Thanks to Lone Wolf Technology for the review code
Title: Keen Dreams
System: Nintendo Switch (eShop)
Release Date: 02/07/2019
In the lost chapter of the Commander Keen saga, you take control of Keen, who’s in a dream realm filled by deadly vegetables holding people captive. Thus, you must set out to stop the evil King Boobus!
Keen Dreams originally came out on MS-DOS, an old computer platform with a lot of games that controlled pretty differently and looked very differently than games on console. Keen Dreams is no exception, and this port pretty much copies and pastes the DOS original into some sort of emulation, meaning that all the quirks of that version are intact here on switch, although a few minor tweaks were added.
The first thing to note is that this game does look bright and colorful, going for pixel art with vibrant colors that DOS Machines were capable of at the time. On Switch, the game is displayed in a way that almost takes up the whole screen, but still looks sharp and scaled well. Unfortunately, there aren’t any visual options to speak of in order to tweak, so what you see is what you get.
For the audio side, this is where it gets interesting. Originally, Keen Dreams had no music to speak of. Not one tune throughout the entire game, with the only sounds you’d hear being some simple bleeps and bloops. So the porting team decided to include a “remastered” option for both the sound effects and music (thus providing music for the first time ever) in order to make this feel modern, so how does it fare?
Absolutely dreadful. Good lord, I cannot begin to state the sheer awfulness of this game’s new sound design. The background songs that you can enable are the dictionary definition of generic, with every song sounding as if they were ripped right off a public domain website and stuffed into the game, using generic instruments and having that low-quality feel of the Public Domain. The same goes for the sound effects, too, since the remastered SFX use plenty of stock sounds that you’ve probably heard elsewhere.
When I first heard the game like this I honestly just shut it off and shelved it in the back of my review queue for several months. The sound is really that bad. Thankfully, you can re-enable the original SFX and mute the background music, which after getting used to it made the game far more enjoyable to pick up as it was the way the game was originally designed. I don’t know why this game got such horrid remastered audio, but it was certainly a waste of time when they could have added other quality of life edits.
Keen Dreams is an action platformer, a bit unlike most in the sense that you can’t jump or attack with a melee weapon, nor can you even defeat enemies at all. Instead, Keen collects sunflower seeds that he can throw at enemies, which will turn them into a sunflower on contact. No, I am not making that up.
You have three difficulty options to choose from, but the only difference comes from how enemies will take less time to turn back to normal on a higher difficulty, so it doesn’t matter at all. Once you pick your difficulty you’re dropped into an open map and flung into the first stage! Getting used to the controls is easy, but the reality of this game soon sets in when you try and damage enemies with your seeds. Even from the very first level, your weapon is proven to be absolutely horrible, since it goes in a crappy arc that will easily miss the thin enemies that run along the ground.
Per the usual platformer norms, one hit from an enemy’s attack will kill you instantly, and if you lose all your lives you go back to the title screen. Luckily you can save and load at any time, although opening this menu is very cumbersome when trying to reload a save. Still, the levels are fairly short and with trial and error you can get through them all, and there wasn’t really much to note of until I made it through every single level and into the king’s castle.
Only to be denied entry by being told that it’s impossible to defeat him unless I have 12 bombs. Well, I found three, and remembered where a level with six of them was, so I figured I’d go back and grab them. Easy, right? Unfortunately it’s not the case, for you will be forever locked out of re-entering a stage once you clear it. That means in my case the game was 100% unbeatable and my 30 minute play session and save file went up in smoke. This was very infuriating, and I honestly felt thankful that the game wasn’t any longer since it was at least feasible for me to go back and beat those levels in a new game.
But I didn’t want to make myself suffer anymoe. I grew bored of the crappy arc shot and the scoring system didn’t do much of anything for me, yet I still decided to give the game another try on higher difficulties anyhow to see what I could do this time. To my shock, I ended up dying in the middle of a jump against the edge of one of the stages, only to clear the level in the process. Yes, this game can be ripped in half by just dying on the edge of a stage, for it pushes you out of bounds just far enough that the game thinks you’ve won.
This ironically made Keen Dreams a bit better and more enjoyable for me, as I could see the game’s speedrunning potential, although this port doesn’t have any sort of timing leaderboards whatsoever, and the core gameplay is still really lame. Alas, even with this fun discovery, I didn’t bother to grab all the bombs and beat the game, since I wasn’t interesting in doing everything all over again even with this shortcut in mind. I just ended up wishing that I was playing one of the other games in the series instead of having this be my first.
In conclusion, Keen Dreams ended up being a barebones port of a barebones game. While Commander Keen does have a reputation of being a solid platformer, this game certainly isn’t one of them, as the combat is bad and the few bits of “remastering” they tried doing here are just horrible. The speedrunning potential for this game ended up being a lot better than I realized, but with no in-game speedrun leaderboards there really isn’t much incentive to do so unless you want this game to be over faster.
By far the biggest problem with this game comes from the inability to replay stages you’ve beaten, as one wrong move and you might not have enough bombs to beat the final boss, and thus you’ll have to start the entire game over again. This is just an awful design choice, and the only thing I can give some credit for is that there are plenty of extra bombs that you con skip, so you don’t need to collect every last one, just twelve of them. In the end, I found this DOS port to be a charming little adventure with barely any effort to enhance the game.
However, this game is very short, and once you do manage to beat it there’s little reason to go back and replay it, which is why I hoped that some speedrun leaderboard could have been implemented to make things a bit more replayable. It used to be priced at an outstandingly absurd $10, which is definitely not acceptable for the amount of content and fun this game provides.
Luckily, it seems it now has a recent permanent price reduction to a better $5.99. I still think the game’s only worth picking up for newcomers at around half that, so otherwise you should just skip this and hope for the real Keen games to get ported in the future unless you have memories of the original or don’t mind trying out a new retro game on the Switch eShop, even with all the unique quirks in mind. If you’re willing to get past the lack of much QOL improvements or bonuses to speak of, then this port is still very solid and works well at letting you experience the game.
I give Keen Dreams a 6 out of 10.