Good Old Reviews: Stonekeep

Good Old Reviews: Stonekeep

We continue our month of RPGs with Stonekeep. A relative latecomer to the classic age of dungeon crawlers, Stonekeep is a snoozefest that pales in comparison to other titles of the era.

Stonekeep, which can be purchased at GOG for $5.99, was originally released in late 1995. This is relevant because it was four years after Eye of the Beholder II: Legend of Darkmoon, more than three-and-a-half years behind Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss and less than a year ahead of The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall, all of which were vastly superior to it in every meaningful way. This isn't to say it's a bad game, really, but it had the misfortune of being surrounded by truly great ones, which only served to emphasize how unremarkable it was.

You play as Drake (or, more accurately, his disembodied spirit), who as a young lad was rescued from a cataclysm that sucked the great castle of Stonekeep underground, or something like that, anyway. The not-really-paying-attention version is that the mad god Khull-Khuum caused some trouble, imprisoned some gods, brought in a bunch of surly monsters and blah blah blah. Now it's ten years later, and you're looking for some payback.

Stonekeep is an ugly game, and not just because it's almost old enough to go to college. The upper levels of the dungeon are a bland monochromatic yellow-brown and almost completely lacking in decoration. The little bits of room decor that are lying around - tables, chairs, shelves and chests - look like they were cut-and-pasted onto the backdrop by a not-especially-adroit elementary school student. Worse, because of the way the game handles turning within a grid point, they appear to move in a bizarre, free-floating fashion that leaves your perspective on them fixed even as you're moving around them in a circle.

Most of the enemies you meet are motion captured, which actually works not too badly; there's a realism in their movements as they run toward or away from you that other games of the era sometimes lacked. If I had to guess, I'd say this is where the bulk of Stonekeep's budget was blown and, while I'm not much of a fan of FMV, its use in this particular instance works pretty well.

While the technology is impressive however, the actual gameplay is wanting. For one thing, you can't strafe, which is absolutely baffling in a grid-based dungeon crawl. The inability to sidestep is a real disadvantage in combat but it's also a hassle for basic movement, which feels plodding and awkward. The inventory is a mess too, a single-column that must be scrolled from top to bottom whenever you need to find something. Items will stack automatically but there's no way to organize them beyond dropping and then picking them all up again in a different order. There's not an excessive amount of stuff to carry but there's more than enough to make it a hassle.

Figuring out what it is you've picked up is a chore in itself because there's no way to examine items, either on the ground or in your hand. Instead, you'll have to consult your journal to read their very vague descriptions - once you've found it, that is. When the game begins, the journal actually belongs to a Sharga, one of the creatures who now infests Stonekeep. Somewhat curiously, he doesn't react with hostility when you open the door to his room, but if you enter - and you have to, because there's no other way around and you need this book - he screams, "This my home! Monster, you leave!" and attacks. And you'll kill him. And then you'll take his stuff.

It's a highlight moment, because it feels like its intended to suggest that there's more going on in Stonekeep than meets the eye and that you're perhaps not quite so completely on the side of the angels as you thought. But the moment, and the thought, quickly pass and then it's back to the dull hack-and-slash of its generic, paper-thin "good-versus-evil" plot.

I will no doubt annoy a small but dedicated cadre of die-hard fans by saying so, but Stonekeep is a snoozer. If you want to play a great old-school dungeon crawler from that era, you'll do much better with the aforementioned Eye of the Beholder 2 or Ultima Underworld. You can go back even further with The Bard's Tale or Dungeon Master or bring it forward a bit with Arx Fatalis. Likewise, even if Daggerfall doesn't technically qualify as a dungeon crawler, the sheer scale of it and the massive number of dungeons on tap make it a far better alternative. Stonekeep isn't a disaster, and if it's the last entry on your "Dungeon Crawl Completionist" list, then hey, have at it. But if what you want is a taste of the best from back in the day, then there are far better options available.

Come back next week for the final Good Old Review of the year: Ultima IV.


I wanted to give this game a try, but I was put off for those exact reasons. Kikoskia has a nice Let's Play series of it though.

Also, for people who want to try other games of this genre I'd like to recommend Lands of Lore (only the first one), and the more recent Legend of Grimrock.

Several of these reviews have been, well, less than agreeable to me.

But this one is spot on.
It's just a boring game.

It's not bad, it's broken, it's just not...anything other than generic.

There's better before, there's better shortly after, release.
It's one of those games that only a competition for this genera of games should play.

I can remember watching my brother play this back in the day. Didn't have a PC of my own and he wouldn't let me use his, so instead I got to watch him slowly slog his way through stonekeep.

As generic as it is, in the vacuum of that time, it was the only rpg/dungeon crawler I'd ever seen and so I have fond memories of it still. Never going to try it again though, least I destroy my lovely childhood nostalgia =P

Until now I was thoroughly convinced that I was the only one in existence who actually knew about this game. It's so old, I remember me and my brother playing it when I was just knee-high to a grasshopper.

It's with great shame that I admit that the goblins gave me nightmares.

I found this review to be a bit cathartic. I never liked stone keep, not when it was new and an unplayable mess that I I could not get to work no matter what, making a stressful Christmas for me and my parents as they tried to get it working but to no avail and had to return it for money and buy a different game. and I hated it when I finally got a working version to see what I missed but I didn't miss much and I got really bored. What annoyed me is that I only seen praise for the game and I get told that I simply don't like the genre, which is untrue.

I actually have two boxed copies of Stonekeep (both missing the novella, which really chaps my ass) but I didn't get around to playing it for the first time until several years after it came out. I recall not caring for it much, but when Stew decided to do RPG December, I opted to take it on just to see if I'd miscalled it. But no, definitely not. The funny thing is that not too terribly long ago, less than a year before Grimrock came out, I replayed Eye of the Beholder II and it was phenomenal. It also kicked my ass (but that's another story), but it wasn't too terribly difficult to get up and running in DOSbox, and it was really, surprising playable, and also provided proof (and in some ways this references criticisms of my Wing Commander 3 review) that games from that era can still provide great eye candy. EOB2 really is a gorgeous game.

I think Stonekeep stumbled in many of the same ways as Wing Commander 3 and 4, by committing to (and spending wildly on) new technology while neglecting the game itself. The animations are impressive, there's lots of digitized voice acting, but the actual experience is a big letdown, even compared to games three and four years older. One thing that did work well: The soundtrack. Really solid music, very Underworld-y vibe to it. Wish there was some way to get it as a standalone file. (The GOG extras are pretty much non-existent for Stonekeep.)

Andy Chalk:
The funny thing is that not too terribly long ago, less than a year before Grimrock came out, I replayed Eye of the Beholder II and it was phenomenal. It also kicked my ass (but that's another story), but it wasn't too terribly difficult to get up and running in DOSbox, and it was really, surprising playable, and also provided proof (and in some ways this references criticisms of my Wing Commander 3 review) that games from that era can still provide great eye candy. EOB2 really is a gorgeous game.

Well, they DO say that beauty is in the eye of the beholde-

<flees rain of tomatoes and bottles>

You utter utter bastard. How dare you!

Oh, not you Andy, I was talking to Stonekeep. I remember a lonely boring summer where I was stuck with this turdfest because my computer at the time completely refused to run Mechwarrior 2 or Under a Killing Moon. However since I had just moved to a new town, didn't know a single soul, couldn't afford cable television, didn't own a VCR, and the internet was still in it's infancy, I soldiered on. Playing this game because the only alternative was watching the paint peel off the wall of my shitty lodgings really hammered home what a dull plodding torture fest Stonekeep is. The game hurt me in ways nothing else ever has. Thank you Andy for giving me the chance years later to finally gain the courage to talk about it. XD

Funny I enjoyed Stonekeep it was crazy. Yes mechanics tended to be boring but I enjoyed games liek Eye of the beholder, Arcana(sens) and Skull keep.

Interesting but I have no interest in playing it, especially since I'm trying to play through Elder Scrolls Arena right now.
Trying is the keyword in that sentence.

I loved this game as a kid. I didn't beat it but I got pretty far in. There are some awesome levels, some awesome characters, and a lot to like. I thought most of the puzzles were challenging and clever, and the combat was ok. I haven't really tried to play it since I was a kid and I am sure it hasn't help up all that well, but it is not a bad game from that era by a long shot.

That dragon looks really happy that he has adventurers at his cavern door.


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