Developer: Blackfire Games
Price: £6.99 / $9.99
Release Date: 23rd March 2015
It’s impossible to review Runestone Keeper without mentioning its clear inspiration, Dungelot. I realise a lot of people are detached from the mobile world so the comparison will be lost on most but there is much more than a passing resemblance to Red Winter’s series of tile-tapping dungeon crawlers. It splits the review down the middle; does it offer enough to fans of Dungelot to leave behind familiar stomping grounds and does it offer an interesting experience to those that are blissfully unaware of the games it draws upon?
Luckily, both questions have the same response. Yes.
The gameplay in Blackfire Games’ Runestone Keeper is something of an amalgamation of Minesweeper, Dungeons of Dredmor and Desktop Dungeons. However, that’s not to say it’s that much like those games. Not very helpful, I know, but with the formula being shared only by two niche mobile predecessors, it becomes difficult to make comparisons you can relate to. Reviewers like to connect the dots between games so readers can quickly judge their interest yet that becomes pretty tough when it’s a largely unique experience.
Dungeon floors are set out as a grid that can be explored in any order from your starting point, uncovering one tile at a time. Each step reveals one of many different thing, generally falling under a classification of good or bad. Most discoveries play out as you might expect; equipment offers stat boosts, traps affect you negatively and enemies invite you to turn-based combat. You can avoid most fights but monsters block adjacent squares and the key to the next floor is often in their clutches so you sometimes have to enter the fray.
Thankfully the game deals mostly in absolutes, so the RNG factor is kept to a minimum, certainly in battles. There’s a percentage chance to hit that can frustrate but it can be counteracted with the right items, otherwise it’s easy to predict how much damage you will take and if you’ll win a certain encounter. Attack value hits your shields first, which absorb a certain amount of damage and then it hits your HP; very standard fare but familiarity can sometimes be comforting. There’s enough creativity displayed in other elements to forgive the otherwise traditional combat system.
As easy as the gameplay seems, your first playthroughs will end pretty quickly and there’s a temptation to deride Runestone Keep as being unfair and luck-based. It’s true that some items are better to have than others but succeeding relies on how well you can adapt to the hand you are dealt. Finding those techniques that make short work of most foes is key, such as using Roar to disarm the foes that redirect damage twofold so that large mobs are destroyed in seconds. The plentiful traps may seem overwhelming but you’re given many ways to avoid them, besides leaving a floor half-explored is often the smarter move. You will suffer your way through learning the ropes, much like most roguelikes, but the capability to win isn’t locked behind a grind for XP, unlike Dungelot.
There’s a wealth of layers to the gameplay, from a tattoo and enchantment system to the worshiping of deities and elite arena rooms. They’re largely left unexplained which is a real shame as a poor decision can end a decent run, let alone cost incredibly precious runes. It does mean you’ll be discovering new elements for many hours but a light tutorial in certain areas would have been greatly appreciated. The hint scrolls dotted around the levels tend to be obsolete by the time you pick them up. That said, the ability to right click anything to get a short description on the tiles properties is very helpful and you’ll make use of it many times even once you are comfortable with the mechanics.
Once you’ve died more than a dozen times, discovered a few gods and know your way around the enemies and artifacts you encounter early on, the game finds itself a nice groove. It gives with one hand and rubs your nose in your mistakes with the other just like any good roguelike but it’s far from perfect. An iffy translation is apparent regularly and the game can hang for a few seconds at times, other than that though, it’s been a largely bug free experience. There are some questions regarding its longevity though it’s hard to say; maybe after a couple dozen hours the intrigue will slip although that’s a pretty reasonable lifetime given the price. The difficulty could be a little lower for some people, but then it’s part of what defines the genre. Roguelikes have teeth and Runestone Keep is no exception. Sure, they’re a little wonky but the smile is charming and once the fangs are in, you’ll lose many hours to an unusual and rewarding little bruiser.