Stonekeep always makes me think of the adventure films of the 1980s like Labyrinth and The Neverending Story, mostly due to how film-like the game is. Drake, the young naive protagonist, is thrust into a fantasy world to battle magical beasts, joined by strange but loyal companions as he strives to confront the Big Baddie and save the day. Shame the game didn’t sport a synthpop soundtrack or it would be an all-time classic.
The FMV intro tells of a castle named Stonekeep that is attacked by a great evil. Only Drake survives and as he returns years later to learn what happened, he is set on an epic quest to save a pantheon of gods from peril. Nothing new there really, except everything in Stonekeep is about immersion. Video replaces pixels, voice acting replaces text and even the game’s interface is justified as being magical artifacts.
Speaking of magic, the game’s magic system is quite ingenious. Basic rune-like symbols represent different spells, but they can also be mixed with other symbols to get neat upgrades, leading to a remarkably flexible system. By comparison the combat system is just “whack things with it to get better at it”-variety, which gets the job done.
But Stonekeep’s strength doesn’t lie in its graphics or game design, but in the characters you meet. Stout dwarves, cowardly greenskins, creepy undead and singing fairies are part of a wide cast of characters with actual personalities that stick with you long after you’ve stopped playing (especially the fairies). All of this gives Stonekeep a somewhat light-humored atmosphere that still holds up today.
If this game has a flaw, then it is the fact that beneath all that sparkle is just a simple grid-based dungeon crawler, which feels restrictive and out of style with the graphics. Another low point is the uneven flow of the second half of the game, where exposition is either dumped on the player in large amounts, or scattered about so scarcely that it takes effort to even find it, leaving players wondering where they are or what they’re supposed to be doing.
Like those child-like adventure films of the 1980s, Stonekeep is no outstanding milestone, but its innate charm and the rosey tint of nostalgia help make it a fondly cherished game nevertheless. Árni Víkingur