A closer look: Stonekeep (1995)

Several years after originally playing this game, I finally managed to have another go and complete it. Don’t even remember why I stopped playing it back then, to be honest. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a lack of enjoying the game. So, after having finally beat it, I think I’ll collect some of my thoughts on the game, its design aspects etc. and write them down in a hopefully coherent post.

At its core, the game is a first-person dungeon crawler with a story and some temporary and some (more or less) permanent party-members that you meet during your journey. But the (especially for its time) specialties already begin with…

The Graphics

While FMV games regularly used real actors in their games, from what I remember it wasn’t done as much in other types of games outside of cut-scenes. But Stonekeep did use actors in costumes for several of the monsters and other characters which was one of the causes for the long development time (which was an overall 5 years). The remaining characters and enemies are CG-renders, as well as the environments and items that have a (more or less) “realistic” style to them. Of course, due to the game’s age, the graphics are very low-res. But I imagine if there was a high-res (HD) version of it, things would be looking rather nice still (though the costumes would probably not all hold up perfectly).

Sound and Music

Sound-wise Stonekeep seemed very thorough, there was even stuff like different chewing/drinking noises for different healing items, lots of different sounds overall… Each of the levels had its own background music track which helped nicely with the ambiance, plus there were a few themes that got used during fights, pumping up the excitement. Might not rank in the best soundtracks for me, but I certainly still like it. But now for the really interesting stuff, first

The Interface

I think I’ve never seen an interface so neatly integrated into the game world as in Stonekeep (though obviously I have played far from enough games to make that an absolute statement). The game even spaces out giving you all parts of the interface over the first 2 dungeon levels. The first two parts you get are

The Inventory and Character Screen (Mirror)

Your inventory is represented by a magic scroll that converts collected items into a picture, giving you a limitless inventory to scroll through. Since this means your inventory is always a one column list that can get rather long over time, there are some things to counteract you losing track of your collected stuff. For one you can use keyboard shortcuts to navigate through it, like page up/down to scroll faster or home/end to go directly to the top/bottom of the list. Then there are game-world internal “helpers” that you can find as well, like a keyring that also saves you time since you don’t have to try out each key separately on every locked door. Items of the same type also automatically stack if you pick them up with a right-click.

The other interface item you get at the very beginning is the mirror. This is used to show your party members, their health points plus afflictions and you can equip (most) of them through it. This can get finicky at times depending on which character you want to equip (especially if it’s a ring you want to put on a finger), but usually it works well. Now once you descend into the second level of the game and search around, at some point you will find…

The Journal

With this book in your possession, the missing pieces of the interface puzzle are unlocked. The way the information in the journal is presented and how you interact with it really makes it believably seem as if Drake (the main character) would be the one doing it and not you as the controlling player, with the interface as the abstracting layer in between. But let’s have a closer look at what the journal contains and how it is presented.

1. The character stats: Drake’s character is the only one that gets a detailed stat sheet, the remaining party members only get a descriptive text. This gives the strong impression that these parts are written by Drake, though the detailed page might have a little magical support.

2. Notes: If you remember manuals from the times when games still had them in print form, this is the section where you can write your own notes.

3. Clues: Here Drake is the one actively writing things down, collecting notes about story points or other observations.

4. Runes and Items: especially the “Runes” section requires your input, because the game does not automatically fill in any data besides the rune itself once Drake reads it on a scroll. With items its varied, basic items usually get a name, but some only get a description. This helps give the impression that its Drake writing into the book because he doesn’t know specifics about the items he finds.

5. Maps: This part of the journal automatically fills in the automaps as you journey through the dungeon levels. You can freely add notes to the maps in case you need to return to specific places for example.

Everything you write into the journal (notes, rune/item descriptions, map notes…) is shown to be done with a quill, giving the impression that it’s Drake doing the writing instead of it just being “magic” or an abstract user interface outside of the game world logic. It’s a pretty simple way to do it, but rather effective.

There are some other things that you can use in game which would usually be in an abstracted interface, most notably Afri’s orb, which projects the hologram of a segment of the level you are in whenever you place it on the floor in front of you. Since you already have the normal automap in your journal, the orb has a few special extras to make it useful: Enemies and other characters in the displayed area are shown as small colored dots. Plus, if there are hidden passages, those are also shown, so you know where looking for hidden switches and the like would be useful.

While this part of the game’s design is particularly strong in my opinion, there are also some…

“Broken” Things

Stonekeep was far from perfectly designed/implemented. Though to be honest, for me personally none of the broken/exploitable bits put a crimp into my enjoyment of the game. All of these points are combat related and if you want to play “fairly”, it’s pretty easy to avoid taking advantage of them. Though there are situations where I’d say the imperfect balancing (especially early on before you have any additional party members) does encourage it.

There are a few things to take into account here. First there’s the fact that enemies have specific routes that they walk on when they aren’t in combat. Additionally, they have more or less narrow boundaries outside of those routes that they don’t leave, even when you attack them from just slightly outside of those boundaries. This makes it particularly easy to deal with enemies that only use close combat weapons.

Another similar limitation that most enemies have is that they can’t move or attack through doors, so you could be throwing stuff at them from the other side of the door without risking getting attacked (though depending on the placement of the enemies they can be tricky to hit).

If you are inclined to exploit this, another part of the game’s design helps you with it: ranged weapons. For one, ranged weapons do quite decent damage early on and you can find a nice amount of them early on. Some types of ammo that usually would need another weapon, like arrows, can just be thrown as well. And given the amount of damage that you can do this way, I don’t think they accounted for this in the game. Once you finally have a bow, while it is more comfortable to use arrows with it, your fire rate and effectively your damage output goes down, since you can’t exploit another of the game’s design choices: By opening the inventory, you pause what happens in the game. This means that if you are quick, you can rapid-throw arrows into any enemy, as long as you have ammo left. There IS one way to do something similar though: A few levels in, you find Azrael’s Orb, which makes Drake able to attack faster. This has some likely unexpected effects, like your bow turning into a VERY rapid firing bow. Since it doesn’t take all that long until you have a decent supply of arrows, an experiment like that can turn into a click-tour of picking up lots of ammo again.

While there are other parts one could talk about, like the story, characters, puzzles in the dungeons… I think it’s best to experience those for yourself, so let’s get to some

Final Words

In my opinion Stonekeep is a flawed gem, though the flaws are relatively minor overall. If you are into dungeon crawlers and can “stomach” old low-resolution games from 1995, I can definitely recommend you check it out. After having finally gone through the game, I am retroactively disappointed that the sequel got canceled. And don’t even get me started on that abomination “Bones of the Ancestors”…

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