Fatal Labyrinth is still difficult, but finally makes sense

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When I first played Fatal Labyrinth, back in early 2011 as part of Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection on the Xbox 360, I didn’t understand it. I only continued poking at it to get a single Achievement, which tasked the player with making it to the fifth floor of the randomly generated labyrinth. In fact, this was the last Achievement I popped, after getting that super tricky for Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine. I remember having great difficulty with this, eventually just avoiding all monsters and searching desperately every nook and cranny for the next set of stairs to take me upwards and away. You’ll have to forgive me, but I wasn’t familiar with roguelikes back then, confused by things like question marks on items and dark rooms full of uncertainty.

Since then, I’ve played a lot more roguelikes, some of which are very close in style and mechanics as Fatal Labyrinth. Here, let me name a few that come to mind: The Binding of Isaac, Coin Crypt, Dragon Crystal, and Hack, Slash, Loot. The games have taught me much over the past few years, like not to be scared of potions that don’t immediately reveal what they do. Yep. If you want to know what the brown potion does in Fatal Labyrinth, you have to drink it blindly; once you know its power, there’ll be no further confusion about it during your run. That said, last time I drank the brown potion, it simply said “you’re feeling much better”…so I have no clue what that actually means.

According to a gaming wiki I frequently hang out around, Fatal Labyrinth is about leading Trykaar into the castle of Dragonia in order to retrieve the Holy Goblet, which was stolen from the village. I’ll take that plot at face value because I didn’t read anything about that when I started out, but maybe if you linger long enough on the title screen you get some exposition. The castle consists of thirty levels, most of which are procedurally generated. Seeing as I’ve only ever gotten to the fifth level, I have no idea what that means. Perhaps there are boss battles that are the same each time you hit them. I don’t know.

Upon returning to Fatal Labyrinth, which, by all means was not something I planned, but rather something that simply unfolded before me when I popped in Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection to see if my save progress from Phantasy Star II was still there, I found myself surviving. Slicing up enemies and throwing duplicate weapons away like a skilled ninja. Killing monsters and leveling up, as well as grabbing food and navigating menus. All of that is in stark contrast from my first go with it, and again, I have the years of noodling around with other roguelikes to thank. Except for Dungeons of Dredmor, which I’ll never be good at.

As with just about every other RPG out there, the main concern in Fatal Labyrinth is crafting your initially weak and worried hero into a walking tank, brimming with weapons, spells, potions, and other powerful trinkets. You start with just a small knife and plenty of pocket space; I found the hand axe to be killer against most foes save for those ice crystal things and got a few pieces of armor on my way to the fifth level before losing too much HP after getting surrounded. Dealing with groups of enemies one on one is also important, much like dealing with zombies in Dead Island–focus on a single threat, eliminate it, then move on to the next one.

Here’s something that is not weird, but then weird. In order to continue exploring the titular labyrinth, you need to be well-nourished. However, you only have enough food at the start of your journey for around ten minutes of exploration. You can see your food depleting in the UI, marked as a F. Thankfully, like chickens in the walls of Castlevania, there’s spare meat lying around on different dungeon floors. Here’s where things take a turn–if you eat too much, you die. So it’s a constant balance of having enough, but not too much, not too little. Toss in enemies and new gear and mysterious potions, and there’s a lot to juggle all at once, which is where most of the difficulty comes from.

Lastly, I found myself stuck in a seemingly empty room after I cleared it out of enemies and items. There were no doors or staircases, not even one to go back down a level. I thought that maybe I had glitched in Fatal Labyrinth, but after a little Googling, discovered that I was supposed to read the manual, which told me that sometimes there are hidden passageways in walls, and the only way to find them is spam the button while facing every wall unit. See how pivotal manuals are, though I guess one could argue that, at this point, the Internet is basically one big manual.

I do believe that I can conquer all thirty levels of Fatal Labyrinth, and I mean to keep trying until that belief changes stance. Here’s hoping you see a haiku for this game sooner than later.

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