Author Topic: Master Key (Switch) Review  (Read 481 times)

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Offline riskman64

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Master Key (Switch) Review
« on: May 30, 2024, 06:00:00 AM »

A fine top-down Zelda-like for those who like getting lost.

Master Key belongs to the indie category of minimalist Zelda-likes, in the vein of games like Minit and Tunic. Fans of the original Legend of Zelda and Link’s Awakening will feel right at home with the puzzle solving and lack of handholding present in Master Key. It’s filled with those light-bulb conjuring “eureka!” moments that make adventure games so memorable, ones that often come on the back of minutes of aimless wandering and confusion. There’s a charm to the simple presentation that works well for what Master Key is trying to achieve, even if it won’t strike everyone’s fancy. I’ve yet to uncover all of its secrets, but I’ve had a blast spending time in this miniature world.

Without preamble, your fox-like character is dropped into a dark cave, with only a small circle of light to see you through the pitch black interior. Torches around the cave provide some guidance, and eventually you scamper through and open a chest containing a single, noteworthy key, which serves as your first weapon. Your journey takes you to four dungeons at different corners of the map where you must retrieve other similar keys, but this larger goal takes a backseat to just exploring the world at your own pace and experiencing the joy of discovery.

Using your trusty key/sword, you’ll cut through bushes and a smattering of different enemies as you make your way around. Coins that drop serve as both monetary currency but also restore your health, and the central town’s shops offer numerous upgrades and items that range from helpful to necessary, so you’ll likely return here often. The first of these is an object that lets you charge up your sword so that you can break fractured boulders impeding your progress, but you’ll need to decipher Master Key’s pictograph language to figure out this initial puzzle. You see, this is a game world without words, which means you’ll need to rely on your other video game senses to navigate the various obstacles and puzzles this world throws at you.

Where Master Key genuinely shines is in the way so much of its world beckons you to re-examine it. When you first arrive at a new screen, you’re likely to see a treasure chest or ledge that you can’t yet reach, so you make a mental note to return there later. This design isn’t one unfamiliar to Zelda enthusiasts, but it permeates so many of the spaces in Master Key. Another feather in its cap is the way that coins feel like a meaningful and valuable resource; from upgrading your wallet or sword, to adding on to your health meter, there’s almost never a point where you aren’t wanting to put money in your pocket. Enemies can hit pretty hard, too, so you’ll want to pick up every coin you can just to stay alive.

While the endgame ramps up the challenge a fair bit, there’s a steady difficulty curve for most of Master Keys's 5 to 10-hour runtime. Each of the main dungeons offers a unique theme and set of obstacles, and you'll have to keep your thinking hat and detective kit close at hand to solve the numerous puzzles located within. Aside from the familiar ones that involve hitting switches, you’ll also need to be creative with your growing arsenal of tools to navigate the trickier situations. I regularly found myself doubling back and pausing the game just to review and reflect on what I may have missed or not tried yet. The heavy emphasis on mental tasks is reminiscent of the Oracle of Ages on Game Boy, and it's refreshing given how other Zelda-likes can lean more into combat.

The minimalist visuals won’t appeal to everybody but they work well in a game with fairly simple gameplay mechanics. Pushing blocks, swinging your sword, and launching your hookshot are among the actions you’ll have at your disposal, but there’s a bit of jank to how combat actually works. While enemies don’t get knocked back by your attacks, you are by theirs, and so the few boss encounters you do have are made all the more challenging by this imbalance. Fortunately, the dungeons housing these bosses are memorable and contrast nicely with the world outside.

Completionists will also have their hands full with the many secrets and collectibles scattered throughout the world of Master Key. One such object is a music record, of which there are a few dozen to find that unlock the game’s music tracks for your listening pleasure (the town’s theme that opened the video being a favorite of mine). Even those not aiming for 100 percent will want to be thorough so as to be well prepared for the trials of the game’s final hours.

Overall, Master Key finds solid ground to share with other notable indie Zelda-like games, feeling very much like a minimalist version of Tunic. The countless secrets of its world and the way in which it encourages you to search and reflect on every screen give it a remarkable sense of vitality. I know I haven’t seen all that its dense map has to offer, but I’ve still thoroughly enjoyed my time with Master Key and look forward to eventually diving back in to find what I missed.