There’s an art to building a good roguelike. Randomization is a harsh beast to tame because it doesn’t care about the player in the slightest. Most randomized games get around this in a couple of ways, either by sneakily making sure that the random drops are tilted in the player’s favor, or by making it so that even if luck is running against the player, they’re still powerful enough in the default state there’s at least a possibility of success. Crimson Keep is a first-person dungeon-diving action roguelike that nails all the basics but falls down on the survivability aspect. Once you’ve got a good foothold on a run it can be a lot of fun to balance strategic action against monsters with a nice assortment of traits and attacks, but it’s far easier to die because items necessary to survival absolutely refuse to drop.
The story begins with ruin, as these things often do. The sorceress Mara decided that a castle would be far more useful as a base for her growing necromantic power than as a stronghold for a peaceful kingdom, so she killed the queen, drove the king mad and sunk the entire structure deep underground. Thirty years later the only path to renewing the desolate land is directly into the heart of what’s now called the Crimson Keep, tearing through the caves and ruins while picking up whatever you can find to help along the way.
The opening area isn’t a particularly friendly place, but it does a good job of getting you situated. After choosing from the physically-strong Berserker, magic-oriented Witch, or weak Drifter, you enter a room that provides the bare minimum of goodies to get the adventure started. The Berserker starts with an axe that’s just a bit better than the short sword you find as the very first item in your path, but both Witch and Drifter will want to equip it immediately. The Witch’s wand only has limited charges and there’s no point in wasting them on the low-level threat of red headless zombies, while the Drifter doesn’t start off with anything at all. The Drifter is a character for those looking for a challenge, so he doesn’t level up or have any extra skills, but killing that first zombie gets a level-up for the other two classes and that lets you choose their first ability.
Abilities are kind of like magic except you earn mana by killing things. The two main classes get three abilities each, although you have to journey a fair way down the dungeon to level up enough to fill all three slots, and they’re designed to be used regularly rather than hoarded. Each weapon also has a secondary skill, such as a powerful stab for the sword, but you need to two hands to activate the second function so it becomes unavailable if you’re using a shield. It’s a nice perk if you’re feeling confident but enemies aren’t shy about dealing damage and healing is limited, so losing a weapon’s extra ability in exchange for defense is a fair trade and absolutely not wimping out. It also helps that using the shield is the only action that interrupts an attack, so if you’ve mis-timed a swing, there’s still a chance to avoid taking damage. For some reason not even the dash can break the attack animation, which is an odd and often frustrating thing for a “get me out of here!” skill not to do.
After grabbing the sword, busting open a few barrels to find the apple, taking out a zombie then choosing your first skill, and maybe even finding the hidden shield in the opening area, it’s on to the randomized dungeons below to get as far as possible before a near-inevitable death brings an end to the run. Only one enemy in the opening cave biome has a ranged attack, but it’s easy to lose a bit of health here and there to the other five types of monster roaming about. Fat little imps attack in small hordes, skeletons have a quick thrust attack that can easily take you by surprise, it’s easy to forget to keep an eye out for the pig-man’s kick while paying attention to his axe, etc. Food, which is both healing and pushes back the threat of starvation, isn’t any more plentiful than health potions, but rushing combat in hopes of a lucky drop is a great way to get an axe to the face.
The problems start coming with the supply drops, though, and this is where Crimson Keep begins to fall down. Hunger happens no matter what and if you’re out of food it doesn’t matter how well you play. You’re going to die, there’s nothing you can do about it, and why is there a hunger mechanic in the game anyway? There are only a set number of monsters on each level so it’s not like you can hang out forever and farm experience, so a mechanic that exists to rush the player along serves no purpose. It’s the kind of frustration that leads to noticing other things such as- if you can cancel a sword swing with the shield, why not the dash? The Witch is the only useful character because he (it’s definitely a male voice) comes with a ranged weapon, unlike the the other two classes who can easily get to the second dungeon and end up with no defense against the skulls that fly at you and explode. Seeing as different enemies require different tactics, why isn’t there a hot-swap button for a ranged weapon? You don’t get more hit points by leveling up but rather equipping gear, so de-equipping the shield for the two-handed crossbow means losing its HP bonus, and re-equipping it means wasting a potion if you want to top off your health. The dungeons can get fairly twisty and there’s no map, which means you can lose a good chunk of hunger if you get lost, but as it turns out there’s a Chalk function that leaves a big white X wherever you like. It’s perfect for leaving a trail and marking off dead ends, but the only way I found this existed was by noticing it in the game’s trailer and even then I had to hit the keybinding option to figure out how it worked. For every clever idea in Crimson Keep there’s a half-baked system that needed a bit more tweaking to feel right, which is a shame because the game is incredibly close to being an excellent action roguelike.
Despite its issues I kept on plugging away at Crimson Keep, not just to review it, but because it feels like if I can just figure out how to work around its shortcomings there’s a great dungeon crawl waiting to be found. When the random drops come together to provide a balance of food, weapons and health, Crimson Keep is honestly fun, even with the stiff combat. Get a few levels and choose the right perks and you can build a nicely powerful character, tough enough to survive the excellent variety of monsters if only you can remember to use all the abilities as they become available. I’m honestly hoping the game sees a few updates in the coming weeks or months because its issues are by no means un-fixable, but in its current status Crimson Keep only sometimes shows what it could be. The sorceress Mara and all her undead protectors aren’t as unstoppable as they seem, but there’s no getting past the gods of randomized loot drops when they just don’t care if you live or die.