Posted by Joseph Howse.
First posted on 08 May 2009. Last updated on 10 November 2009.
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The view from the balcony of Dragonvale Academy triggers Zak's fear of heights.
An enchanted portal leads Lydia to an isolated tower.
A mini-game involves magical paints that appear differently to each viewer.
How can Lydia reach the platform where the fossilized dragon stands?
The game offers not only beautifully rendered landscapes but also sweeping vertical views.

This game is part of the Adventure Collection: Volume One re-released in 2008 by The Adventure Company.

Adventure Collection: Volume One

The compilation includes 5 games previously released by The Adventure Company separately in 2004-2007:

Dead Reefs


NiBiRu: Age of Secrets

Return to Mysterious Island

Secret Files: Tunguska

Here are some trivia about the 5 games included in the compilation: (1) 3 games2,4,5 feature female protagonists, (2) 3 games2,3,5 involve danger to either the protagonists' relatives or close friends, (3) 2 games2,5 have built-in hint systems, (4) 2 games1,2 are developed in Canada, (5) 3 games3,4,5 are developed in Europe, (6) 4 games2,3,4,5 are not originally English language releases, (7) 5 games1,2,3,4,5 are developed by small- to mid-sized studios.

1Dead Reefs 2Keepsake 3NiBiRu: Age of Secrets 4Return to Mysterious Island 5Secret Files: Tunguska

Keepsake is the first adventure game title developed by Wicked Studios, a small independent game development studio from Montreal, Canada. The story of Keepsake takes place in an elaborate and beautifully rendered fantasy setting called Dragonvale Academy. The game features an eerie soundtrack, blending classical instruments and echoing atmospherics, that is reminiscent of a fairytale ballet. The game's characters and the mysterious plot develop via a most unusual narrative style, relying on running dialog between a pair of characters and occasional flashback cut scenes.

On the gameplay level, Keepsake attempts to challenge a number of adventure gaming conventions, to varying levels of success. There are inventory objects but no inventory puzzles, as objects are used automatically whenever needed. Numerous mini-games and machine puzzles add many hours of play but seem to demand an exasperating amount of trial and error. However, an uncommonly effective built-in hint system can be used to moderate, obviate, or even skip most of the challenges if the player so wishes.

Keepsafe, then, is out of the ordinary in several respects. It seems that the developer wants to please challenge-seekers and more casual gamers alike. If so, how well does the concept work and for whom?

Keepsake's protagonist is Lydia, an adolescent girl who finds that her first day at Dragonvale Academy (a wizardry school) is not at all what she has expected. Her lifelong friend Celeste, daughter of the academy's principal, is supposedly waiting for her outside the school; instead, the entire campus now seems deserted. A little searching leads Lydia to 2 other characters: Mustavio, an upbeat merchant who knows scarcely more than she does; and Zak, a locked-up wolf who says he is really a dragon, metamorphosed by cruel students. Once released, Zak likewise seems shocked that everyone is gone. However, is he misleading Lydia somehow? He seems to know a lot about the academy and a little about Celeste. When Lydia discovers a discarded doll, given by her to Celeste long ago as a keepsake, her fears and suspicions build and a strange vision (the first of several) overtakes her.

The game's dialog has an emotive style. Characters, especially Lydia and Zak, often talk about how they feel (for instance, scared or angry or sad) and the good or bad memories they have about various people and places. The game uses modern idioms (including "Awesome!", "Sweet!", and "crybaby") rather than attempting to create medieval flavor in the dialog. The effect is somewhat soapy but, like successful soap operas, over time the script is able to draw its audience further into the drama.

The voice actors do justice to the script's better qualities. They consistently hit the right inflections and project the right emotions with sincerity. However, the voices of most of the secondary characters are done by a single actor, and his distinctively deep and slow voice makes this commonality painfully obvious.

Keepsake's scenic graphics are masterful. Though the game employs conventional third-person perspective with pre-rendered scenes, it takes an innovative approach to this format. Dragonvale Academy feels massive due to the number of screens and variety of camera tricks that the designers conjure up. A large proportion of the game screens feature scrolling, with parallax effects (different rates of scrolling for different regions of depth). Defocused background areas in landscapes and in close-ups also dramatically enhance the sense of depth. The effect is like looking through a magnifying glass at a series of brightly painted fantasy dioramas. The developer also experiments with a lot of wide-angle overhead shots and even a dizzying gravity-defying shot of Lydia and Zak climbing a magical spiral stairway.

The animation, while acceptable, is not up to the same standard as the still graphics. Though the character models are in real-time 3D, run cycles have a strange jumpiness and they often fall out of sync with the pace of movement. For instance, Lydia covers too many stair steps in each stride. Facial animations are minimal and are rarely shown frontally. During dialogs, the game's head-up display includes a pre-rendered facial illustration of the current speaker; however, these images are not animated and do not change with the speaker's emotions. None of the major cut scenes are rendered in full motion; instead, they are substituted with still images that faded away between shots. This effect has merits, however, for it lends an appropriately ghostly appearance to Lydia's visions.

The music and sound effects in Keepsake are among the game's greatest strengths. The melodies, played on classical instruments, are consistently gentle and wistful, though the mood ranges from lightheartedness to heartache. Ever-present sound effects capture woodsy, watery and airy atmospheres, varying with the location. The combined fairytale effect of the scenic graphics and sound track is in some ways reminiscent of Sierra On-Line's King's Quest series—surely an auspicious sign.

Keepsake uses a single-action point-and-click interface, with rollover icons showing the possible action in each hotspot (get something, use something, go somewhere, or speak). Although there is an inventory (where the player can examine items to sometimes gain clues), there is no interface for using an item on something else. Rather, the use of an appropriate item occurs automatically when the player clicks the relevant hotspot. This system is rather refreshing: an adventure game that contains interesting inventory items (for example, with magical properties or sentimental value for Lydia) without relying on overly contrived contraptions. Keepsake's numerous mini-games have various interfaces (and learning each mini-game's interface is usually part of the puzzle) but in common they require only 1 click per action. A tiered, context-sensitive hint system, which is far more effective than most counterparts in other adventure games, is easily accessible from the head-up display at any time.

Unfortunately, the same interface suffers from some glaring omissions. There is no way to restore a saved game or change certain sound options without quitting and reloading the game. From the main menu, if the player attempts to restore any saved game except the most recent game, Keepsake issues a warning that the most recent saved game will be overwritten if the player proceeds with restoring. This is not quite accurate; the saved games simply become reordered in the list. However, the number of saved games is limited to 9 and older games get overwritten as the player saves more games.

Another interface omission is that the player cannot skip cut scenes or other animations. Since some of the game's scene transitions and most actions in mini-games initiate several seconds of animation, this omission forces copious re-watching of certain sequences.

The gameplay in Keepsake is made up of many, mostly hard mini-games nested in an easy over-game. Despite the size of the game world, there is very little pixel hunting required. Most hotspots are visually striking and in plain sight. Generally, the player can easily track down necessary inventory items by either passively exploring or receiving dialog hints. By contrast, the mini-games (which, in some cases, are disguised as machine puzzles) often lack contextual clues and require the player to actively experiment in order to understand the mini-game's controls and logic. The pattern of each mini-game's puzzles is similar. After the player has observed the game's initial state and identified hotspots (controls), there are 3 questions to unravel: (1) What state of the game must the player reach in order to win? (2) How does each control change the state of the game? (3) What sequence of control presses will lead from the current state to the winning state? The game offers 3 levels of optional hints that correspond to these questions (but usually the third hint only partially reveals the winning sequence). After receiving the third hint, the player can opt to skip the game and (in most cases) see the winning sequence. (Outside of mini-games, the hint system also tells the player which area of Dragonvale Academy to visit next and which puzzle awaits Lydia there.)

Keepsake's model of mini-games demands rather idiosyncratic styles of play. At best, they rely on inductive reasoning. The player does something, observes the effects and attempts to guess the underlying rule. However, this kind of reasoning is notoriously error-prone. ("All swans I've seen are white. All swans must be white." "I pressed the button and the meter went up. Pressing the button must always make the meter go up.") At worst, then, they rely on trial and error—lots of it. The risk of the player forming faulty hypotheses is sometimes compounded by ambiguous clues in the game (not in the hint system). In a particular mini-game, for example, where the player must match runes to riddles, the "Fire" rune (among 7 other options such as the "Spiritual" rune) is supposed to match the riddle, "When around me, / You're never alone. / But when I hide, / Your friend is gone."

Perhaps, in cases where the in-game clues are ambiguous, it is expected that the player will resort to the hint system. Just as the game's dialog does more "telling" than "showing" about the characters, the puzzle designs seem to assume the player is content not to be "shown" many in-game clues but rather to be "told" the clues via the hint system when necessary.

Notwithstanding the stumbling blocks in the model, Keepsake's mini-games add an interesting dimension to the atmosphere of Dragonvale Academy. Like the rest of the setting, they are beautifully rendered. Moreover, they feel like the kind of games, machines, locks, and exercises that wizardry students and teachers may believably use in this fantasy world.

With so many puzzling mini-games amid an already large game world with long chains of dialog, Keepsake's pace is slow. Actually, it is slower than real time, since the story takes place in the waking hours of 1 day. This slow pace is not necessarily detrimental to the gaming experience for every player (and, for some players, it may in fact deepen the immersion), but it is a factor that raises questions about the game's target audience.

Keepsake is a game that is clearly targeted to both younger gamers (including kids) and older gamers. The character relationships in Keepsake are platonic. Rarely, the dialog contains curses ("Damn!" and "Hell!"). There is no violence. On the other hand, Keepsake's storyline ultimately takes a disturbing turn because sickness and death are integral to it. Moreover, the level of difficulty and the slow pacing of the game are likely to frustrate most young gamers.

The game is released in both CD-ROM and DVD-ROM versions. A game manual offers some background information on the characters and describes the interface. An in-game tutorial also demonstrates the interface and in-game dialog eventually reveals the same back story as does the manual. With occasional use of the built-in hint system, the game offers 15-20 hours of gameplay. Without hints, gameplay can last considerably longer.

Keepsake is an innovative adventure game in many ways, yet its target audience remains a question. The title bears many hallmarks of games intended for young or casual players: for instance, a minimalist interface and a propensity to "tell" rather than "show". However, the pace and difficulty of the game are potentially better suited to hardcore adventure gamers—in particular, veterans of puzzle adventures. Consider playing this game for the enchanting scenes and soundtrack, plus the unusual combination of a puzzle adventure with an emotive script—a mixture that is sure to win many gamers over.

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