Coldfire Keep is an entertaining and challenging old-school dungeon RPG (iOS)

February 22, 2014
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Just like Amazon, I always read the user reviews before I download or buy anything on iTunes or Google Play. Not only is it a great way to gauge quality, but it is also a great way to understand what people liked and didn’t like about any given game.

Coldfire Keep, this week’s game of the week presented one of the most interesting set of comments I’ve seen in a while. The overall rating is positive—four stars last time I checked—but the number of negative reviews is a little startling. Every review of the game presents the same stratified reaction. Here’s an example:

So far this is awful! I was so looking forward to an RPG like this. I’ve spent the past ½ hour just trying to pick up and equip my first piece of armor. Impossible. Got so frustrated I just gave up with the game, and I normally don’t write reviews. $5.00 down the drain.”

If you read this kind of user review for most games, you would probably move on, right? I sure would. However, Coldfire Keep is most definitely worthy—albeit in a crusty, old-fashioned kind of way.

If you’re old enough to remember games like Bard’s Tale or any of the classic RPGs of the early PC era, Coldfire Keep will warm your heart. It is literally a good old-fashioned dungeon crawl, complete with four-axis (up, down, left, right) movement, fairly simple party combat mechanics, and loot galore. It also sports the weird brand of smart, snarky dialogue and humor that the role-playing of the early 90s consistently and wholeheartedly embraced. In this regard, Coldfire Keep is remarkable in how well it nails all of these traits.

But here is where Coldfire Keep is even more fascinating. A number of other gamers will also enjoy it because, as you go deeper, it presents a type of experience that is becoming increasingly popular in core gaming circles. Some players, it turns out, do not mind punishing levels of difficulty, severe consequences for failing, or games where learning the rules is an integral part of the game itself. In fact, these are becoming desirable attributes for a whole new breed of games.

So, while some players have become frustrated with Coldfire Keep’s mechanics for exploring the world, or picking up and equipping inventory—none of which is explained particularly well—other players actually get off on this design. The same can be said of many of the game’s systems, as well as the objectives and goals. By and large, you have to figure a lot of this stuff out on your own.

Demon Souls and Dark Souls—bona fide cult classics—are a noteworthy reference point here. With both titles, which were released in 2009 and 2011 respectively, developer From Software plunged console gamers into an experience that was so ambient and under-explained it felt intentionally twisted. (And cruel, some might argue.)

Both games produced strongly polarizing sentiments and reactions, but the entire gaming industry learned a valuable lesson as a result—one that is carrying over into mobile gaming: A large number of gamers are okay with punishing, old-school levels of difficulty and accessibility.

This is an important concept for modern game design, which tends to over-tutorialize the first half hour of gameplay for fear of alienating mainstream gamers. The compromise, of course, is that making a difficult, hard-to-understand game will limit its appeal, particularly on tablets and smartphones. For some developers, however, this is a welcome trade-off.

Other selected  iPad games at

Other tablet games I'm playing

1. Commander Air Group: I found this iPad-only strategy game too late to make it this week’s pick. But the gameplay—which challenges you with planning a series of air attacks by tracing attack vectors—is riveting and strategically deep. (Available for iOS.)

2. Eliss Infinity: A sophisticated and challenging multi-touch action game slash puzzler. (Available for iOS.)

3. Deadman’s Cross: Recently published by Square Enix, this collectible card game. (Available for Android and iOS.)

4. Threes: Can’t stop, don’t want to stop playing what is rapidly becoming one of biggest-of-all-time obsessions. (Available for iOS.)

5. Second Chance Heroes: Collect an army of clones of famous historical figures and battle to save the world. I’m not kidding. (Available for iOS.)

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