. Any items you pick up are placed into a holding area in your inventory to be placed in boxes that are labelled as chest, head, arms etc. The issue here is that there’s a background image to each of these boxes that ends up making the menu look like it’s completely broken.
And this leads to my biggest gripe with Crimson Keep. Roguelikes have come a long way since the original Rogue. The dawn of Roguelike-likes and persistent collectables/experience/buffs that carry across between failed runs have made for a much more appealing genre. Crimson Keep is entirely devoid of any of these mechanics. Death really does mean death in this game and if you fall in the dungeon, you’ve gained nothing aside from some knowledge of what might lay ahead (and given the procedural generation of the levels, this isn’t always informative). A plot that’s just short of non-existent, random item drops that rely totally on luck and clunky combat make for very poor motivations to keep you playing Crimson Keep after a few deaths.
Crimson Keep has very few redeeming qualities. The reflective light effects on the monsters look great, the procedural generation means that each new run is different and the music is pleasant enough. That’s about it. Roguelike purists that can dedicate enough time and effort to overcome this game’s hefty challenge might get a kick out of dying repeatedly here – but in a genre that’s becoming ever more accommodating and innovative, the luck dependent progress, sluggish combat and deeply punitive nature of the game feels archaic compared to its modern day peers.
Crimson Keep is available now on PS4 (review version), Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and PC.
Developer: Team Crimson
Publisher: Merge Games
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review we purchased a copy of the game. For our full review policy please go here.
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