Commander Keen 3: Keen Must Die! is the third and final installment in the Invasion of the Vorticons series. In this game, Keen has a snow day, so he has chance to head over to Vorticon VI and “face the horrors of suburban life”. Suburban horrors aside, he must battle his way through the Vorticon army to finally meet the mysterious Grand Intellect. In the previous game, we found out that the Grand Intellect is controlling the Vorticons using mind belts and they aren’t evil killing machines after all. The game once again includes a story section with some nice details about Vorticon life; they live similar to us humans, but with anti gravity cars and teleporters and whatnot. It also talks about the Vorticons favourite game; a game similar to Jacks, except they play it with giant balls and giant Jacks. We’ll see that this game of Jacks plays a part in the actual gameplay.
On with the actual gameplay, anyway! I have actually played this game before, albeit very briefly and not ‘properly’. I beat the game in the shortest route possible, which involves playing only three levels. As I’m a bit older now, I think there isn’t much fun in missing out 80% of the game, so I’m going to be beating every level here.
This game is set entirely on the Vorticon’s home planet, so we see lots of houses and apartment blocks, along with some parks and greenery. There’s even some Vorticon bathrooms to visit! The world map takes the same form as before, where Keen wanders around in a top-down view between levels. For some reason, this time the map is a confusing mess of teleporters that you have to work out. I ended up just going through random teleporters until I found new levels to play. I suspect this was done so people didn’t easily discover that they were only required to beat three levels to finish the game.
There is one huge problem I found with this game though – it’s way too hard. I know the game is called Keen Must Die, but I thought that was just a cool name, not a description of the gameplay. There are enemies everywhere and the enemy placement is designed to catch you out. Your standard Vorticons wander about the levels not causing much trouble, but there’s also Vorticon moms, who angrily shoot fireballs all over the place and even kill their fellow Vorticons. They’re solid, so you can stand on them and they will block your path and push you out the way. I didn’t think you could kill them, but it turns out you can! They’re the toughest enemy in the game (and infact, the toughest in the entire series) taking five hits, so I thought they were just invincible.
There’s a ton more ammo scattered around than the previous two games, which helps you to deal with the additional enemies, but it only helps so much. The game seems designed to frustrate, Keen will constantly get knocked over and stunned by the baby Vorticons, then a big Vorticon will come jump on you and kill you. The baby Vorticons just don’t stop coming, there’s several places in the game where you will get stunned over and over until the dice roll in your favour and give you a break. There are some positive notes though, I had to laugh when I first came across the ‘deadly version of Jacks’ that was mentioned in the story. Some levels have giant red balls that bounce around like crazy and push Keen around. There are also Jacks flying around, but these will kill Keen on contact, so they are best avoided!
There are some strange level design choices in this game, with a lot of them having deliberate traps where you can get stuck or unexpectedly die. For example; in one level I traveled through a huge confusing apartment block and when dropping down a hole to the exit, I landed on a spike. There was no way of knowing that spike was there before dropping down, so if it’s your first time playing you’ll probably have to do that level twice, and you’ll feel a lot grumpier and less willing to explore the second time round. Not that you can fully explore that level anyway, because half the level is completely inaccessible!
There’s also one level which is a huge, confusing cave system. It’s also a required level. It turns out, exploring the caves is completely and utterly pointless. You can go through this huge, homogenous, confusing maze, collect all the key cards, and even get to the exit! Except after you do all that, you can’t get to the exit. There are two spikes that make it literally impossible, so that was all a huge waste of time and probably gave you eye strain (the DOS background graphics aren’t that nice to look at). The level actually requires you to simply jump over the level and easily reach the alternative exit. You don’t have to set foot in the caves at all.
I was actually so frustrated with the gameplay, I decided to read up on the development of this game for some kind of explanation. I had a great time playing the first two games, so I was pretty upset this one seemed to take a huge dip in quality. According to Shakidi Wiki, the developers made 16 levels in 2 days. For context, this game only has 16 levels.
There is a secret level in this game, and getting to it isn’t that much fun either, but maybe it was just the rest of the game leaving a bitter taste in my mouth making me think that. In the story it mentions the legendary Messie, and you’ll probably see her swimming around the planet. If you wait by some green bushes, she’ll turn up and give you a ride to the secret level! She just has to make her way-too-long circuit around the level before she shows up.
Once you enter the secret level, you can find a classroom with a complete translation of the Standard Galactic Alphabet! I queried how people were supposed to translate the language in my post on “Marooned on Mars”, and now I know! This is one of the most redeeming features of the game, I love all the lore that’s scattered through the series.
If you can manage to make it to the end of the game you meet your nemesis: Mortimer McMire! It’s revealed that Moritmer is the smartest person in the Galaxy and for some reason, that means he wants to kill everyone. He has an IQ of 315, whereas our hero Commander Keen only has a paltry IQ of 314. Mortimer sits in his massive mangling machine with defences all around him and you have to shoot various points on his robot. Once you’ve hit all the weak points, you can shoot the robot’s heart and destroy the robot (Mortimer also explodes, not so smart now!). The Vorticons are free’d from the power of the mind belts, the Vorticon paparazzi come to take Keen’s photo with King Vorticon and you’re awarded the “Big V” for saving the planet.
If you ask me, this game was a huge step down in terms of quality. I thought the level design in the games was always slightly strange, but they were at least navigable with plenty of puzzles and optional exploration. A lot of levels in this game were absolutely miserable; too much enemy spam, some parts forcing the player to take an unintentional death or completely restart the level.
So it’s a sad end to the first Commander Keen Trilogy, but there’s still some great things ahead. I’ll be looking at Keen Dreams next, which is considered a bit of an oddball in the series, but it formed the prototype for the Goodbye Galaxy series of Keen games.