By Josh Speer / July 20th, 2020
|Title||Keen: One Girl Army|
|Release Date||July 2nd, 2020|
|Platform||PC, Nintendo Switch|
|Age Rating||T for Teen – Blood, Violence, Use of Tobacco|
Something you should know about me is that I’m not amazing at puzzle games. I like them on occasion, and find them fun in short bursts. But I also don’t consider myself an expert at the genre, let alone what I call ice puzzles. Those are the games where everything works like a block of ice, and you’ll slide until you hit something solid. Keen: One Girl Army replaces a block of ice with a spunky ninja girl on roller skates. There’s a lot to catch your attention in this game, and it’s much more than a simple puzzle game. The question is, does it live up to the ambitious scope of developer Cat Nigiri? Or does it slide headfirst into a brick wall?
One thing I want to get out of the way first regards the visual style of the game. It really looks like something made first for mobile, but that’s not the case. Keen is only for PC and Switch. I think the reason for that artistic choice, then, is due to Cat Nigiri’s background. Long story short, they started out with mobile game development, and though they’ve since made things for consoles, I’m sure they’re still inspired by their roots. With that out of the way, let’s talk a bit about the story of Keen.
The plot of the game is both more and less interesting than I expected. The main character, Kim, is the latest in a long line of ninja warrior women. Her mother is out of the picture, but she was renowned as one of the best back in her day. Kim is raised by her Gramma. In the tutorial stage, Gramma talks you through the basic controls and gives you some insight into the world of the game. It seems that outside forces are up to no good, threatening not only your home but everywhere else as well. The enemy is mostly comprised of zombies, robots and the occasional ghost. As you progress through the game, you’ll learn more details about what’s happening and who is behind it. I admit I was compelled by many aspects of the plot, but in the end there were too many loose ends for my tastes. Things that seem relevant got left behind and other revelations just left me more confused. While that was a bit disappointing, thankfully you’re not playing Keen just for the plot. This is a puzzle game, after all. So let’s spend some time talking about how it plays.
Kim is a spunky ninja on roller skates, and that effectively tells you how she controls. Once you pick a direction, she’ll keep charging until she hits a wall, object or hazard. Thankfully she’s equipped with a means of dealing damage, the family naginata. If she has a straight shot through a foe with adjacent extra spaces, she’ll race through them and deal 2 damage. If she lands adjacent to a foe, she’ll do 1 damage instead, and momentarily stun them. Every enemy only moves when you do, so you have some control over how skirmishes progress. That said, the enemy AI is pretty smart, so making the wrong move often results in Kim taking some damage. Most foes only move around and hit her when up close and personal, but others can hit from a distance. Some nasty ones even go invisible, and only show up when they move, which is a giant source of anxiety. Others are intangible, forcing you to hit them once they’re corporeal. The combat works pretty well, so long as I had enough room to maneuver and wasn’t surrounded by enemies. But the farther you get in the game, the more intense things get, with nastier foes introduced at a rapid clip.
It’s not all combat in Keen, thankfully. Most of the game is figuring out how to get from point A to point B. Rooms are all interconnected in complex ways, so what might look like a simple path is often convoluted. Making things trickier is that often you’ll find hidden rooms in dark corners. Many of them are optional, but in some areas you have to find the hidden room just to progress through the level. Speaking of optional, you’ll also find hidden Shrines on the world map. These provide new abilities to help Kim survive, but you can’t just enter Shrines for free. They cost Orbytes, which are found in a variety of ways. You can earn them by fulfilling certain requirements in stages, such as only moving so many times or avoiding taking any damage. You also will find Orbytes inside stages. You’ll need a specific amount to enter each of the several Shrines, and I can say it’s worth the price. I found about 3 in my playthrough, and each one rewarded me with life saving tools. My favorite was probably the shield which prevented taking damage, but I also got cool stuff like shuriken and lightning strikes. Each of these is gone once used, but you can recharge them by rolling into a checkpoint. Those are sprinkled throughout each stage, and they’re real lifesavers, since they also fully heal you.
As you progress through Keen, new and more dangerous traps and hazards are introduced. You’ll find blocks you can move, switches you have to activate, laser turrets, timed explosives and much more. Understanding how they all work is integral to your survival, though thankfully you have unlimited lives. If not, I’m not sure I would have been able to beat the final boss of the game. Yes, I was surprised Keen has boss fights too, at first happily so. There’s only a handful, but each one gets progressively more challenging. Each boss will summon foes to distract you, as well as littering the field of battle with traps that can end your life. They also have multiple phases, so you’ll need to memorize their attack patterns and react properly to have a chance. Though I spent about 6 or 7 hours to beat the game, 3 of those were spent on the final boss alone. So prepare for a steeper challenge than you might expect from a game in this genre.
Visually, there’s a lot I like about Keen. It has a cute chibi aesthetic that looks like a Bratz doll doused in neon. I also really like the use of color in this game, with bold and bright choices contrasting the gloomy dark corridors. Even the loading screen is attractive, with an action shot of Kim racing into battle. On the audio side, it’s also a nice experience. Lots of quasi-Eastern tunes interspersed with songs that reminded me of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. It’s a weird mix, for sure, but it works pretty well. There’s even voice acting in a small capacity, mostly to give Kim more personality. Overall, the game looks and sounds great.
I’ve tried to mostly focus on the good until now, but there was plenty of bad in Keen. One is that many levels have very long stretches without enough checkpoints to break them up. This means that a single death will force you back to the checkpoint, which is irritating. It also means you really can’t rely on your Shrine abilities, since you never know when you’ll be able to charge them back up. Also, I was constantly anxious that I’d get stuck in a room by progressing the wrong way. I don’t think that’s actually possible, but it did make me wish I had a way to rewind my progress on floors. I also would have loved a hint system to guide me on the right path. Cause I got lost frequently, and oftentimes the path forward isn’t clear. And regarding the bosses, I really think the game should have automatically saved after each phase was beaten, and let me respawn from that point. Without that feature, each boss requires you to beat them in one attempt. Considering the final boss has 9 phases, 3 of which can instantly kill you, made this especially relevant. I also wish the UI was a bit more easy to parse. Mainly I didn’t love having to wander all about the world map, and wish I could fast travel to locations after I’ve beaten them. And though this is a nitpick, I really was irritated by how the game avoided proper names for things, such as referring to a big town as VILLAGE. Why not call it Neon City or something else? None of these ruined my time with the game, but they all brought it down a few steps from true greatness.
Ultimately, I don’t think I was the right person to review Keen: One Girl Army. It’s not horrible, and I like the ambitious scope of the adventure, but it’s also much more hardcore than I was expecting. That said, it’s attractive and has good replay value, apparently featuring a secret ending if you’re patient enough to 100% every level and unlock every Shrine. With all that in mind, Keen isn’t a bad deal for $15.99. Ultimately I think this is a good experiment from Cat Nigiri, and I hope they’re not discouraged by my thoughts. If you’re a fan of puzzles, not matter how difficult, then this is your game.
Review Copy Provided by Publisher
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