Review: Legend of Keepers: Soul Smugglers
By: Stephen Machuga (ShanghaiSix)
Developer & Publisher: Goblinz Studio Available on: PC (Steam, Epic Games, GOG), Nintendo Switch
As a kid, I loved all games where you got to play the bad guy: Evil Genius, Tecmo’s Deception, Dungeon Keeper…just such a great idea of turning the usual trope of the golden heroes on its head a bit. And Legend of Keepers hooked me this week.
Legend of Keepers takes a tongue-in-cheek take on this very concept. As the leader of a rag-tag group of minions and rickety traps, you get sent out on assignment by the titled Legend of Keepers to defend various points on the game map from human incursions. You sit down in front of a one-eyed cyclops (actual monster) whose name I can only imagine is “Carol,” an HR representative who explains your overarching mission to you in less than a paragraph. While there is a story in play, it is definitely hiding in the background of the management sim portion of the game. The bottom line story is: humans are invading this region, and you need to stop them.
Okay, now that we’ve gotten the story portion out of the way, let’s get into the meat of Legend of Keepers. You are playing a management simulation, where you buy, sell, and train monsters in your care each in-game week, dealing with random events occurring until a pack of human heroes takes a run at the area you are guarding. You then get a series of fixed rooms to your dungeon area where you set up traps and monsters to defeat enemy invaders until they reach the final room of the dungeon, where you, as the “Keeper,” act as the final and most powerful line of defense.
There are a variety of keepers to choose from. The Taskmaster keeper relies on brute force, piles of goblins and orcs, and physical damage. The Enchantress uses woodland creatures and traps that do elemental damage (fire, ice, etc.). The Mechanist does a mix of everything, focusing on mechanized cyborgs, but is big on using shields and buffs around having those shields active. There are two more downloadable content characters, and Soul Smugglers allows players to play as the third one, an Undead Skeletal Lord. The Lord’s abilities are focused around demoralizing and debuffing enemy champions, so they flee the dungeon.
When you are getting attacked by adventuring heroes, you have a party of three heroes of varying skills and abilities and, most importantly, resistances. Where you place your different monsters (front, center, back) is important, but unlike many turn-based fighting games like your Final Fantasies of the world out there, your front line isn’t necessarily your tank, and your rear line isn’t always your damager. Enemy troops have an attack, and that attack could be “50 nature damage to a character in the center”. So it becomes vitally important to not only look at the human heroes' skills and abilities to see which positions they are attacking, but what kind of damage they are outputting. Generally speaking, the three-person hero team isn’t stacked with one element type like ice or fire, so you spend a lot of time filling up your garrison with a mix of monsters to deal with a variety of situations, so you don’t specialize too much and then run into a team of humans that completely negates your line of attacks. It’s some serious juggling, but fortunately, with a roster of up to 12 active monsters and six traps, you can have a pretty decent lineup to address whatever is coming through the door. I honestly go back and forth between hating and loving the fact they don’t give you any idea of what is coming your way, forcing you to remain flexible but also making it impossible to be able to specialize in a certain vulnerability. It keeps you on your toes.
There’s no actual action, and Legend of Keepers makes for a wonderful “just one more turn” style of game. Playthroughs of a full “level” of one of your Keeper can take about two hours, usually lasting 48 “weeks” (or separate events) before you take on the heroes' version of a champion. I’ve played through multiple campaigns of the three primary characters to get a feel for how the game normally played before the downloadable content of the Skeleton Lord and his army. Gotta say, not exactly the biggest fan of the all-skeleton army. Humans, when attacked, have a chance to drop a “soul shard,” which then power up your enemy army with buffs, as well as your Keeper at the end of your dungeon. The problem is that not all of the Lord’s “psychopomp” creature types (any demon or creature that helps the departed to the “other side,” it’s a thing, I actually looked it up) have “powered up” versions as well, and you don’t gain shards every time you strike a human. It’s very randomly generated, making it a little trickier to rely on.
There are two ways to defeat an enemy: you either murder them with direct attacks or scare them away by draining their morale. The Lord and his armies are focused on draining morale from the human team, and for some reason, it’s a lot harder than direct damage attacks. While humans have various resistances against fire, ice, and other attacks, they have no defenses against morale drain. But that also means that there are no vulnerabilities based around morale, meaning you can’t hit a fire mage with an ice blast and do 60% more damage with morale. So it’s a tricky balancing act that I find I’m losing more than I’m winning, surprisingly. It makes for an interesting challenge that the base Keepers don’t generally have to worry about.
The metagame leveling for your Keepers talent trees aren’t…great. Generally speaking, even if you fail at a run, your Keeper gets experience to spend on his talent tree, which is fine. But the benefits you get from leveling are minuscule, generally speaking, involving a lot of 2%/5%/10% stat increases for extremely specific scenarios (all monsters named Larry gain 2% increased nature resistance for every time a human character is killed; I’m kidding, but they’re pretty narrowly focused). Every now and again, there are blocks on the talent tree that are an absolute must-have, but the number of points you need to unlock them plus the amount of experience you gain for even a successful run means you’re going to be grinding for ages per Keeper you’re playing.
One of the more annoying problems is, for whatever reason, I get done setting up my monsters and traps for a human incursion, and the game locks up. This has happened a dozen or so times, and I can’t figure out why. It does let you go back to the main menu, but then you have to go back in and lay your traps and monsters back out again for a coming fight. A minor inconvenience, but it’s happening repeatedly enough for me to talk about.
Legend of Keepers has been a part of my life this week, with my crankily vowing that I’d do better next run or trying to figure out the puzzle of how I would array my forces better next time. It scratched a perfect itch in my gaming library for a game I could have on in the background of my life, bring it up in between emails to run a few turns, and then quickly go back to work. I really enjoyed my time with it and look forward to continuing to murder humans with my Keepers.