Keen: One Girl Army is a weird combination of puzzle game and turn-based combat. A good kind of weird, mind you. A really interesting combination of sliding and fighting that spans multiple screens per stage, Keen certainly lives up to its name.
Raised in a village of warriors with a missing mother and mysteriously absent male figures, Kim, a rather precocious little girl with what appears to be training in the use of a glaive, is the next in line to defend her village from any outside threats or, heaven forbid, EVIL. After some weapons training in the form of a tutorial, Kim goes to prevent an invasion into her village by burning the only connecting bridge. Lo and behold, she ends up on the other side of the bridge. Deciding she wants to try and find out the source of the invasion and cut it off at the source, off she goes to confront EVIL!
Now, puzzle games generally take one of two approaches to gameplay: simple is better or every bell and whistle humanly possible. Keen has decided for the former, but has put all their effort into devising the puzzles for the game. Kim can only move in straight lines in the cardinal directions. I.e. she can only move up, down, left, and right. If she can pass through an enemy, she will deal two damage and stun the enemy. If she hits a wall or is blocked by an enemy, she will stop and attack in all four directions, dealing one damage and also stunning the enemy.
By the way, when I say she can move in four directions, I mean she doesn’t STOP moving until she is forced to. You remember those sliding ice puzzles from Pokemon? Or any other games that have you slide in one direction until you hit a wall? Yeah, that’s how this works. Your basic goal is to move from room to room, until you reach the end of the stage. There are many a puzzle to be solved, some are simply movement based, figuring out which order of directions will bring you to the room exit, some involve dodging murder lasers while invisible ninjas are trying to attack and pushing a block around so you can reach a breakable block to progress onto the next screen. Yes, I’m slightly bitter about that last one, no, I don’t want to talk about it.
Enemies will only move after you’ve made your move, which is where the “turn-based” combat comes in. Essentially, if you make a move and don’t attack an enemy, they will move a tile. If they move within attacking range, they will hit you. While enemies start doing very little damage, later in the game they will do a ridiculous amount of damage, so don’t think you can just take the hits all the time. As you progress through Keen, you may come across some hidden temples by exploring the world map, which uses movement in the same way each individual stage does. These temples can give you extra abilities, such as a one hit shield to protect you from a blow, or a cross shaped attack that hits two panels away instead of one. These temples can be opened if you have enough orbs collected.
These orbs can be found either through specific stage rewards, which you will be told about when selecting a stage, or they will be hidden somewhere in the stage, either behind a puzzle or a hidden wall. Sometimes even both. Hidden walls are…reasonable to find, but rather tricky. There will always be an indication that there is a hidden passageway, usually denoted by extra light filtering in, but can be really tough to spot. Thankfully, the game tells you how many bonus orbs are in each stage as well.
As I did get all the orbs before writing this review, I can honestly say that some of the harder hidden wall orbs were in the first few levels, at least for me personally. The bonus objective orbs are generally easier to comply with, such as “collect all orbs” or “Complete the stage”, but then there are the challenging ones like “don’t take damage”. Thankfully every room can be traversed without getting hit, it just takes either careful planning or a lot of trial and error. Extra point go to the devs for letting you restart from checkpoint while keeping the “haven’t been hit” state, although you will lose any abilities you’ve used. A fair tradeoff I think.
The graphics have an animated sort of “cartoony” vibe to them, which rather suits the corny plot line that would be right at home for Saturday morning cartoons. That being said, you meet some rather quirky characters, such as the chief priest of a cult that’s basically a scam, and a beaver with nipple rings. Yes, I’m very serious about that second one. His name is Mr. Beaver. He also makes a guest appearance in the credits. The soundtrack is also pretty good as well, giving some nice atmosphere to the different locations, and having a pretty exciting boss fight theme.
While Keen is pretty short, I feel like it’s pretty adequate length given the price point. The game is simple, yet requires a lot of strategy and planning, stages are set up really well, and the progression in difficulty is steady and not jarring. Keen also some a few really good lines, such as when Kim mentions a boss has been taken over by EVIL, and their response is “I CAN QUIT WHENEVER I WANT”. The “bonus ending” if you collect all the orbs and complete the last temple was also pretty well done. Normally I find gag endings to really fall flat, but Cat Nigiri did a really swell job on that hidden ending. For a group that I’m fairly certain consists of less than ten people, this was done really well.