|The sad part is, there's actually a plot-related reason behind the baby with a mohawk holding an electric guitar.|
Keef the Thief: A Boy and His Lockpick
Naughty Dog (Developer), Electronic Arts (Publisher)
Andrew M. Gavin & Jason Rubin (Design)Released 1989 for DOS, Amiga, Apple IIgs
Date Started: 18 August 2013
Date Ended: 22 August 2013
Total Hours: 17
Difficulty: Moderate-Difficult (3.5/5)
Final Rating: 38
Ranking at Time of Posting: 117/142 (82%)
Final Rating: 38
Ranking at Time of Posting: 117/142 (82%)
Keef the Thief is a game with some innovative elements and a decent plot, hurt by its own idiocy. I realize that I continually open myself to accusations that I'm humorless, but I don't think that's the case. I like good humor--humor that flows from context, character, and situation. I don't like relentless silliness, especially when the writers think they're being more clever than they are. Keef is the CRPG equivalent of Carrot Top.
In my rush to get out of the very decade that would produce such a game, I played far too much of it since my last post. I should have issued four full posts about Keef plus a separate "final rating," but I didn't want to drag it on that long, so you're getting some heavy summary here.
The game has the outlines of a good plot and main quest, although both only slowly become clear through exploration. Much of the main quest involved breaking into these various locations, navigating the mazes, and stealing the artifacts. This, in turn, involved a couple of major challenges, one fair, one not.
1. Maze navigation. There were several very large, multi-level indoor mazes, all of which required extensive mapping to ensure I didn't miss key elements. Hidden treasures and secret doors were so plentiful that I learned to "search" every step and while facing every wall, lest I miss something, although this slowed down navigation considerably. One maze in particular, in Mem Santi, would have had me tearing my hair out if I hadn't already lost all of it. The corridors freely went under and over each other, and entering certain doors caused me to teleport back to the beginning of the maze. Exploring mazes brings other challenges, such as ensuring that you have enough food (it turns out there's a spell called MAKUS FOODUS), light spells, and lock picks to go the distance. There were also a few places where I had to cast a special spell for searching (it was obvious when I entered a clear quest location but didn't find anything with the regular "search") or unlocking a door. Altogether, maze navigation was very time-consuming but not unfair.
|You have to search for secret doors on every wall in this game.|
2. Disarming traps. This system, which I covered briefly last time, turned out to be maddeningly unfair. There were three treasure rooms with multiple traps each, and each trap (unless I missed something) can only be disarmed through a long process of trial and error in which you carefully test different possibilities and absorb the damage when you're wrong. Some of the traps had 12-15 possible options! Even when I had maximum health, traps were capable of instantly killing me. And as I found out, achieving 100% in the "Disarm" skill in no way guarantees that you'll be 100% successful in disarming, even when you've identified the right course of action.
|This is one of several pages of options for one of several traps. The incorrect option damages me. The correct option can automatically kill me. Fun.|
The good news is that the game remembers when you've disarmed a trap, so you can disarm it, leave the room, save, and return to try the next one. The bad news is that two of these rooms were deep inside large dungeons that took 10-15 minutes to navigate, and you can't save inside dungeons. It took me hours of gameplay to both identify the right actions and disarm all the traps successfully. It's a horrible game mechanic; at least some clue as to the right actions should have been provided.
Although the area was called the "Tri-Cities," only one of them--the starting city, Same Mercon--was really a traditional city, with NPCs, shops, taverns, and such. The other two were essentially dungeons. The artifacts that I recovered from them each raised one attribute to 100%. While this was welcome, it also somewhat defeated the purpose of the grinding and leveling I'd been doing. I eventually got to the point that I found further leveling a waste of time, and I started running from every combat except for a few inescapable fixed combats.
|Such as this battle against a hydra.|
The magic system turned out to be slightly more complex than I covered last time. In addition to mixing the right reagents, you also have to pick the right shape in which to mix them: the Circle of Perfect Unity, the Pyramid of Directed Power, the Cube of Irresistible Force, or the Pentagram of Infinite Conveyance. Each shape was only available once I found its associated scroll. Each scroll provided a handful of the possible spells, but when I sat down and tried every combination of reagent in each shape, I found a bunch of additional ones. I don't think I missed anything; I think, rather, that the player is supposed to use the clues from the named spells to reason out additional ones.
|The "infinite conveyance" spells all required the phoenix eggs I'd been stealing from that tree.|
I didn't find offensive spells very useful in the game. I preferred to conserve my magic points for healing spells and trust my sword for attacks. There were a few "mass damage" spells that were theoretically helpful, but it took three or four to defeat most high-level enemies, which exhausted my spell points. None of the combats were overly difficult, not even the few "boss" combats. I think the most difficult was supposed to be the Magician King of Tel Hande.
There were some interesting side quests that provided better armor and weapons, including a series of arena combats at Tel Hande that provided me with the most powerful sword in the game, named (for some reason) "Bruce."
At one point, I found Telloc's skull and, just like Mondain in Ultima IV, cast it into an abyss. I'm not sure if this was necessary to win the game, or just a side-quest.
The main plot came together when I found Telloc's Library. It joined two separate dungeons, and I had to enter each of them one at a time and unlock the respective doors with a key I found in the Mem Santi treasury.
Once inside, I found a scroll that described how Telloc became the all-powerful god-king in the first place: he used a magic spell to fuse together all the artifacts I'd been finding, each of which maxed its respective attribute: the Gem of Wisdom (wisdom), the Globe of Power (charisma), the Plate of Strength (strength), the Arm of Wealth (luck), the Arm of Love (constitution), and the Artifact of Mem (speed). I guess after his death, his construct fell apart and the artifacts were dispersed to the respective treasuries from which I looted them.
|As a CRPG player, I'm always grateful that tyrants keep such detailed journals.|
The scroll provided the ingredients for the spell (ELMUS PASTUS) necessary to re-combine the artifacts. I found the scroll well before I'd found all the artifacts, but slowly I gathered them. When I had them all, I used Telloc's magic word ("TUNA") to reveal the stairway to his secret lab above Tel Empor. I climbed the stairs, cast the spell, forged the artifact, and became the new god-king. When the town elder who'd exiled me said, "I don't ever want to see you her again, not even if you do conquer the world and become God-King," I thought he was kidding.
Again, of course, the game had to sabotage itself in the endgame message, which I reprint below:
You are crowned King of the Land and you take the hand of the lovely Pink Dragon waitress, Babs. Life is good, and Babs soon gives birth to the prince, Keef the Thief Jr. Suddenly, life is not so easy. Jr. stumbles upon the +3 guitar "Jimmy," changes his name to Flem, and along with Gruk, the old king, and Al Handrata, form the heavy metal band Axe. This is just too much for Babs and she heads for the hills, where she lives on kelp and Valium with her sister, Sushi the mermaid. She leaves the falls only to work at the Pink Dragon in a futile attempt to make enough to pay her old credit card bills. You cannot stand domestic living, and soon you realize there is only one thing that will settle the emptiness. So once again you set out to kill and maim...once again you set out to live the good life...
Even after the "The End" screen above, the game lets you keep playing to clear up any additional quests, starting from your new castle. The NPCs in Same Mercon don't recognize your new status or anything, though.
I missed until late in the game that it keeps a "scoreboard" of several different meters. I had apparently found all the necessary treasure, and done all possible thieving, but I missed out on 3% of "quests" and 26% of "magic" (I assume I needed to mix and cast every spell for that; I think I mixed them all but I didn't cast them all). Nonetheless, I declined to keep going.
On to the GIMLET!
- 5 points for the game world. If you use a scalpel to cut out the nonsense, the back story and game world are actually quite compelling, and it's fun the way you uncover bits of lore from both people and scrolls. Unlike many games of the era, it actually uses its back story throughout the game itself, with key figures in the manual actually encountered in the game. And the world is persistent: doors remain unlocked, traps remain disarmed, enemies remain dead.
- 4 points for character creation and development. You have no choice but to play as Keef the Thief, so there's no class-specific role-playing or anything. All these points go to the "development" aspect, which does a decent job with both leveling and continual skill progression.
|My stats towards the end, before I found the Plate of Strength.|
- 4 points for NPC interaction. It's perhaps the most bizarre system I've ever encountered. You can ask NPCs about a variety of topics, but you have to pay them. The associated fee does not seem in any way commensurate with the value of the information they provide. Certain NPC dialogues are absolutely essential for plot progression, and certain ones are just dumb jokes from the developers, which makes it a little maddening at the beginning of the game, as you're trying to conserve funds.
|This cost 3,000 gold pieces.|
- 3 points for encounters and foes. The monsters are nothing special. They basically come in two varieties--brutes and magic users--but neither has anything in the way of sophisticated attacks. When they cast spells that damage you in combat, you don't even know what they're casting. They're not described anywhere in the game manual, and basically you just plow through them. I'm going to give a point to the thievery/trap system in this category because it's a kind of "encounter" and I don't have anywhere else to score it. Although it's intriguing, it's done very poorly, requiring extensive save-scumming, grinding, and repetition to disarm traps and steal items.
- 4 points for magic and combat. The combat system is interesting but ultimately unrewarding, as you simply charge around the battle map and hack at enemies. There are some missile weapons, but I had trouble getting them to work well, and it was easier just to charge and swing. The magic system is more interesting, with its use of reagents and spell circles, and requiring some effort on the part of the player to figure out the spells. It's too bad the spells aren't more necessary to the game, and that they all have such stupid names.
|"MUTUS OMAHAUS" is a shield spell. What I want to know is if Mutual of Omaha paid for that product placement.|
- 4 points for equipment. There's a good variety of weapons and armor, artifacts, and utility items such as thieves' tools. Weapon and armor upgrades arrive so frequently that you sometimes barely have time to get used to one before you have another. Through weapon score, weapon speed, armor protection, and armor speed ratings, the game makes it clear which items are best.
|It is vaguely annoying that there's no way to get rid of unneeded stuff.|
- 5 points for economy. You get gold from both thievery and combat, and there's a good balance between the two. As a thief, you don't have to pay for very much--you can even steal meals, rooms at the inn, and horses--but stealing individual reagents is so time-consuming that you're likely to use almost all your funds for that. After the first act, the weapons and armor sold in town pale in comparison to what you get for quest rewards, but you always need to replenish thieves' goods, and if nothing else you can pay for healing and magic recharging. And, as mentioned above, you have to pay to get NPCs to converse with you about key things. Nonetheless, I still ended the game with thousands of gold pieces, which I never like.
|I could walk around and regenerate health and magic, but this is faster.|
- 4 points for quests. In addition to a reasonably fun main quest, the game bucks the general trend of the era by offering several side quests with nice equipment rewards. There's no role-playing associated with any of these, unfortunately.
- 2 points for graphics, sound, and interface. If you can get past the 1980s hair, the graphics are tolerable, especially in the quest-specific locations. Unfortunately, there's no sound in the game except a horrid disco-inspired track that plays infrequently. The interface is generally annoying. You cannot rely exclusively on keyboard or mouse. The mouse calibration is slightly off, making it easy to click on the wrong item (though I realize this might be an emulator issue), and no matter what you're doing, it's easy to accidentally click on an errant part of the screen and go lurching off in an unintended direction. The game caches keystrokes, and combat has a way of ending very abruptly, meaning that as you transition back into the world, you find yourself racing around the map as the game implements the last few commands you entered on the combat screen. I also didn't like the transitions from static screens to free exploration and the changes in navigation that accompanied them.
|Scenes like this are evocative, even if the text is not.|
- 3 points for gameplay. I admire the nonlinearity--from Same Mercon, you can do the rest of the game in just about any order--and it lasts just about the right amount of time. But the challenge level is unbalanced, with thievery far too hard (traps remain horribly fatal even after achieving 100% in thieving skills) and combat a little too easy. There's really no replayability, either.
The subtotal comes to 38, a respectable score for the era, suggesting I liked it about as much as The Mines of Titan or Prophecy: The Fall of Trinadon. But as I said at the outset, it irks me how little faith the developers had in the integrity of the game as a serious fantasy story, and from the box art to the endgame text, they filled it with the most senseless drivel. We have anachronisms:
Dumb speeches from the game's villains:
Stupid names for foes:
And silly in-jokes in NPC dialogues:
What particularly annoys me is that this is fundamentally not a comedy game. It tells a serious plot, and all it would have taken was some changes to the text to offer the player a more interesting, immersive experience. The game is good enough that it actually pulled me out of the knee-jerk loathing that I exhibited during the first posting--but not so good that it left me with warm feelings at the end. Nonetheless, I'll decline to subtract any points for the game's misguided humor and let it stand at 38.
|Upon seeing this box, there is absolutely no chance I ever would have purchased the game.|
The developers were only 19 years old when they wrote the game, so they can be forgiven a certain lack of sophistication in their humor. It was their publisher's responsibility to curb it and help create a more marketable game. In fact, it seems they did the opposite. MobyGames quotes the developer's web site as saying:
Keef was a classic sword and sorcery role-playing game. While we were making it, Andy entered sarcastic text as a place holder for what he believed would be the real text in the final release. EA liked the humor so much that they decided to make the entire game a comedy. The effect that this decision had on sales was no joke, however.
If this quote truly was on Naughty Dog's site at one point, it no longer is, so without context I'm not sure if the last line means that sales were good or bad (I assume the latter). In any event, it doesn't seem to have hurt the developers very much. This is one of the few developers of the era whose company still exists, and they went on to develop the popular Crash Bandicoot and Jak and Daxter series. They have one more RPG to their credit, 1991's Rings of Power, but it was only released for the Sega Genesis and thus is not on my list.
Speaking of the list, after 14 months, we've come to the end of 1989! It somehow seems fitting that this game, with its unmistakably 80s character graphics, serves as the final game of the 1980s (at least on the master DOS/PC list). We'll move on to 1990 after a quick entry on a 1981 game called Dragon Fire.