Review by Victar

"This action-RPG dungeon crawler is better with local co-op. Oh, did you rase Speed? No? Too late, the game's unwinnable."

Wizard's Keep is an action-RPG available on Xbox Live, for the modest price of $1. It has local co-op play for up to four people, and this is definitely the best way to enjoy the game, since its main appeal lies in thwarting endless hordes of enemies; its story is an afterthought at best.

Oh... did you forget to put points in Speed as you leveled up? Too bad, you're not getting past the final boss of the penultimate dungeon, and you can't level grind your way out of this. You'll just have to delete your save file and start from the beginning. Tch!

Gameplay: 6/10

This rating is by $1 Indie Game standards, of course.

The gameplay has a surprising amount of depth. Combat pits the player against hordes of enemies; the player uses the analog stick to move and can hit one button to attack, another to block with a shield (an exclamation point will appear above enemies' heads when they do an attack that needs to be blocked), and other buttons execute various unlocked special moves. Each special move has its own meter regulating its use, and each meter recharges independently with time or other factors.

The player will find items to equip or sell, and buy more powerful gear at shops as he or she levels up. It's possible to spend gold on frivolous things like improving the player's house, but most of one's money will be spent on big stacks of health potions - quaffing these as needed is one of the only ways to stay alive! (Accessing the menu to drink a healing potion pauses the game, fortunately).

As the player battles enemies, he or she gains levels, and can choose which of four statistics to raise: strength boosts attack power, speed increases movement rate and decreases weapon swing time, constitution increases maximum health and defense decreases damage taken. Weak enemies give diminishing returns on experience, enforcing a soft level cap all the way through the game, and it is virtually impossible to maximize all four statistics in one playthrough!

This wouldn't be so bad by itself, except that the final encounter of the penultimate dungeon absolutely REQUIRES a speed stat of at least 7, preferably 10 or higher. Since a co-op attempt fails if any player character dies, every character in a co-op team must raise their speed, and since diminishing returns on experience limits one's ability to level up, reaching this late-game point without enough speed means the game is effectively unwinnable. (Some items give a boost to speed, but they are rare and don't raise speed by very much). This game-breaking flaw is why the gameplay score is 6/10 instead of a 7 or an 8.

Compounding this annoyance is the complete lack of warning - there's no hint anywhere in the game that high speed is necessary to beat the game (none of the other three statistics are as mandatory). Furthermore, this offense could have been remedied very easily... by including an NPC that allows the player to transfer points from one statistic to another for some exorbitant amount of gold.

There are other, less irritating gameplay issues as well. It is occasionally possible - most notably on the final boss of a certain dungeon - for players in co-op mode to become forcibly separated through a glitch; one player can do nothing but cool their heels while the others fight for their lives. There is an obnoxious difficulty increase after the first couple levels of the Knight's Keep, which effectively forces the player to replay earlier levels for gold and xp before the difficulty curve returns to a more reasonable slope. The final encounter of the penultimate dungeon requires an excess of trial and error - the only way to beat it is to try, fail, die, and memorize the pattern as many times as it takes. At the final boss, my character became stuck behind an object due to a glitch and it was almost impossible to extract him (this won't happen often, but is annoying when it does).

Fortunately, the penalty for dying is negligible - the player is just kicked back to their last save, or autosave, and save points aren't hard to find. Wizard's Keep does spice up its waves of combat with the occasional puzzle; some are fetch puzzles, while others require extensive consultation of the automap, and still others are puzzle boss mechanics.

Overall, the gameplay feels like a simplified version of Gauntlet, Diablo, or Castle Crashers (the bucket-shaped helmets will definitely evoke Castle Crasher memories). Finishing the game will take anywhere from 5-10 hours.

Graphics: 5/10

Ugh. Yes, its only a $1 indie game, but... it shows. It really shows. The players and their many humanoid enemies are little blobs, with a blob for a head, and smaller, detached blobs for hands and feet. They make the cast of Homestar Runner look like detailed renditions of expressive art. Environments are cut-and-paste cartoony. There are no character portraits, story cutscenes, or anything like that to distract from the cringe-inducing art. Also, it can be rather difficult to tell co-op players apart if they don't go out of their way to use different weapons.

It could be worse. The models serve their gameplay purpose well enough. But this is not an eye candy game. If you look at the screenshots prior to downloading the trial version of this game, what you see is what you get.

Sound/Music: 5/10

Sound effects are serviceable. The background music is unoffensive, but largely forgettable, and the same, repetitive theme is played for all combat and boss battles. Just play any music that happens to be stored on the Xbox 360's hard drive instead.

Story: 5/10

There is almost no story at all, but the game gets some props for a very few touches of humor, ranging from the "To Do" list that includes "clean cobwebs from house" and "overthrow evil wizard", to the suggestion that "Now would be a good time to run" when an UNFATHOMABLE HORROR OF COSMIC EVIL is closing in from behind.

Overall, there is extremely little text, and no characterization for anyone, hero or villain. The few sidequests available are loot-driven, not narrative-driven. This is not a game to play for its story, which is too bad, because a little more of the zinger humor might have gone a long way toward improving the entire experience.


Is Wizard's Keep worth your $1?

For the solo player? Probably not, unless you're broke. The only thing that distinguishes Wizard's Keep from more polished, balanced, and user-friendly action-RPGs like Gauntlet/Diablo/Castle Crashers is its price, and you get what you pay for.

But if you have friends you can rope into local co-op... patient friends who will put up with substandard graphics and music, not to mention a few technical issues... then the game shines a little more brightly. The emotional rewards of teaming up against a hostile world transforms Wizard's Keep from a frustrating grind into a fun grind (well, sometimes it's still frustrating), and makes it worth $1, if not necessarily any more than that.

It's hard to properly score a game that is primarily redeemed by its multiplayer, especially when multiplayer has to be local co-op (there's no online play). Wizard's Keep has notable flaws, but it is also readily apparent that the creators tried hard to include varied puzzles and an involving combat engine, even if their rate of success was dicey. I'm giving Wizard's Keep a 6, my "props for making an effort" score.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.0 - Fair

Originally Posted: 05/13/11

Game Release: Wizard's Keep (US, 02/25/11)

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