This needs iteration.

That's the single biggest thing that strikes me as I try Crimson Keep. Features, controls, bugs, assets, storytelling, everything needs to be worked on a few more times.

But, okay, that's a bit cruel of me. Let's look at what we've got first before we chew into it.

Crimson Keep is a first-person, dungeon-exploring roguelike. At the start of every run, you pick one of three classes: Physical-focused Berserker, magic-focused Witch, and kind of shitty Drifter.

No, really, the Drifter's whole idea is they get no skills, no level ups, and no gear except for what's in the tutorial area. They're explicitly presented as extra doomed, and while it wouldn't surprise me to learn there's some twist to them that I missed, I certainly didn't notice anything actually laid out in my time with the class.

So you've got a class. You go through the tutorial area, drop down into the caves, and begin your quest. find items, level up, gather skills, and above all, survive.

This being a roguelike, you won't be doing a lot of the surviving part. Mostly you'll be doing the other thing, the dying. And this is a full on roguelike, where death just straight up knocks you back to the title screen for another go. No saving things for the next go here.

Now, such a setup does make my job a bit...tricky. For instance, enemy variety. All I saw were, oh, five or so different enemies...But it's entirely possible that I would see entirely different ones if I were to make it to a later area. Without the capacity to grind through, it's difficult for me to say.

The same also applies to locations. While I was able to give a decent few goes, and see some variety in the layout of the Caves area...I can't exactly say whether there's, I don't know, a Forest area somewhere past that, or if it's just all Caves with skeletons and imps the whole time.

But that feeds us into problems. Of which, well, there's a lot. And they all stem from that same lack of iteration.

Those enemies, they all have super simplistic AI that just attacks whenever you do, or when close enough to you. I once used a poison power, and actually saw the enemy just keep stopping and swinging every time the damage over time kicked on.

And speaking of attacking, it stops you square on the spot when you do, and the hit detection is wobbly at best, seeming to ignore the entire swing animation to just go directly for the center of the screen...I think? It's legitimately hard to tell what parts of my swing actually count.

Which is made more of a problem with the controls. See, they do this...Thing, where the following two facts are true about the analog sticks:

One, they use a flat rate. Tug the stick a tiny bit, halfway, or all the way, they're all the same speed of movement.

Two, they have, as far as I can tell, zero deadzone. I can get a reaction out of the game with less tug on the stick than even the Switch OS's controller test acknowledges.

Either of these aren't great, but together they're a recipe for trouble, especially on the Switch. Anyone who's been a fan of the system for a while has likely run into the problem that the Joy Con sticks are very sensitive to dust and debris getting into their mechanism, causing drift and sluggish response. On most games, the analog response means that a lot of this sorts itself out, until it gets bad enough that you need to blow the mech clean with some canned air.

In Crimson Keep, my freshly air-blown right stick still regularly has the tiniest bit of drift, enough to send my view skyward, despite no other game on the system that I've played having this problem.

Full disclosure and with complete acknowledgment of my lack of experience on the technicals, it feels to me like the kind of decision that happens when you do all your playtesting of a game using a keyboard and mouse, and then just leave a bunch of settings on the default when you bag up a Switch port.

I obviously could be wrong on that being what happened, but that's how it feels playing it. Like it's expecting digital controls, not the analog ones I have.

It...Actually, you know how the game feels to me?

Like a really good college project.

The focus on roguelike design, letting a relatively small amount of assets turn into a lot of game. The fact that there's no mid-game saves, because that sort of longer-term multiple-session play wasn't needed and would complicate the design. The little touches of things not quite refined, like how I can hear room tone in the relative handful of voice acting clips. Hell, the fact that the intro cut scene only plays the first time you play, with no way I found to start it up again. Or the hidden shield in the tutorial area, just tucked behind a rock without collision detection.

If this is the work of newcomer devs, then it's a really interesting first piece. There's a lot of neat ideas here: I like the fact that a lot of the Berserker and Witch unlockables actually require some degree of success with the other class, thus forcing you to differentiate on playthroughs.

It just...needs work, as a commercial product.

Which puts us in that uncomfortable position where, as much hope as I have for the folks behind this, I just can't recommend it as it is. I think a sequel, or just their next game in general, could be really interesting with more experience and time stacked up.

We're just not there, not quite yet.