Black and white is an effective style for Thief missions. Part of the game’s inspiration is noir film, after all. Jyre’s Ranstall Keep is a creepy mission done in noir, and it works. The setup is suspenseful and you’re drawn in immediately. As I wrote in the last entry, this is how every Thief mission should start: set the mood and draw the player in through atmosphere – let things soak in.
Ranstall was uploaded for both Thief and Thief II within a few months and is the first mission to feature a female protagonist.* It’s a great horror FM and an early-era classic. It’s also the first Thief FM I played (I had watched others being played before, but this is the first I played myself).
Ranstall has an excellent setup: You are in a small town where citizens begin disappearing one by one until you are the only one left. How can you not be drawn into that? I certainly was, and once the briefing video ended and I heard footsteps, I was even more drawn in. I mean, who…what was making those footstep noises?
You find out that it’s monsters – cloaked creatures carrying swords who make the same sounds as Thief’s spiders. These things hold you in check as you explore the town. Exploring the town is your first goal, but you’re not getting anywhere without lockpicks.
That leads to my first knock against this mission: in order to progress, you have to break glass. I always feel uncomfortable busting the window on the roof of the weapons store, but it’s unavoidable. Beforehand I knock out the monster standing nearby. I don’t like any of this, and it sours Ranstall each time I play it. It’s not the only area like that either.**
In the town you may explore a Hammerite chapel, an abandoned house referenced in one of the objectives, some other stores and homes, and the town’s council chamber.
The Hammerite Chapel has another area where Jyre forces you to make noise. Entering the abandoned house requires breaking glass, too. In 2000, breaking glass and busting wood was acceptable, but Thief FMs have come a long way since then and in this enlightened era ghosting must be possible. As is, I don’t see how one can ghost Ranstall.
Through readables in the town you discover that the spider-noise-making monsters have something to do with the Keep and the lord there. Some town members, who had put the pieces together, dug a tunnel to the Keep. You will eventually take this tunnel yourself to discover some rather disturbing horrors.
When I first played this FM I didn’t pick up on everything I saw in the Keep, but on replays one scene gets to me. There is a caged child in the middle of a dinner table who is walking atop hot embers. These monsters are tormenting a child through imprisonment and forcing him to watch them eat. What they eat is people, as you figure out from the chopped up Hammerite in the kitchen. Poor kid – and how disturbing!
The cloaked creatures – who you learn are called “hissies” – aren’t the worst. They have demon overlords who in-game appear as ghost NPCs. Finding out the kind of creature their lord is becomes an objective. How this objective is completed is rather weak. It’s checked off after you read the following journal entry:
“…Today I heard a most amusing tale. A woman was entertaining the crowds with a tale of the demons. I find it ironic that she makes it a point to highlight the demons’ utter destruction. After all, the Lord of the demonic race now lives in this very keep!…”
“Lord of the demonic race” is too generic. It’s also too much of a coincidence that a townswoman in this small, isolated town would be speaking of the destruction of this demonic race and that this same race has taken over – or has always lived in – the town’s Keep.
To reach this demon lord’s quarters you have to use ladders. You use ladders lots in Thief missions, but in Ranstall Keep you use ladders. In the garden you pick up and carry a couple ladders and use them to traverse lava to the upper rooms. And you thought Up in the Bonehoard was revolutionary! Carrying ladders is a unique feature of this FM and I think Ranstall is the first to have it.
There is a bizarre area that may have been going for a Sword vibe and also leads to some more clanging around. It’s an outdoor scene with a pit and some ledges. On the ledges are some frog-beasts that never attack me. To reach the ledges you ride glass platforms you activate with levers. It sounds like a tap-dance party whenever I jump on these platforms. Even worse is when I reach the end part of this little side area: a large room with concentric, ring-like platforms, one becoming smaller after the next as they proceed downwards. I hit each of these ring-platforms hard. For someone who is usually a dedicated ghoster, this segment always feels uncomfortable.
Getting deeper into the Keep is a lot of fun – it has the vibe you feel when delving deeper into a dungeon and uncovering the truth behind more mysteries. You go from a mysterious, empty town to confronting a ghostly demon lord. As a suspenseful FM Ranstall has been surpassed, but when I first played it the suspense sucked me in. In the context of its time it was a gem.
There are some uncomfortable segments that make you feel like a bumbling oaf trying to wake the dead – and this speaks to the mission’s release period: the early, dark days of FM design – but that aside the suspenseful buildup of Ranstall Keep make it an essential horror FM and an early classic. Play it if you haven’t.
*The Thief II version. In the Thief version you play as a male, ostensibly Garrett. Note that in the briefing the male guard voice – Benny – is your character talking, so there’s an inconsistency in the Thief II version. The briefing should have been updated with a female voice for that one.
**In the Thief version, on expert, there is no monster standing at the gate near the weapons shop nor do you have to smash the glass window up top to get in – it opens. However, I cannot progress further in this mission because I cannot get into the open window! I suspect it to be a NewDark bug. If I could play the Thief original, it may become my preferred version for these reasons. Back in the day I never played this version.