I've always held a soft spot for the dungeon crawler genre, owing mostly to the time I spent growing up playing the early Bard's Tale games. I've also dabbled a bit in the Might & Magic series, played all three Etrian Odyssey games, and I absolutely adore Wizardry: Tales of the Forsaken Land for the PlayStation 2. What makes a dungeon crawler successful is simply the dungeon itself. A good level of difficulty is a must and the game must consistently reward the player whenever he manages to make some progress. This progress must be earned, and it is expected that the player will have to go for long periods of time without basic commodities like healing and even the ability to save in case something goes horribly wrong.
But then there is a game like Wizardry: Labyrinth of Lost Souls. It sounds like a promising game with its talk of a "Wizardry Renaissance" and its throwback game design. Unfortunately, as I spend more time plumbing the depths of this PlayStation Network release, I realize that my time is better spent elsewhere.
Risk and reward is one of the foundations of a video game and yet it is completely absent here.
If you were to take the entire storyline of Labyrinth of Lost Souls and write it down, you'd find that it wouldn't even be able to cover a chewing gum wrapper. In the town of Aitox there is basically a big sign out front saying "Adventurers Wanted" and ten heroes representing various races have answered the call. After selecting the character that suits your preferences, you will be shuffled to the stat screen and introduced to your ally and enemy for the rest of the game: The random number generator (or "RNG," as she will be referred to for the rest of this review). RNG and I don't get along very well, but she loves to show up in the kinds of games I tend to play. Some might refer to her as "Lady Luck" when she bestows her gifts upon grateful players in the form of incredible equipment or an escape from certain death. Her supposed generosity comes at a price, however, because if you don't find what you're looking for quickly, she will sink her claws into your flesh and mind, where you will then be led along for an indeterminate amount of time wandering hopelessly.
So moving back to the stat screen, we're presented with a handful of different stats and a random number of bonus points to divide as we see fit. This number can go as low as 6 or as high as 47. Having 47 bonus points to put into stats has its uses, but in order to have a chance at such a number you'll have to roll, and re-roll, and re-roll a few hundred or more times before you get that magic number. Thankfully, in no way is this required for starting players. Sure it presents a helpful boost, but most players should be able to get by with around 20 bonus points. The player's class is determined by both his alignment and his starting stats. As is typical with the genre, it is best to go with a balanced party that can cover the front line, cast spells, and has a thief or a ninja for dealing with locked doors and trapped chests.
Aitox has all of the basic amenities, like a shop, a temple for performing various services, guilds for putting together parties and getting quests, and an inn for resting. Outside of the town there are two dungeons. The Dungeon of Trials is made up of five floors and it is where all starting players should go while veterans should move on to Shiin's Dungeon in order to progress with the anemic storyline, fight through ten floors of wall-to-wall evil, and hopefully find some awesome gear. Aside from a currently available expansion that adds another five floors to the Trials dungeon, this is the entirety of the game. There is apparently an overly excessive amount of DLC available for the Japanese version of the game, but time will tell if we ever see any of it. Regardless, the game is of decent length on its own and I can't complain value-wise.
Nearly every aspect of the game is determined by RNG. Level-ups can be attained through experience or via tithing over at the temple. At first you might want to monitor your level-ups so that you attain a good amount of hit-points and don't lose any stats. Yes, for some bizarre reason you can actually become weaker in some ways due to a level-up. Don't worry too much, because stat-points, hit-points, and even the level-ups will lose their importance by the end of the game. When all is said and done, your equipment is what determines your survival in battle.
It is around this point that you should start to become more intimate with RNG. In the dungeons she determines the monsters you face, who gets the first strike, and any rewards from winning the battle. She's the overbearing type, I'm afraid to say, because the more you'll try to ignore her, the more she'll weed her way into every little aspect of your adventure. Without her on your side you won't be able to finish the quests that require certain random drops from enemies, and by the end of the game you might find yourself overwhelmed if she hasn't given you the tools you need to kill monsters before they can obliterate you. Considering how random her behavior is, it also isn't shocking to expect that she just might create an encounter that gets the first turn and completely smokes your party before you have a chance to act.
You might find it odd that I haven't said a thing about the dungeons in this game. Labyrinth of Lost Souls is a dungeon crawler so what's the deal? Well . . . the dungeons in this game just aren't any good. They remind me of the earliest games in the genre because there are a lot of dead ends and an abundance of empty rooms without as much as a treasure chest to open. Where this game sets itself apart from the pack is that its dungeons don't have much of anything in the way of flavor, text, or puzzles. Aside from a couple instances early on, you won't find notes from dead adventurers, scribbled notes on the walls, or anything at all that could help give this game a bit of atmosphere. The closest this game gets to a puzzle involves throwing switches to open doors, though I guess going back to previous floors to find certain important NPCs could be considered a puzzle of the incredibly obtuse sort. I recommend a guide if only to save time and patience.
The dungeons also aren't noteworthy in making things even remotely challenging for the average party. Magicians are given two spells that make dungeon exploration a breeze. Emergency Exit is what it is: a free pass out of the dungeon and back to the safety of Aitox. On its own it isn't too bad, because a number of dungeon crawlers have similar spells or items, and more than anything they can inhibit progress if you're the type who runs back to town every time you get a level-up or find a neat weapon. Free Warp, on the other hand, is a completely ridiculous spell that is coated and then deep-fried in absurdity. Basically, this spell allows parties to teleport to any explored section of the map. Let's say you get turned around or caught in a trap that kicks you back to the beginning of the floor; rather than trek all that way again you can use this spell to get back to where you were. The game is already overly generous with its easily accessible elevators for nearly every floor, but with the inclusion of free warp it feels like you don't even have to struggle to get anywhere.
To me, this aspect is worthy of special mention because it absolutely ruins the dread and foreboding that comes from a dungeon. One of my other first RPGs was Final Fantasy I, and in a lot of ways it was like the early Wizardry titles. There were many dungeons that I never looked forward to, but I knew that if I managed to survive there would be great rewards at the end of them. The Marsh Cave is an absolute pain, but once I get through I get the magic key and can go back and open all of the locked doors I encountered earlier, which leads to the acquisition of a ton of nice stuff. The Ice Cave and the Castle of Ordeals offered phenomenal awards. Going forward a decade or so, there is Tales of Forsaken Land. In that game, I was ecstatic to find a shortcut and even ended up losing a character permanently just because I didn't want to lose progress I had made in the dungeon. I probably never looked forward to my treks in the dungeons, but in a way I knew that there was something down there that was worth the trouble and that drove me onward and downward. In Wizardry: Labyrinth of Lost Souls, however, I am awarded with nothing but empty rooms, treasure chests with old gloves in them, and can only take solace in the fact that I only had to put in the most minimal of effort required. Risk and reward is one of the foundations of a video game and yet it is completely absent here. I just can't understand it.
By the end of it all, there's only you and the RNG. The closest this game gets to anything resembling difficult is if the RNG decides you're not worthy of the equipment necessary to defeat end-game monsters. It is here where the RNG takes absolute control, because you will find yourself fighting the same monsters again and again for hours just so that one might drop a particular sword you want. If your relationship with the RNG is like mine, you will find yourself bending to her will and changing your party classes around just for the weapons that are only available to them. Even after several wasted hours, I couldn't find a decent weapon for my Samurai so I changed her class to a Lord to use one of the three Lord-only swords that I acquired in the process. Changing classes is a painless affair since gold is very easy to come by - and thanks to tithing, I can take someone from level 1 to level 30 in seconds. Still, this doesn't excuse the fact that in order to complete this game you have to be blessed by the RNG as well as have the patience to save and reload often.
Perhaps the only two aspects of this game that go well together are the RNG and save/reload shenanigans. If you really wanted to, you could save constantly and if the battle you're rolled into isn't going your way you could then opt out and reload your last save. Re-rolling your starting stats repeatedly until you get what you like will give you some control over every little occurrence in this game, no matter how minor. You could limit yourself to only saving in town, then grit your teeth and persevere when things never go your way. Unfortunately, this game just isn't balanced well enough for that style of play. There aren't any advanced tactics for surviving harder battles, and you'll find yourself relying on the Bishop's damage-warding Magic Wall and hoping that the enemy party doesn't use all of their most powerful abilities in the same round.
Aside from some remarkable art, there is absolutely nothing that Wizardry: Labyrinth of Lost Souls offers that can't be found elsewhere. While rare pieces of equipment have been part and parcel to multiple video game genres for a long time now, at least the good games had numerous ways of giving the player the ability to complete their tasks no matter how unlucky they are, and they didn't have to do anything drastic like compromise their identity. With this game, though, you'll likely find yourself frustrated and bored when you're struggling to win battles because nobody is doing enough damage. All because some collection of algorithms with an axe to grind has determined you're not worthy. Then again, you might also find yourself loving this game because the first rare monster you ran into dropped one of the most powerful swords, so now you can steamroll everything in the game. Of course, don't be surprised then when you're just as bored and frustrated as I but for an entirely different reason.