When crafting a puzzle game, there’s generally two ways a developer can go about it. The first is the simplest: put puzzles in front of the player and let them have at it. Little-to-no frills, nothing fancy, just good old-fashioned puzzle solving. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this; Picross DS is still one of my most-played puzzle games to this day, and it’s nothing but a series of picross puzzles with a few unique animations here and there.
The other direction, of course, is just going all out and crafting something new. Turn a classic puzzle into a synesthetic acid trip? Check out Tetris Effect, one of my top games of the past few years. Combine a match-three puzzle with a full RPG experience? Why not, jump into Puzzle Quest, apparently released on every console known to man.
You know those tile-sliding puzzles that involve navigating a character or object through a room, but every move causes them to slide until they hit an obstacle? A simple puzzle that shows up in an uncountable number of games? How about we take that, make it into a full game, and add story and elements of exploration?
With that mix, you get the game we’re looking at today.
Developed by Cat Nigiri and published by Phoenixx, Keen: One Girl Army is set for release on June 25th, 2020, for PC and Switch. The PC version was played for this review.
Keen follows Kim, an eight-year-old girl studying under her grandmother to become essentially a ninja to help protect her village. When zombies begin attacking the village, Keen is sent to burn down the single bridge connecting their village to the outside world in a desperation move.
Unfortunately, after lighting the fire, Kim stands on the wrong side of the bridge. Now unable to get back to her village, she decides to set off and figure out what’s causing this plague of zombies seemingly hell-bent on attacking her home.
The story is…well, it’s there, and it’s inoffensive. The writing largely attempts to be comedic, but I can’t say that it elicited more that a slight chuckle from me here and there.
Looking at it from a different angle, I do appreciate that we get at least a competent story from what is, at its most basic, a sliding puzzle game. The plot, however thin it may be, informs the presentation of the entire game, lifting it up from being just an everyday puzzler to something more interesting.
Sliding to Victory
The core gameplay here is, as mentioned, a sliding puzzle. Each room traversed is its own puzzle, requiring navigating Kim to different exits by sliding into objects to line her up correctly. There is an added twist, though: this game contains combat.
Many rooms will include enemies, often requiring that they all be taken out before the path to the next room unlocks. Damage is done two ways: either sliding through enemies (knocking off two hitpoint), or ending a slide directly next to them (knocking off one hitpoint). Enemy movement is handled in a rogue-like fashion; each enemy takes a step after every movement Kim makes. If they end up next to her in their movement phase, Kim takes damage.
This battle system elevates Keen beyond being a standard sliding puzzle. Every room can be completed without Kim taking damage, but it’s going to take some thought on exactly how to do so. Bonus collectibles can be earned in each stage by accomplishing certain tasks, often “kill all enemies” or “take no damage,” incentivizing careful play rather than sliding around at random to rack up kills.
Also notable is the layout of each level: every room in a level is navigated on an overall map, adding a touch of exploration to the game as well. Some puzzles can stretch across multiple rooms and hidden items can be found by straying from the obvious path, leading some stages to feel almost like classic top-down Zelda dungeons in a way.
Unfortunately, a few stages go on a bit too long, overstaying their welcome. One early level finds Kim breaking out of a prison, which consists of three floors of around ten rooms each, with multiple hidden paths and lengthy puzzles. With much of the satisfaction of sliding puzzles often coming from how quickly one can complete them, having some stages take nearly 30 minutes to complete makes the pacing drag to a crawl.
Finally, Keen actually finds a way to implement boss battles into its puzzler shell. Most consist of taking down waves of enemies before having the chance to slide in and put damage on the boss, although some do have unique twists, such as an early boss requiring Kim to take out certain targets in a time limit, and her receiving damage for every one she misses.
Keen goes for a cartoon-style aesthetic, and I do have to admit that it’s rather charming. Every level has its own unique style, characters have a constant bounce to them, and there’s enough variation in enemies that things don’t get too dull.
There’s one huge thing that stuck out to me: the edges of the screen in this game seem to have some kind of blurred filter on them. There’s no option to turn this off, and it was incredibly annoying for the first hour or so of gameplay until I learned to ignore it.
As far as soundtrack, it’s not something I’d call memorable…especially considering that I’m having trouble remembering any of it. What with my focus on speeding through levels efficiently or focusing on difficult rooms, the music just kind of drifted into the background. Honestly there were a few sessions where I just didn’t bother putting on my headphones, wanting instead to focus on the puzzles rather than music and loud sound effects.
Overall, Keen: One Girl Army is a charming title that manages to flesh out a rather simple puzzle idea into a full-fledged game mostly successfully. I do kind of wish the story was a bit more than just a string of jokes that missed me most of the time, but at least it informs the aesthetic rather well.
I do appreciate how the game managed to stretch this concept into a full adventure, with explorable dungeons and everything. Whilst some of them dragged on a bit too long, I can’t say I wasn’t having fun the majority of the time poking around for secrets in each level.
Keen is a puzzler that tries to reach up and achieve more beyond its base ideas, and while it doesn’t always succeed, the end product still remains something worth taking a look at.
~ Final Score: 8/10 ~
Review copy provided by Phoenixx for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of Phoenixx.