With the burgeoning indie gaming scene it’s all too common to see unique and interesting ideas let down by shoddy presentation and too many rough edges. We’ve been spoilt over the last generation with exceptionally high production values thanks to multi-million pound budgets and it makes us more critical when it comes to poor animations or texture work. Tiny Keep has decided to take a different route – attempting one of the oldest and most established genres (a dungeon crawler) and attempting to polish the experience to the nth degree. It’s refreshing and it makes for a game that was so solid even in an early state that it stood head and shoulders above the games around it at Rezzed 2014 in Birmingham.
In the demo we played you started with a set character in a dungeon – in the final game there will be different characters with different builds – and you are set with some fairly simple tasks. Go get a sword and shield, survive an invasion and then get out. Sounds simple right? Not so much.
The first thing that strikes you is the aesthetic. Everything looks solid and chunky in the same vein as Torchlight, but there’s an element of caricatures with the characters that brings to mind Peter Molyneux’s Black and White games. Everything is exaggerated but also instantly familiar. You know what a chest looks like, you know food will give you health, you know when you see a hole in the ground a spike is going to come out of it. Tiny Keep speaks the language of dungeon-based RPGs and uses it to it’s advantage to keep tips and UI hints to a minimum, instead relying on the player to make sense of the world. This frees up dialogue and instruction for more humorous purposes, as you make your way through the dungeon you’ll see descriptions of how NPCs are dying and even chests will troll you.
At the start of the demo we played you had no way to attack or defend yourself until you found a sword and shield. This makes your first encounters with the crossbow-wielding guards surprisingly tense. You simply had to avoid them with your limited vision, or run like hell past them. Once you arm yourself you also find some prison cells which can be opened to free NPCs. Like much of the game, whether they help you or not is somewhat random, if they do help you they serve as useful meat shields (even if they’re not too bright) if they turn on you they can be surprisingly formidable.
Combat revolves around clicking the left mouse to swing and the right mouse to block with your shield. It’s not quite as fluid and precise as Dark Souls, but it’s a step beyond games like Diablo as you can deftly attack at just the right time, bring your shield up for a block or step back out of range, then come back just as your next swing is ready to connect. Once you get the rhythm right you can take out the bolt-shooting guards without losing any health, but beyond the guards there was a much greater threat.
Making your way through the dungeon you can open chests and gather food, but there was a nagging feeling of dread with the objective still hanging over our head ‘survive the invasion’. We’d watched someone play before us and we knew what was coming. Rather than the lone guards dotted around the room, the invasion consists of dozens of skeletons pouring through entrances. They literally clamber all over each other to get to you, taking on the appearance of a chitinous wave more than an army. If there are guards still alive they are quickly engulfed and ripped apart, even your NPC friends won’t last long. We just ran, as fast as we could but every now and then we’d find ourselves in a dead end. These moments were the best of the demo, tired and exhausted we’d turn round and leap straight into the ocean of bone and steel, carving our way through to the other side. With repeated playthroughs strategy would become key. We wish we’d left more food around on the map to save us from the monsters, we should have used the level’s traps more (they work just as well against the NPCs). Eventually we were overcome and lost our last little slither of health. ‘You were close to the end’ Phi, the developer, let us know ‘But you died’. Yeah we did.
We can’t wait to play more Tiny Keep, there’s going to be a heavy focus on procedural generation (it’s Phi’s ‘thing’) and emergent strategies rather than hand-holding. There’s also a healthy dose of humour and an incredible amount of polish. This might be a familiar genre but Tiny Keep is doing everything right so far with no cut corners, something so rare in the indie world.