Stonekeep: Bones of the Ancestors
Defiling the Bones of its Ancestor
The original “Stonekeep” was released for DOS in 1995 and was an important missing link in the evolution of gaming. It was both a 3D game before polygons became the norm, using motion capture and 2D sprite layering to create the illusion of real 3D, and a step away from cooldown-based first-person dungeon-crawling RPGs toward first-person action/adventure games, similar to “The Elder Scrolls” series. Despite its multifarious pedigree, “Stonekeep” was a fun game, and I enjoyed it immensely… when it wasn’t corrupting itself and requiring reinstallation, a problem that prevented me from completing the final floor.
As a fan of “Stonekeep,” when a release date for a game called “Stonekeep: Bones of the Ancestors” (“BotA”) slipped-in under the radar, I was both excited and worried. Some sources claimed “BotA” was a remake of the original “Stonekeep,” some sources claimed it was a sequel. The entire Internet contained next to no information about a game related to one of the most-praised releases of 1995. My mind was also filled with questions: What happened to “Stonekeep 2: Godmaker?” Why did it take 17 years for this sequel to see the light of day? Will being a WiiWare release be a detriment to “BotA?” Disregarding these red flags, I decided that it was worth the price of 500 Wii Points ($5) to experience “BotA” for myself. I completely regret that decision.
WiiWare games are required to weigh-in at 40MB or less, thus highly-compressed graphical and audio assets are to be expected. But modern compression technologies are incredibly impressive, allowing old games to be re-optimized to smaller file sizes to aid in digital distribution. “BotA” takes the easy way out by using impossibly-poor-quality assets for everything so compression isn’t required. Unlike the original “Stonekeep,” “BotA” is fully polygonal, yet manages to look much worse. Character models are stiff and soulless, while environments are blocky and boring. The textures on all these polygons are incredibly flat, making the game look like a fully-polygonal game made in about 1998. Maybe that’s when development originally started? Maybe “BotA” re-uses some assets from the scrapped “Stonekeep 2: Godmaker?” Thanks to the laughably-hideous graphics and the peculiarly-designed user interface/HUD, “BotA” reminds me much more of another game from 1995: the FPS abomination known as “Hexen.”
Audio-wise, “BotA” is just as horrible. There is little voiceacting, but the fully-voiced intro narration is so amateurishly done that it does accurately set the tone for the rest of the game. There is little-to-no music to speak of. Instead the player is graced with delightfully out-of-place ambient sound effects, such as the chirping birds and screaming horses that apparently inhabit the second basement of a freakin’ dungeon, yet are nowhere to be seen (except in paintings on the walls… do paintings of horses scream?).
The original “Stonekeep” had a pretty decent narrative (there was a novella, “Thera Awakening,” included in the box with the game for backstory), a fully-realized world mythology that managed to remain uncumbersome, and a solid mix of seriousness and humor (I will never forget the epic performance of ‘I’d Rather be a Dwarf’ by Murph the fairy & co.). “BotA” discards everything good that “Stonekeep” built-up, replacing it with an empty excuse for a personality-free character (a boy or girl named Victor or Victoria) to enter the ruined city of Stonekeep and fight monsters. But the dungeon presented in the game ISN’T EVEN STONEKEEP! Even if Drake, the protagonist from the original game, had failed to save the city, thus relegating it to remain a monster-infested dungeon, the layout is completely different, breaking any ties with the past. I get the feeling that the only reason this game has “Stonekeep” in the title is to fool people into buying it based on name recognition and nostalgia.
First-person dungeon-crawling RPGs were one of the only sub-sub-genres I used to enjoy playing on PC. While “Stonekeep” threw-out some of the traditional elements (food/water, visible experience, visible damage numbers, directable allies) from games like “Dungeon Master,” it kept enough elements (grid-based movement, mouse-click projectiles, rune-based magic, key hunting) that it felt like an evolution of the familiar rather than a complete departure into unexplored ideas. “BotA” is nothing like the original “Stonekeep.” Indeed, its superficial resemblance to “Hexen” is evidence of a wide-spread infection, as the game also plays quite a bit like “Hexen,” except impossibly clunky.
“BotA” was in development for a long time. When the project first started, the development team was probably really excited, much like the gaming world in general, about the new world of gameplay the Wiimote would open-up thanks to its 1:1 motion controls. This dev team was probably working so diligently on their game that they missed the sea change from excitement about motion controls to utter hatred of motion controls. Even Nintendo largely abandoned shoehorning motion controls into their games, not to mention the fact that the original boasts of 1:1 accuracy were greatly exaggerated, requiring the Wii MotionPlus add-on to be realized.
Nope, Alpine Studios, the perpetrators behind “BotA” ignored all of this more recent feedback and partied like it was 2006. “BotA” is compatible only with the Wiimote + Nunchuck, does not utilize MotionPlus, and requires exaggerated motions for almost everything. Even the simple act of swinging the starting dagger requires the player to press the A button, move the Wiimote from side-to-side, then release the A button. Throwing projectiles requires the player to hold the B button, tilt the Wiimote vertically, make a specified motion (ranging from a back-to-front motion to a clockwise lasso), then release B. Spellcasting works the same way, only with the Wiimote’s d-pad buttons and a variety of unnecessarily-complicated motions. As a result, every action in the game except walking (sluggishly, and no longer on a grid) and jumping (more like ‘hopping’) is laborious, tedious, and almost completely unresponsive. The very first room in the game requires the player to choose one of three races (elves, dwarves, or poorly-redesigned shargas) to act as AI companions throughout the game, but first the player must hit their chosen ally 5 times before the ally is able to hit the player character. This simple (?) activity took be over a half-hour because the controls are so poor… and it’s impossible to attack while walking.
AI companions no longer join the player character, but instead mill about the dungeon floors fighting the infinitely-respawning enemies (yet another horrid change that would feel more at home in “Hexen” than “Stonekeep”). There is no experience system, instead requiring the player to pick up colored health and magic bottles to increase the character’s maximums (sure smells like “Hexen” in here!). Each floor of the dungeon is entirely self-contained (no backtracking!) and features the incredible (incredibly lame) gameplay mechanic of picking up colored keys to unlock matching doors on opposite sides of the boringly-laid-out levels (“Hexen,” is that you? Or is it “Doom?”). The only small mercy is that a map of the current floor can be viewed at any time by pressing A+B.
Despite its disturbing resemblance to old, crude FPSes, “BotA” does actually include one massive improvement to the FPS formula (despite being neither an FPS nor a first-person dungeon-crawler) that I have been espousing for ages, and that is the ability to turn 180 degrees instantly by waggling the Nunchuck. Sadly, this one tiny glimmer of goodness is overwhelmed by the fact that the rest of the game is pure offal.
“Stonekeep: Bones of the Ancestors” is one of the worst sequels in the history of gaming. It defiles the memory of its ancestor by discarding all of the story and gameplay elements that made the original game so good in the first place and presenting a low-budget knock-off of bad games from an entirely different genre instead. Anyone who loved “Stonekeep” should just buy a working copy from Good Old Games and play that. Anyone seeking a new old-school dungeon-crawler done right should look into “Legend of Grimrock.” Nobody, under any circumstances, should play “BotA;” it is THAT BAD.
Overall (not an average): 0.5/5