For readers of a certain age – to which this writer is very much a member – adventure gamebooks were the best. Splicing the agency of roleplay with the narrative depth of a fantasy novel, these souped-up ‘choose your own adventure’ novels took readers on all manner of dark and daring quests that could easily end badly if you happened to choose poorly. Ian Livingstone’s 1984 classic Deathtrap Dungeon remains one of the touchstones for this very unique genre, with its memorable monsters, challenging puzzles and other memorable 'Fighting Fantasy' tropes.
Livingstone had a hand in the making of the original Deathtrap Dungeon video game on PlayStation, and while two decades hasn’t been kind to this little curio (mainly because it was a very ‘90s game more focused on Tomb Raider-style exploration), it’s still a (mostly) faithful recreation of an instantly familiar world. We’ve seen a handful of other attempts to ‘digitise’ the series in the years since, but with Deathtrap Dungeon Trilogy, British developer Nomad Games has taken that classic recipe and aimed to update it for modern eyes and tastes.
Nomad has had mixed success digitising tabletop experiences and card & dice games over the years, including a mostly impenetrable version of board game Talisman and an improved Horus Heresy re-skin that launched shortly after. Thankfully, it found its groove with Fighting Fantasy Legends and the larger content library of Fighting Fantasy Legends Portal, and it’s this version that’s been retooled and renamed for Nintendo Switch. Deathtrap Dungeon Trilogy manages to be both faithful to the merciless nature of the books while adding in just enough new elements to make the Fighting Fantasy universe more palatable to newcomers.
Think of Deathtrap Dungeon Trilogy as a dungeon crawler crossed with a CCG with a heavy emphasis on choice and chance. Once you’ve picked your hero at the start of your adventure and opted for a choice of stats, you’ll head out into the Fighting Fantasy world to complete quests, fight monsters and die. A lot. Exploration is a mostly top-down affair, while key decisions such as combat and ‘puzzles’ are determined with text and card-based face-offs. When you do encounter a trap or monster, a series of red or green dice are rolled which determine the outcome. At first, things appear a little too random for comfort, but as you level up and progress, you can upgrade your die to improve your chances of landing hits (red die) and surviving tests through luck (green die).
If you’ve played the likes of Armello or Hand of Fate 2 – which both feature varying levels of Fighting Fantasy influence with their respective ‘living board game’ and narrative-driven choice aesthetics – you’ll know what to expect. Much like an analogue paper-and-pen RPG, there’s plenty of divergent paths and multiple endings, so in terms of replay value, there’s a lot of fun to be had heading out on repeat quests across all three games in the trilogy. The frustration of dying to random and unforeseen dangers that came with the original gamebooks has always been an issue, but the developer has helped negate it somewhat a 'lives' system that keeps a run going if things go awry. Unfortunately, the other two ‘books’ in the trilogy – Trial of Champions and Armies of Death – aren’t available from the start, so you’ll need to make your way through Deathtrap Dungeon first.
When you finally make your way into the two other entries in the trilogy, you’ll find plenty of new encounters and potential paths. Trial of Champions is more of a redux of the first volume with new traps and enemies, and an enjoyable gauntlet through some grisly gladiatorial games. Armies of Death mixes things up a bit, introducing an army element that requires you to test the mettle of an entire legion rather than just your own hero. You’re no longer exploring a labyrinthine maze as with the first two games, and while it suffers from some of the same aesthetic issues as its fellow adventures, its adjusted game rules and scenarios help freshen up the experience.
While Deathtrap Dungeon Trilogy does its source material justice with how well it translates the divergent nature of its stories, it’s brought down by some decidedly low-rent visuals. The top-down perspective is often a little too basic in detail, with too many static elements. Even the cards used to represent your hero and the enemies you encounter could have done with some animations to help give this core gameplay mechanic a bit more personality. Considering it's coming up against RPGs of all shapes and sizes on Switch, this collection’s sense of quirks and personality is too often undone by forgettable production values.
Translating a set of revered gamebooks from the ’80s into video game form was always going to be something of a challenge, and while the version that’s made the jump to Nintendo Switch under a new name doesn’t bring anything particularly different to the tabletop party, developer Nomad Games has retained the evocative world-building of Ian Livingstone’s books while adding in some helpful features. It’s a little lacking in the looks department, but if you fancy taking a trip back in time to RPG questing of old, Deathtrap Dungeon Trilogy certainly offers plenty of retro adventures of its own.