You awake in a dungeon cell that’s become all too familiar; the cold, hard floor your only friend aside from your cellmate. Your cellmate who is now missing and has graciously left the iron door open behind her, leaving a note about her escape. So begins TinyKeep, Phigames’ action-roguelike. Set in the very late 5th century, players control a recently-freed prisoner on a quest for freedom. Of course, nothing is ever as simple as it seems.
TinyKeep eases you into the action, with the first level forcing you to collect a sword and shield, introducing the standard human enemies: brutish, club-wielding oafs and archer-guards, the dungeon’s spike and swinging-door traps and buff fountains. Buff fountains come in two flavors, 15 and 100 gold, and depending on the amount of coin you toss into them grant you a random powerup for the duration of your quest. This can be as useful as increased damage against a particular enemy time and as questionably effective as increased jump height. The second level introduce boss characters, and the third the door-unlocking key-collecting puzzles prevalent throughout the rest of the keep. When your escapee finds an occult throne adorned with a skull and foolishly touches it, TinyKeep reveals its true colors.
Immediately, the game shifts from somewhat-realistic dungeon escape to high-fantasy adventure. The floor is swarmed by skeletons of various flavors, seeking to bash in the heads of anything still breathing. You rush away and stumble into an Orc-infested alternate dimension. This trend follows throughout the rest of your escape, exploring different worlds populated by vaguely humanoid enemies of varying toughness, opening colored doors, collecting gold to trade for random buffs and trying not to get crushed, impaled or otherwise relieved of your living duties. While many games can capitalize on a small set of relatively simple mechanics, TinyKeep falls somewhat short. The game has secret items and multiple endings, none of which I’ve been lucky enough to experience.
TinyKeep is one of the most recent in a slew of permadeath-featuring rogue-lites. As is to be expected from a game with such an unforgiving core mechanic, TinyKeep is tough. In over 20 attempts, this writer has yet to manage to escape the dungeons. Some combination of traps, fire, hulking beasts and swarms of enemies inevitably does me in every time. While it is procedurally generated, unlike games like Rogue Legacy the dungeon iterates with the same premise for each level and minor changes in room arrangement, enemy location and treasure spawning does little to make each experience feel unique or fresh. The second level will always include a locked gate and boss, the third level will always include the three color-coded doors and skull, and subsequent levels will follow a set pattern. Being sent back to the beginning each time and having to play through what feels like essentially the same 20ish minutes – if you survive that long – is rather dull and frustrating.
The lack of diversity between playthroughs is exacerbated by the lack of depth to the combat. You’re granted a sword, shield and… that’s it. No bows or magic to speak of paired with lackluster AI makes every engagement formulaic. If you’re against a melee opponent, block or interrupt their attacks until they die. If your enemy is ranged, charge them and attempt to interrupt their attacks or line of sight them around a corner to force them to come to you. You can attempt to switch things up by baiting the dungeon’s antagonists into traps which they’ll happily bound into, but the novelty of this wears off quickly. Tougher enemies will require you to block and time your attacks more carefully, but all of this falls apart in the unfortunate event that you find yourself any kind of overwhelmed. As few as three or four enemies in more challenging areas of the game will rapidly put you in the ground, sending you back to the start menu.
Beyond the shallow combat, repetitive floors and underwhelming buff system, TinyKeep is aesthetically sound. Phigames has opted for a cutesy, big-headed look that is pleasant and cheerful. The color scheme isn’t too dim or bleak, with some vivid greens and oranges thrown in for flare. Occasionally, a spike trap will dislodge itself from the floor and lay at an awkward angle or your character’s lantern will flash unexpectedly, breaking immersion and underlining the impression that the game lacks a lot of polish. The sound design is solid, though, and leaves little to be desired. Jungle rhythms accompany you in vine-covered temple ruins and each character type in the dungeon has its own design and some of audio cue which helps to differentiate them from their extremely similarly-acting counterparts in other parts of the keep.
TinyKeep is a cute game with a lot of potential that unfortunately falls short. Restrained by heavy repetition and unsatisfying randomization, it’s difficult to pick up and play over and over after each death. While die-hard roguelike fans may find some comfort in the difficult combat, the game as a whole lacks the polish and fun factor of others in the genre.