Every once in a while (and unfortunately, increasingly often on Steam), you come across a game so lackluster it’s almost worse than if it were a certifiably bad game. Sometimes a game is so repugnantly bland it becomes something much, much worse. TinyKeep is one of these games.
TinyKeep is about your character’s daring escape from a prison, which will be rife with hacking, slashing, brazier tipping, and can be broadly classified as a roguelike. The game, frequently to its severe detriment, is rather simple, reducing its controls to the essentials of movement, sword slashing, blocking, and jumping. Viewed from a top-down perspective, the camera swings as the character turns, which is really only about half as nauseating as it sounds.
Your adventure will begin with you defenselessly wandering the first level, looking for where your sword and shield have been randomly placed, while dodging the hail of arrows inevitably coming your way. The map isn’t here to help in this regard, or really any regard, as it’s too stylized to portray any real information and tends to leave you looking for the last nook and cranny it simply will not suggest.
Combat in the game is simplistic, but places a heavy emphasis on blocking and counter-attacks. This seemingly challenging system is marred, however, by the lack of options for scenarios involving multiple enemies. Fighting more than a single monster is often an extremely dire situation – and one which will invariably have to be tanked – due mostly to the lack of advanced abilities like rolling or a shield bash. Combat is too often chaotic to the point of frustration.
In the games defense, it does offer up what it believes to be a solution, and this solution is one of its main gimmicks: enemies can be pit against each other, and can be burnt (just like you! wow!) by fire from braziers. When enemies inevitably end up hitting one another, they can sometimes end up in a fight to the death, which would be cool if there was any player involvement in it whatsoever besides being able to trick the archer AI into shooting the swordsmen.
As far as the fire goes, making use of this tactic is limited to being able to tip braziers placed in the middle of some rooms to light the floor on fire. There aren’t any other harmful substances or specific enemy resistances in the game that I’ve been able to discern, and these braziers are the only way to make use of what little there is. Again, TinyKeep has failed to develop its core ideas to any level of significance.
TinyKeep is a fully 3D game, and one of its most prominent characteristics is its objects’ reactivity to its physics engine. The game even features a jump button, something a very select few games of this kind have. At first this seems like the only truly cool thing about the game, but this, too, soon devolves into purely a source of frustration. The feel of the physics reminds me a lot of Gang Beasts, but where Gang Beasts’ syrupy physics are a supposedly funny gameplay hook, TinyKeep’s are just an annoying obstacle. The reason is simple: Gang Beasts’ levels don’t become cluttered with dead bodies. These, and other assorted knick knacks, make maneuvering TinyKeep’s dungeons a real pain in the ass.
Throughout the game, you’re delivered a sort-of narrative through notes left behind by your friend/something, Maggie. She doesn’t say much besides “oh man, I fought some guys here earlier! keep going!”, and these notes and cutscenes are scripted to be placed/played at specific entrance and exit points during the game’s nine levels. They serve mostly to make the game feel like a standard one-time experience with permadeath shoved into it for the sake of buzzwords, and don’t really pay off or conclude in any meaningful way. Yet another “why is this here” and “why is it so bad” on the pile.
TinyKeep resembles an Xbox 360 indie game in the worst possible ways (and there aren’t many good ones): its core systems are sloppy and underdeveloped, its assets are uninspired and passable at best, and its gameplay is dungeon crawling at its hollowest. Each time TinyKeep’s mechanics coyly smile at you and promise to be good from now on, you’re let down by a series of puzzling design decisions and a sad longing for what could so easily have been.
TinyKeep can be purchased from Steam.
Ethics disclosure: The reviewer was provided a review code from the developer.