As I was writing my review of The Wratch’s Den I compared it – multiple times – to KeeperRL. Naturally, I wanted to link to the KeeperRL‘s page on TBL. How great was my shock when I didn’t find anything about that evil dungeon management classic! There was but one thing to do. So, the next day I set forth to correct that grievous oversight and to present to our readers an overview of the sinister realms of that famous project.
Be wary, though, for the road we’ll travel is full of peril. Through dark forests, where giant spiders weave their silken nets; across plains, where bandits made their secret hideout; finally we’ll reach the edge of a tall mountain chain. A few strange silhouettes stand under its vast shadow: a warlock, leaning on a gnarled wooden staff, surrounded by a handful of demonic servants. A newly dug cave opens its foreboding maw in front of the evil sorcerer. Here the game begins.
Digging the Dungeon
The imps dig deep and fast. Soon, the dungeon’s iron gates will open to all sorts of vile creatures, come to pledge their service to the unholy cause. Sunlight gives way to a dim illumination of torches, as the savage recruits pass into the underground domain. The sounds of nature become muffled and then disappear – only a faint knocking on stones can be heard. The demons are still working in the farthest reaches of the caves, carving sleeping quarters and storage chambers out of cold rock.
There’s a lot of work to be done before the underground empire is ready to begin challenging its neighbors. Many of its rooms are still unfinished – and some aren’t even began. The warriors train in half-light, armed with nothing but their own fists. That won’t do if the dark reign isn’t to end after the first bandit raid. Thankfully, a few of the goblins appear a bit craftier than the others. Their cruel eyes glimmered at the sight of iron, brought in from the excavation. These might not be the best soldiers – but they do know how to turn raw metals into sharp swords.
Forges blaze into life; crude workshops appear in the dungeon’s dark corners. Day and night, the demonic servants bring in wood and iron to supply the growing army of doom. From the shadows, grim statues look upon the works with cold satisfaction. The mighty sorcerer whom they represent patrols the halls and tunnels, beating discipline into the unruly subjects. There’s no time to rest. When the warriors retreat to sleep in their barracks the warlock’s work continues. The stairs lead the overlord to even deeper chambers where roughly-hewn bookshelves await.
Army of Doom
The many-talented goblins aren’t the only creatures who’ll join the evil legion. Although, they will be its backbone for a while still. While some of them do have an affinity for crafting, others can definitely hold their own in a fight. Yet others are even familiar with the arcane arts. They’ll happily join their lord in a library, gleefully inventing new means of hurting their common foes. Strangely enough, there are even those among the recruits who seem intent on helping their comrades. These goblin priests stand among the warriors, chanting healing incantations throughout the battle. Weird, for such seemingly destructive creatures, but definitely useful.
As the warlock’s fame increases, more interesting and varied villains will knock on the citadel’s gates. A capable air force will vastly increase the military capabilities of its armies. It won’t be composed of goblin pilots, though, but of somewhat more natural flyers: harpies. Although the KeeperRL doesn’t really feature aerial combat, their deadly proficiency with the bow is invaluable. Archers, in general, are this game’s elite – with arrows having the effect of high caliber bullets from a sniper’s rifle.
Vampires and werewolves, skeletons and zombies will all gather under the bloody banner. The entire cast from the old horrors is here, awaiting the command. The variety isn’t just limited to names, or even the preferred weapons. The creatures of evil who’ll join the dungeon’s forces have unique traits that must be carefully considered by a hiring manager. A great craftsmanship may look good on some goblin’s resume. However, it may be somewhat overshadowed by the employee’s insane desire to kill everything – including their allies.
Conquering the Neighborhood
A few bandit raids will no more pose any threat to the rising kingdom. Your troops have long since taken care of their local hideout, while your own defenses have been greatly fortified. Iron doors guard the tunnels where tamed wolves – or werewolves – are ready to meet the intruders. Everywhere there are sounds of work: knocking of metal on stone, as imps dig out iron for weapons; knocking of metal on wood, as warriors train for war. Each passing day the dark legions increase in number and might. The time comes to take the fight to your neighbors and finally establish total dominion.
Now begins another, unique part of the gameplay. Unlike in classic Dwarf Fortress, here you can directly take command of any warrior. Although the sorcerer lord is still, technically, the main character, you are completely free to assume the role of some regular goblin or vampire. At this moment the game also becomes turn-based. It’s strangely immersive, walking around the dungeons, watching the work proceed in step with your movement. This really gives you a feel for how it is to live in the mountain citadel. However, in contrast to the more limited system of The Wratch’s Den, there’s also a tactical element present.
In KeeperRL not only can you control any soldier – you can also form warbands and personally lead the troops into battle. Once the chosen leader, whom you directly control, dies – you can immediately switch to another. In this way, under your wise guidance, the host will travel to the surrounding realms, confronting the other powers of the land. The overworld is divided into regions. Most are wild, offering no real opposition to the dark reign. Some, however, are ruled by masters, no less mighty than your evil overlord. Destroying them all is – of course – the game’s final objective.
The Knight and The Necromancer
Even the greatest tyrants may, one day, grow weary of their dungeon management responsibilities. When whipping the absent-minded goblins starts losing its relaxing effect it may be time to try the other modes. There’s a lot to the world of KeeperRL, and the creators took full advantage of the many possibilities. With an already strong roguelike elements it’s natural to expect a traditional single-player campaign. Like in the great Dwarf Fortress, here you can strike out on your own, fighting bandits and rats – away from the humdrum of big citadels.
The Adventurer mode features some interesting additions, harking back to the classic games of old. Those include shops in friendly castles, and rats hiding in the chests. It, however, feels somewhat abandoned – no more than a light-hearted diversion from your evil empire building duties. Yet, when you return from your glorious quests and once again take reigns of the dungeon there are a few things you can do to add some variety to its everyday life. For example by getting rid of the said “life” entirely.
Those who despise the living – even when they are their own servants – will be well-served by the dark arts of necromancy. Hardworking zombies will replace the annoying imps; silent skeletons – the irritatingly loud goblins. The fortress will become an abode of quietness and enlightenment. A calm laboratory, guarded by thick walls and animated bones. A perfect place for refined experiments in creating an ideal worker. Do you think a few extra heads could make the zombies more attentive to your orders?
Destruction with Style
For how dark the gameplay is, the game’s style is surprisingly light. It’s got that cartoonish look to it, making it hard to take seriously the various villainy going on. It may be of benefit to KeeperRL, in terms of audience reach. For me, though, it’s breaking the immersion – somewhat. The music, too, has a “mildly dangerous camping trip” vibe to it. Not “building an underground goblin empire of doom”. In short, if you want a game about an evil overlord, that looks and sounds like a game about an evil overlord – you’d be better off playing a necromancer in Soulash.
That’s not to say that the style isn’t polished or unique. It is both, making any critique of it gravitate dangerously close to the subjective side. The world’s bright, saturated colors make it seem like some enchanted realm of fantasy. No dark citadel or decaying wasteland overtones, but it’s still able to pull you in. That’s why I said that a lack of grimness only somewhat breaks the immersion. KeeperRL is still a deeply immersive experience, where a lot of work went into atmosphere.
Great craftsmanship went into making KeeperRL what it is. It looks unique, runs well and contains some fantastic mechanics. It’s deep and complex and yet – largely due to a thought-out, modern UI – it feels simple and welcoming. The game takes a lot of the best things from the classics of old, like Dwarf Fortress, which I must’ve mentioned a few times already. There’s a good reason to mention it once again. KeeperRL is a worthy successor to that masterpiece – with its own evil twist.
And did I mention that you can also play as dwarves? Well, I definitely know what I’ll be doing for the rest of the day. Just need to find my beer mug.