Stonekeep went through a long and bumpy creation cycle. When it was first drawn up and later due for release somewhere around 1991, it was supposed to run on a 80286 CPU and not require a hard-drive. Computer hardware advanced at a steady pace, however, and the game went through an equally steady stream of feature creep until it finally shipped before Christmas of 1995, some five years in development.
The story behind the ill-fated titular fortress is a complex and often confusing one. The boxed version comes with an actual paperback novella explaining the backstory, but the essentials are just as well compacted in the eccentric introductory FMV – life is normal as normal could be in your stereotypical medieval castle, but then the skies turn black. Shadows completely envelop the fortress and Stonekeep is sent hurling deep down into the Stygian Abyss. Fortunately, you escape and eventually return years later, seeking resolution. It turns out that the Shadowking, or Khull–Khuum on formal occasions, is the culprit behind this dastardly act, and you are tasked by a doe-eyed goddess, Thera, to battle through the remains of the sunken city and destroy the Shadowking.
Stonekeep uses a grid-based tile system where you move from one screen to the next using the arrow keys, much the same way as in Wizardry Dark Servant, but with more polish and visual trickery. The game delivers an oddly convincing illusion of 3D as you seamlessly drift through the game’s narrow passages and dark caverns. Take heed, however, as the movement animations you see are completely pre-rendered shots.
This technique does make the game look even better than more high-tech 3D games (like Daggerfall) in some places, but the visual mastery comes at the cost of limited movement options and bland architecture, allowing about the same sort of level complexity as the Fuhrer’s bunker in Wolfenstein 3D. Level themes vary now and then, but the blocky, grid-based level structure is omnipresent regardless of whether you’re in a castle or a cave network.
Even in its simplicity, small brushes of detail abound, and tried-and-tested RPG mechanics combined with an evolving story will keep things going. You start your journey completely defenseless, but eventually find some ragged armor and weapons. Initial stages through the keep will have you play more exterminator than hero, fighting giant ants and blobs of green slime. Alongside the many swords and axes you’ll also find simple throwing daggers and magical ‘runecasters’ that you can charge with spells learned from reading scrolls. Instead of using the player’s mana to cast these spells, each runecasting wand or scepter has its own rechargeable supply.
But your most common area of combat will be melee fighting, although most of your weapons are inefficient at first – it’s not until you free a dwarven warrior and his axe that you begin to kick down doors, but just barely. Fleeting health and limited supplies will often leave you and your fellow comrades backtracking to one of several health-giving magical fountains. Stonekeep’s party system is simple – you have no direct control over your allies in combat, but you can equip them with weapons and armor. Every character is vital to the story, and so party members are pretty much immortal, or at least revivable when they get knocked out.
But alas, the interface will work against your noble quest as vigorously as any monster. This was far from being the worst interface at the time, but serious design faults abound. Vital bits of information are stored in your Journal, which isn’t immediately available. Once you find the book it stores your character stats and other tidbits of info, like a map and a list of found items The map is most useful when navigating through the indistinguishable hallways of Stonekeep, and it even allows you to take notes of important areas such as locked doors and whatnot. A scroll lets you store and use items, but it isn’t long before this clumsy piece of parchment gets cumbersome (items quickly stack up and scrolling through it gets annoying).
Most aggravating of all is the utter lack of any statistical info, a huge boner killer for any role-playing game. Instead of listing weapon damage and hitpoints, your character’s attributes are listed according to… checker pieces? Areolae? I’m not sure. But in any case, stat-building is intertwined with weapon usage; your Strength, for example, will go up if you swing swords and axes. This much is clear, but the amount of actual character and item statistics displayed herein is pitifully minimalistic.
As if your own character sheet wasn’t simplified enough, those of your party members are all but blank slates, listing only vague hints of their abilities. Not having weapon stats displayed is idiotically inefficient, especially when the game’s fairly complex combat variables come into play. Weapons have three damage outputs (crush, cut, pierce), and your stats increase according to a weapon’s weight and design. Your journal contains an extremely ineffectual database of every found item that you must slowly flip through, all while offering little to no relevant info. It’s great that we’re going low key and not jam-packing the screen with useless buttons, but this is going a tad too far.
System Requirements: Windows 98, 64 MB RAM, 2MB Video, 120 MB HDD Space