Review: Coldfire Keep

By Dave Neumann 25 Feb 2014 0
Rats. Why did it have to be rats? Rats. Why did it have to be rats?

The entire plot of Coldfire Keep can be wrapped up by paraphrasing the famous Mallory exchange about Mt. Everest: Why should we explore your dungeon? Because it’s there. Funny thing is, most of the Dungeons & Dragons adventures I wrote have the same banal plot, so I can’t really criticize too much. Of course, I wrote most of those while I was 12 or 13 years old and didn’t know any better until TSR begged me to stop bothering them with my submissions on reams of loose leaf paper.

The complete lack of plot isn’t the worst thing about Coldfire Keep, however. It’s a boring, buggy mess of a game with uninteresting character development, boring and opaque combat, and a total lack of involvement with anything happening on the screen. I cared more about the toaster in Toast Time than I did about any of my characters or anything happening inside the keep. It’s a complete and utter drag that fails miserably at fulfilling the promise of being an old-school RPG like The Bard’s Tale or Eye of the Beholder.

It looks nice, though.

Coldfire Keep has you controlling four characters taken from the 4 standard D&D classes: Fighter, Magic User, Cleric and Rogue. They may use different names, but there’s no denying who’s who and who fills what role. The game has players exploring a dungeon via a first person perspective, but using grid-like movement. Think of it as the dungeon being drawn in a 2D plane on graph paper, and your party moving across that paper square by square. You can only turn in 90 degree increments, and you can step forward, backward or sideways one square at a time, as in dungeon-crawling classics like The Bard’s Tale, The SSI Gold Box games, and the Eye of the Beholder series.

The story begins with a tale of a lone knight leading “wave upon wave of the underworld’s foulest creatures” into the keep, Pied Piper style, and then trapping them in there. Apparently, the underworld’s foulest creatures are rats, because that’s what you’re going to be fighting. ALL THE TIME. Sure, I ran into some other creatures along the way. Some goblins, a spider, some vaguely scorpion-ish looking-thingee, but 90% of what I fought was giant rats. Even as far down as level 9 in the dungeon, still rats. While the lack of monster variety is bad, it gets worse. None of the different enemies do anything unique, anyway. Spiders or scorpion use poison? Nope. Goblins shoot arrows? Nope. Anything cast spells? Nope. Everything from rats to the too-powerful-to-even-try-to-take-on Golems just walks right up to you and starts pummeling.

Still, this isn’t the worst thing about combat. How would you feel if you hit the giant rat for the 11th time and it still kept attacking you. Just how much damage have you done to the rat? No clue. There’s no indication of how much you’re hitting things for or how badly you’re missing. No dice rolls are shown, nor are any damage amounts. You have absolutely no clue what’s going on in combat and it’s incredibly frustrating. Add to that the fact that combat is little more than pressing the same buttons over and over again with little strategy, and it becomes clear that combat has little more depth than Trexels.  Sure, Casters and Shamans have spells, but…well, more on that later.

Wait..."naught to find but empty corridors and featureless rooms"? Is the game just trolling me, now? Wait..."naught to find but empty corridors and featureless rooms"? Is the game just trolling me, now?

It’s not just combat that’s opaque, either. There’s no visibility into how anything works in the game. How much will more points in Brawn help my character? Does Agility or Brawn help my to hit rolls, and by how much? How many experience points do I need to advance to the next level?

Everything about the game's systems seems to have been designed to antagonize you. For example, your party comes cross a lever. You have no way to detect if it’s booby-trapped without pulling the lever, and only then will you find out if there was a trap and if your rogue (automatically!) disarmed it. If not, your entire party takes damage. Same thing with unlocking chests. If you fail, you’re left with a “try again in 15 turns” message. Guess what happens after 15 turns when you try again and fail? 15 more turns. Why can’t you just keep trying to pick the lock? I’m not sure, but I do know that waiting around and doing nothing isn’t a recipe for engaging gameplay. Of course, you get no feedback as to why you can’t open the chests, and your rogue’s prowess at picking locks isn’t explained anywhere. What makes you better at opening locks or disarming chests? How do I improve? Who the hell knows.

Coldfire Keep is the first RPG I think I’ve ever played where you couldn’t sell loot for more gold. Instead, you’re relegated to finding gold on shelves(!) throughout the dungeon. This might be because the game's only store sells just one product besides rations and arrows: fishing tackle. Yes, there is a hunger system. Eventually, if you don’t eat, you will begin to take damage, but once you get the fishing tackle, having enough food isn't a problem. The problem is that fishing is as boring as everything else in Coldfire. You simply click the tile and are rewarded, sometimes, with a fish and, if you’re lucky, you’ll dredge up a weapon or something, too. There's no different baits or techniques to employ: it's just a slot machine.

Start clicking on that mace. You should have it picked up by 5:30. Start clicking on that mace. You should have it picked up by 5:30.

I haven’t even talked about the bugs yet and, while there aren’t that many of them, the ones that have slipped through make the game even more of a bear to play. First is the bug that won’t allow you to pick items up without clicking on them about 46,542 times. I’m not sure if the area to interact with the objects is too small, or it just doesn’t work, but finding loot becomes as tedious as the rest of the game. When you’re dreading finding loot in an RPG, you may have a problem.

Worse, however, is the crashing. It didn’t happen very often, but when it does you will lose everything since your last save. Believe me, nobody needs to fight the same rat more than once. The automap is, while not bugged, severely lacking in detail and only shows squares that you’ve actually walked on, leaving large rooms looking like corridors. It’s a mess, and it’s only available when you exit out of first person view, so you’ll have to remember what the map told you when you’re walking around. A minimap of some kind would have been nice.

Everyone from all over the continent knows about this dungeon...except you 4 knuckleheads who live right outside it. Everyone from all over the continent knows about this dungeon...except you 4 knuckleheads who live right outside it.

I played my group of adventurers down to level 9b and then lost my save. I’m still not sure if it was during a crash that it disappeared, or if it was my fault when I started a new party. I attempted to begin anew, but just couldn’t bring myself to play through to where I previously was. It’s just a chore, and not worth the payoff. So, I never finished Coldfire Keep, even though I played for a good 6-7 hours or so. Maybe it gets amazing at the lower levels, but I can’t see how that’s possible if the same combat, hunger, and magic system are in place. And I don’t think I’ll ever find out.

The game does look very nice, although it could stand some variety. There aren’t any tile changes throughout the game, so you’re always looking at the same walls (even Bard’s Tale in 1985 had dungeons with different tile sets), so just exploring even gets dull. Seriously, I can’t think of a single reason to recommend Coldfire Keep. If you want a great old-school first person adventure, go download The Bard’s Tale which comes with the original Bard’s Tale volumes 1, 2, and 3. I’d play all of those, even with their 80’s limitations before I’d venture again inside Coldfire Keep.

Review: Coldfire Keep

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