STAFF REVIEW of Runestone Keeper (Xbox One)

Wednesday, May 9, 2018.
by Adam Dileva

Runestone Keeper Box art I enjoy my dungeon crawlers and my roguelike games, both of which combined isn’t necessarily uncommon, but I have not quite experienced something quite like Runestone Keeper before. Runestone Keeper seems to blend a dungeon crawler with some roguelike mechanics, but the gameplay is more akin to that of a board game of sorts. I’ll admit, I was a little turned off when playing in the beginning, but as I put some time into it, and learned the inner workings that isn’t directly taught to you via a tutorial, I started to enjoy it much more and simply took it for what it is.

Don’t go in expecting some grand narrative. Actually, there’s no story here really at all, as your first selectable class is simply named “Guy” with no real reasoning for your quest other than progressing further in the dungeon. You’ll have a brief tutorial that teaches you the basic mechanics but many of the ‘deep down’ mechanics you’ll simply need to learn for yourself.

The general concept of the game is to explore dungeon levels, defeating monsters, and progressing as far as you can before ultimately succumbing to death, resulting in having to start all over from the first floor. You view the dungeon from above, in a grid-like format, controlling a cursor and choosing which tile to click and uncover what may lie on it. Only one tile is viewable from the beginning of each floor, so you need to click any adjacent tiles to uncover them, almost like the fog in a RTS title. Each tile you click has a chance at being something beneficial, an enemy, an item, or other surprises that are completely randomly generated every time you play. And of course, a good dungeon crawler wouldn’t be complete with every floor becoming much more dangerous than the last, and that’s no different here.

Given that every tile is randomly determined when it loads, and you don’t know what is on each tile until you click on it, so randomness will either work for you, or usually, very much against you. Traps are plentiful, hurting you and decreasing your health pool when you uncover one, and special items can be acquired and used when needed, again, completely dependent on the randomly generated floors. You may find special shrines that allow you to pray to Gods for special buffs, though be prepared to uncover many enemies on the tiles at the most inopportune times.

All you need to progress floors to find the exit, some simply need to be clicked, while others will require a key that a certain enemy is holding. While you can quickly jump floors with some luck, you may want to explore nearly every tile per floor, as you’ll need to kill enemies to level up, making each following floor easier to handle. Simply rushing through floors will not end well for you when enemies can easily take you out without sufficient levels and equipment.

So, by that description above, it may sound like you’re simply clicking on boxes to uncover what’s underneath, and at its core this is true, but once you start making it to double digits, you’re going to have to be very strategic in every move you make, taking into account your health, soul points, mana, items, and more. If you’re lucky, you’ll uncover hearts that can be used to replenish your health, as permadeath occurs once you reach zero.

Every time you uncover a tile, you earn a soul point, which you use for items that have a soul cost to them, as do other abilities and bonuses you can uncover on floors as well. You’re only able to hold three items at a time, so many times you’ll need to weigh which is better suited for your playstyle and current situation. Once you start taking all of these into account, as well as your mana to use powerful character based abilities, there’s actually a decent amount of strategy and depth involved in the gameplay.

Monsters are varied, and even though they only appear as icons on the tiles, they can be quite formidable. Their icon will show their attack, health, and shield stats, so much of the strategy is figuring out who to attack, when and with what. To do so efficiently, you’ll need gear and equipment to do so. Enemies can drop gear, which is also randomized, though you can also spend your precious gold on upgrades in the random stores you happen across as well. You’ll start with a basic sword and armor, but eventually you’ll come across other gear pieces with varied stats that can make a world of difference in your survival.

There are two sets of weapons you can have as well, and while it may not seem like there’s much point at first, you’ll eventually come across deadly ranged enemies that will attack you each time you click a tile, and if you are numerous tiles away before you get into sword attack range, you’re going to die very quickly, hence the need for a bow or staff so you can attack from a distance.

Like any good RPG, Runestone Keeper also implements a leveling system that allows you to choose from an increase to your specific stats that not only makes you more powerful, but it allows you to equip higher level gear and items as well. This is where part of your playstyle will come into play, as you can increase your damage every time you level, or decide to gain more health with heart pickups instead. I suggest trying to stick to a specific stat or style, as having rounded out stats never really worked out well for me for the most part.

When you die, you will lose all of your gear and progress, and the only persisting item you’ll keep is the gold you earn from each playthrough. This accumulates and can be used for numerous different bonuses, making each subsequent playthroughs slightly easier. The smartest use for your gold though is to save up and use for permanent passive upgrades, like extra gold and XP per kill, among others, though you need to back out to the main menu to purchase these. As well, any of the Runestones you find will also persist through death, along with Gods you’ve unlocked by preying at their alters. For a nominal gold fee you can also start a run with certain items pre-purchased, though you’ll always be at the mercy of the randomness.

It’s taken quite a few hours of grinding for nominal amounts of gold to save up for the passive bonuses, but now that I’ve got a grasp on the deeper mechanics and have devised some of my strategies, I last much longer than I used to, nearly always reaching double digits in regards to the dungeon floors. The randomness can result in your death very quickly or it can be incredibly lucky with tons of heart pickups, there’s no telling how a run will go beforehand. This may frustrate some, but you always earn some gold at the end, so it’s a matter of sticking with it long enough to save up for some bigger upgrades and bonuses.

It’s clear that Runestone Keeper was originally built for PCs overseas, as some translation issues have slipped through the QA process (e.g. - I’ve been told to use space bar) and doesn’t always read fluently in English. By no means is it a deal breaker, but it’s noticeable and awkward. It’s simplistic in nature, but there is some depth and strategy needed to be consistent and successful, and that’s only if luck is on your side. If you put in the time to slowly progress, you’ll enjoy your dungeon crawling experience, even when you’re dying every few floors, it’s just a shame that the majority of your success is out of your hands and relies on pure luck.

Overall: 6.5 / 10
Gameplay: 6.5 / 10
Visuals: 5.0 / 10
Sound: 5.0 / 10


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