Right off the bat, I want to make it perfectly clear that I have little to no experience with roguelikes. Fatal Labyrinth is basically an RPG crammed into a roguelike, so it’s entirely possible that someone who lives and breathes such games could find something to love here. As for me, I found it impressive just how quickly the game’s annoying luck-based gimmicks made playing feel like a chore. It’s a simple game, and I can definitely appreciate that, but there’s no payoff here. You struggle up 30 floors of annoying trap doors and identical items to finally reach the boss on the 31st, and then random stuff happens and the game ends. The story is practically nonexistent despite the very beginning and end of the game trying to capture some kind of epic fantasy vibe that ends up being little more than random gibberish. The gameplay is arguably even worse. I don’t know what I was expecting from a 1991 game in a genre I’m unfamiliar with, but this was definitely not an enjoyable game to play. But hey, it has floor sharks, so I guess that’s one thing in its favor.
Get the goblet, kill the dragon
The first few times I tried to play Fatal Labyrinth, I didn’t even know that there was a a playable opening scene in the main character’s village. I chalk that up to it being skippable by hitting the start button and it starting with a painfully slow camera panning shot. If you sit and wait, though, you’re eventually given control and can wander around to hear other villagers’ insights. Their insipid, occasionally identical insights. Talking to a few people is enough to get the gist of the game’s story, though—some ghouls stole a magical goblet, something something laundry, therefore go kill the big bad dragon and save the world because reasons. If that doesn’t strike you as being very compelling, then good news! That’s the last time you’ll see anything resembling plot until you reach level 30 of the tower and grab the goblet right before the final boss fight. Until then, you’ll be busy with the grind.
And grind you shall!
As you beat enemies, you slowly start to level up. As you level up, their cheap tricks become slightly less annoying because your max health goes up and your health regenerates more hit points as you walk around. Enemies only move when you do, so it’s tempting to wander around luring them into corridors and picking them off to level up and minimize the annoyance of later floors. If you don’t, their magic abilities will absolutely wreck you (unless you cheat). There are only a few different types of enemies, but some of them are insufferable beyond belief. Magicians cause you to fall asleep, allowing every nearby enemy to mob you and get a bunch of free shots. This is especially prevalent early in the game. That’s nothing compared to the red floating things and later magician recolors who can inflict the “dancing” status effect on you, though. This status effect causes your inputs to be randomized every time you move a square, so apart from abusing quick saves, there’s nothing you can do but wander helplessly into danger. Then there are the less hazardous but nonetheless annoying status effects like blindness (which covers most of the screen in blackness) and illness (which reduces your max HP).
Food and curses
There’s also cursed equipment, but before that I need to go into the game’s food system. Basically, you find food lying around and can eat it, and you have an “F” food meter that shows you how full your character is. If you eat too much, you die. If you run out of food, your character starves to death and slowly loses HP until they either find more food or die. The amount of food you pick up is random, so I found myself avoiding it when it ran the risk of potentially killing me. Back to curses: not only is some equipment cursed (and good luck guessing which ones are), but equipping it makes it impossible to remove. Thankfully, all curses wear off after a short amount of walking around, but curses are especially cruel in that they also remove all eaten food the second you equip them. You can go from nearly overeating yourself to death to starving and hemorrhaging HP in one item equip, so you have to be safe and only equip items when you’re near a piece of food. It’s needlessly punishing, and arguably worse, it forces you to play in a single way.
The randomization here sucks
With some exceptions (10 and 30, I think, though even those don’t exactly scream “designed with purpose”), the levels here are randomized. This isn’t too terrible, though the game has an annoying habit of hiding the stairway to the next level behind a hidden door in needlessly large areas. This not only forces you to move square by square, checking every part of every wall, but it also puts you in potential danger because enemies respawn if you spend too long dawdling.
The real annoyance of randomization has to do with the items. Whenever you pick up a magical cane, ring, or scroll, it’ll be described as “a (color) (type of item),” and you won’t know what it does until you actually use it. In the middle of combat and need a healing potion? Try the orange one and hope it doesn’t blind you instead! Since the colors that correspond to items are randomized each playthrough, this manages to be incredibly annoying even once you’re familiar with the game. This also means that if you have a cane that shoots a spell out at enemies, the only way to know that is to waste it and hope you find another. How brilliantly stupid.
The inventory is painful
Opening up the menu, you can select from your weapons, shields, helmets, armor, canes, potions, scrolls, rings, and bows. The biggest irritation here is that you can only carry 7 of each at a time, forcing you to constantly go into the menu and drop things, though the fact that you have to exit the menu and re-enter it every time you do something is a close second. Need to drop 3 rings? You’re going to have to re-open the menu that many times because they couldn’t be bothered to put in a “back” button that doesn’t exit the menu entirely. Need to use 4 canes? Guess who’s going to open and close the menu 4 times? Lucky you! Since there’s no way of telling what an item is without picking it up and looking at its description in the menu, a huge part of gameplay consists of picking up and dropping items.
Death isn’t forever
Something I’ve read is that permadeath is one of the notable features of a roguelike. That’s one of the ways Fatal Labyrinth strays from the genre. Sure, if you die on the first 5 floors the game will just end, but every 5 floors seems to constitute a checkpoint of sorts that you can return to by hitting start during your funeral. Die on level 9, respawn on level 5. Die on level 10, respawn back on level 10. Die on level 26, respawn on level 25. The only exception to this that I found was level 30; dying on the penultimate level sends you back to level 25 as a bonus middle finger.
Cheat like the wind
I made a point to beat this game without cheating (my advice: save a teleport scroll for level 30 and as many anti-magic canes as you find for the last few levels), but I can certainly see the allure of doing so. As it turns out, it’s hilariously easy in this game to buff up your armor to absurd levels. All you have to do is find two bows, then equip them one after another. If you take off all your armor after that, you’ll see that your armor is at 99. The best part is that you don’t even have to use the bows after equipping them, and can immediately switch back to your preferred weapon. Armor is actually a “dodge” stat (it’s weird, but ringmail makes you more agile), so you’ll find yourself able to dodge most hits after performing the cheat.
Recolors and bad beeps
This game isn’t pretty by any stretch of the imagination, nor does it sound good. I suppose the graphics are passable enough for the time, but there are so many reused assets that it’s ridiculous. Despite there being 30 levels, there are only 3 different types of floors, so you’re listening to the same music and wandering around the same types of corridors for most of the game. Enemies are slightly more varied, with types like fiery trees, ninjas, and floor sharks, but even they end up being reused for buffed-up recolors at the end of the game. The whole thing is just grating from a presentation perspective, and spending any appreciable amount of time with Fatal Labyrinth becomes a painfully monotonous thing. This makes the trap doors that drop you down one level (and spell effects which can easily kill you because of bad luck) that much more annoying. This is 15-minutes of game content artificially inflated to much longer, and it just doesn’t make it work.