Although it’s been around for decades, and was often the foundation upon which old ’80s and ’90s games were built, the die-and-try-again system of gameplay has seen a resurgence in recent years, popularised by games like Dark Souls and the Metroidvania genre as a whole. Done right, with engaging gameplay and balanced difficulty, it can be a surprisingly addictive sort of experience. A poor execution, however, can spoil the entire game. Crimson Keep, unfortunately, falls into the latter category.
To its credit, the game knows how to get you involved with minimal fuss. You pick from one of three character archetypes, each with different abilities and weapons, and are immediately thrust into the action. That is, after a swift and concise tutorial that covers the basic mechanics. Crimson Keep certainly drifts towards keeping things simple, whether it be the melee combat or your abilities, but often it felt more like it was afraid to take risks than it was attempting to streamline the gameplay.
This is very much a single-life affair: if you die, that’s it. Enemies and loot are randomized with each new playthrough, ensuring that there’s always a fresh challenge for you. It’s a shame, then, that the actual gameplay of Crimson Keep isn’t nearly polished enough to keep players engaged. Combat, which unsurprisingly forms the core of the challenge here, is sluggish and rarely fun. Every attack you make feels slow and cumbersome, even with lighter and faster weapons. Worst of all, I found that they often clipped entirely through an enemy, dealing no damage whatsoever despite me having landed a direct hit. Opponents, on the other hand, can often attack from well outside of range and still deal damage.
At this point, you might be thinking that such an unbalanced combat system would prove difficult, but to my surprise the opposite was true. Enemy AI is poor to the point that many of them will run right up to you, only to then decide they want to stand perfectly still, their wide-eyed expressions mere inches from the screen, until you smack them about a bit. Enemies will shrug off your stronger abilities, seemingly arbitrarily, only to be stun-locked indefinitely by a standard smack of your axe.
Compounding the problem is the game’s terrible menu system. Everything has to be moved manually; there’s no way to instantly toggle between weapons, or even bring up a little comparison between the weapon you’re using and one you’ve just found. Bringing up your inventory doesn’t pause the action, either, so needing to make any alterations to your loadout mid-battle can often prove fatal. It’s a fiddly, fumbling system that all too often breaks whatever flow the game might have been able to build up. There’s also a distinct lack of a map, and it’s all too easy to become lost in the myriad indistinguishable pathways – and not in a fun, challenging way.
Aside from the enemies themselves, which look like absurd caricatures of typical fantasy creatures, I can’t deny that I was quite fond of how the game looks. Claustrophobic and muted in color, it often reminded me of the settings of many fantasy-themed games from the PS2 era, only without the awful murkiness and jagged edges of the early 2000s. In an early section, pools of lava light up a narrow path through a cave; later, piles of bones and bloody splatters tell of battles long since fought. There are pleasing touches like this everywhere, and it added a nice, slightly unsettling charm to the world. It’s certainly not beautiful, and perhaps I’m longing for an era of design that’s long gone, but I enjoyed the aesthetic.
Aside from the nostalgic looks, Crimson Keeps stumbles in many areas. Coupled with clumsy gameplay, the first-person perspective feels like a hindrance. Enemies will swarm you, often doing nothing else in the process, filling up your screen until you spend a long, boring few seconds swiping them out of the way. As with most first-person games, all you can see is your hands, but here they float around as if separate from your body. It’s a minor detail, and not one I spent much time at all being bothered by, but every time it caught my eye I couldn’t help but think how daft it looked. It felt like I was playing as Rayman.
There’s voice-acting, too, on occasion. The problem is that it sounds very much like it was recorded on someone’s phone and added to the game as an afterthought. Personally, I found it quite funny in a cheesy, B-movie sort of way. If you like your experience to be a little more, er, professional, you’ll likely be put off by it. Text-based descriptions and dialogue might have been a better way of elaborating on the world.
Crimson Keep definitely has an admirable sort of indie charm to it, and a lot of the pieces that make a good roguelike are certainly there – in some form or another. It’s in bringing it all together that everything seems to fall apart. Clunky combat, an uninteresting loot system and a terrible user interface all band together to ensure that you’re rarely having fun fighting your way through the game. With a little more care, this could have been a game that really scratched a particular itch for some people. As it stands, though, Crimson Keep is more likely to disappoint and frustrate than entertain.