As I was about to post this First Look at Keepsake, I received official confirmation that the game's release date will be changed to April 18, 2006. When the game releases, it will contain enhancements (including new voiceovers) that were not available in the version I'm writing about below. However, as the enhancements don't appear to change the basic gameplay, I'm hoping that this First Look will still give a good indication of what Keepsake will be like.

A First Look at Keepsake

For the past several hours, I’ve been exploring a superbly realized magical castle. Dragonvale Academy surpasses even the magical castles of my imagination: gothic architecture, carved dragon motifs, vivid stained glass, maze-like walkways, towers, alcoves, balconies. I could walk around in this world for days, listening to the medieval music while admiring the gardens, the chandeliers lit by mage-light, the fountains and the waterfalls.

A Long Lost Friend, A Magical Companion

Keepsake is a third person point-and-click adventure game set in this breathtaking world. You assume the role of Lydia, who has arrived at Dragonvale Academy in order to start her training as a mage. Lydia is also looking forward to a reunion with her friend Celeste, whose father is headmaster at the Academy.

When Lydia arrives, she discovers that the world of Dragonvale Academy is bereft of all but a few enchanted creatures and one bombastic merchant. Finding out why the world is empty is part of the challenge. Story details emerge gradually through implication, exploration, and through accidental revelations from Zak.

Okay, who is Zak? Well, during her adventures Lydia hears bits and pieces of Zak’s story. Much of it conflicts with the available evidence. I’m still not sure who or even what Zak is. For the moment, let’s just call him a wolf with ambitions. He doesn’t inspire fear, though he does incite exasperation. He is a bad liar, which may be a charming weakness or a symptom of general ineptitude. The jury is still way out where Zak is concerned.

Intertwined with the mystery of Dragonvale Academy is a story of undying friendship between two young women – Lydia, our heroine, and Celeste, who has spent the years of their separation as a lonely apprentice mage at the Academy. Friendship as a theme occurs often in the game – the Academy itself was founded as the result of a longstanding friendship between “unequals.” Unrequited love of an unusual sort also plays its part, and at this stage, I’m not certain if a happy ending is even possible. I suspect it will take a miracle, but then, in a fantasy world, why not?

Mysteries, Challenges and Hints

There is a significant amount of dialog in Keepsake. For the most part it’s well balanced, because the dialog usually occurs in small doses, broken up between exploration and puzzle-solving. I would have liked even more dialog, as I am now extremely curious as to what is going on. I have been reminding myself that patience is a virtue; and I’m hoping that all will be revealed in the fullness of time.

The puzzles in Keepsake are somehow more what I would have expected in a first person Myst-style game than in a third person story-driven game. Still, they fit in well here. Solving them brings you access to more of Dragonvale Academy, or an inventory item that you will later need, or a cutscene revealing a magical transformation. Some of the puzzles are inventory-based, but other puzzles involve interpretations of themes or symbols or diagrams, and still others require a degree of mechanical thought and tweaking. There is one power-routing puzzle that took a lot of experimentation, as I alternatively attempted to read the diagram frontwards, sideways, and upside down. There’s also a particularly amusing strategy mini-game in which I moved to outfox the figurine of a Chimera. Yes, not an ordinary experience.

Keepsake features an unusually good hint system. You can use it to get several levels of hints, and (at least in some cases) outright solutions. One nice feature is that, if you are lost as to what to do next, the hint feature will point you toward the pertinent task. This is particularly appreciated in a game with so many places to explore – wandering around, while hoping to stumble across the next thing to do would otherwise have been quite challenging/frustrating.

Any Downsides?

Complaints so far – well there’s a lot of back-and-forthing if you elect not to use the hint feature. Also, it can take awhile to find the hotspots in each screen that allow Lydia to move efficiently. The castle and its grounds are so large, with overlapping floors, stairs and walkways, that it’s easy to get lost. (Personally, I found the surroundings so appealing that I didn’t mind getting lost.) Some of the voice acting won’t win an Oscar, or even a Grammy. And while generous in just about every other aspect, Keepsake is way too stingy with its saved game slots – only nine of them, and if you don’t pay attention, you can overwrite a previous save without realizing it.

Overall, though, if you’ve been waiting for an old-fashioned third person, plot-driven fantasy adventure with gorgeous environments and ample capacity to challenge your wits – well, with Keepsake, your wait is just about over.

Would you like to learn more about Keepsake? Read the full review by nickie.