Last year's Adventure Bar Story put a new twist on the RPG experience, breaking it down into a tasty combination of two addicting elements: battling monsters, and cooking up a storm. Now publisher CIRCLE's back with Adventure Labyrinth Story, a spin-off of that title which focuses on putting a different facet of RPGs front and centre: dungeon exploration. It's a randomized roguelike that borrows from the best, but fails to do anything with the basic blueprint; it feels unfortunately flat and soulless as a result.
True to its title ordering, Adventure Labyrinth Story is heavy on the labyrinth and light on the story, and after a brief introduction — a mysterious labyrinth has appeared north of town and Lydia and her friends want a chance at the subterranean treasure — it drops you into the action almost immediately. Your exploration begins, rather thoughtfully, with a 'trial'; there's a letter hidden eleven floors deep in a mock-up labyrinth provided by the kingdom, and if you can manage to retrieve it you'll earn your explorer's license. This proving ground acts as a tutorial dungeon of sorts, and it does a great job introducing you to all the mechanics you'll need to navigate the roguelike waters without overstaying its welcome or being tedious for veteran players.
Once you hop into the labyrinth proper for your top-down exploration, you'll comb through randomized floors — different with every dungeon dive — fighting monsters, looking for loot, and trying to survive for as long as you can as you make your way to the bottom. Labyrinth Story is very much a roguelike at heart, so if you've played games like Shiren the Wanderer, Pokémon Mystery Dungeon, or Etrian Mystery Dungeon, you'll recognize lots of elements here, including the globally turn-based movement. Everything is based on a tiled grid, and no-one moves until you do; if you see a monster across the room it won't budge until you take a step, at which point it's free to move a square as it likes. That means you'll have to think about every step you take, both in terms of yourself and your enemies, and it also gives you all the time in the world to think it through — it feels a bit like playing chess, and it's wonderful once you get the hang of it.
Other roguelike staples include invisible traps, a limited inventory, a 'stomach gauge' you'll need to keep full with food, a running text-ticker that keeps track of all the action as it unfolds, and gear appraisal — you'll frequently come across books (single-use magical spells) and staves (multiple-use magic), but you won't know what effects they have until you use them blindly (a real risk sometimes!) or have them examined.
Perhaps most importantly, if you die you won't just see a 'Game Over' screen — you'll revert back to level one, lose all items you were carrying at the time, and be dumped unceremoniously back at the bar. Of course, starting over from scratch and improving each time is all part of the appeal — the above-ground UI even has a counter to keep track of how many times you've challenged the dungeon, and your highest level obtained. And it doesn't always have to end in despair, either; there are a few Escape Rope-style items that will whisk you back to town in a pinch, so part of the challenge is deciding when to push yourself to go further, and when to head home early.
Of course, as in any RPG, the most common cause of death will be '0 HP by monster'. Adventure Labyrinth Story has a unique way of handling its battles, which look a bit different from typical roguelike rumbles. They happen on-field and one turn at a time, as in most games in the genre — there's no separate 'battle screen', and no menus to navigate; you simply line yourself up and lay into your enemies with a melee attack, ranged weapon or spell, and wait for their retaliation. But instead of showing this through a minimalist 'bump and run' motion as most of its ilk do, Labyrinth Story overlays cool little cut-ins with animations of your character and the enemy engaging in isometric combat. These make fights significantly more visually interesting than they otherwise would be, but they're also fast enough that they keep up the quick pace that makes exploring so snappy. It's a best-of-both-worlds implementation, and we definitely liked what it brought to the battles.
Like the gameplay itself, Labyrinth Story's controls are streamlined and snappy; the D-Pad is for movement, 'A' performs a melee attack, 'L' fires long-distance weapons, and 'B' provides instant access to the inventory submenu — a supremely helpful time-saver in a game where inventory management is a key mechanic. Holding down 'R' will lock movement into the diagonal directions, and 'Y' lets you turn in place without wasting a turn moving, both of which help prevent unintentional missteps.
Other than its interesting overlaid battle sequences, Adventure Labyrinth Story doesn't do much to distinguish itself from a prototypical example of the genre. That's not necessarily a bad thing — these games are popular for a reason, with constant tension between pushing yourself just a little further and knowing when to quit, and the gameplay loop of exploring, collecting loot and returning to regroup and restock before jumping back in is as addictive here as anywhere else. The sheer speed of it all is also exhilarating, especially for those used to more deliberately paced adventures; everything happens so quickly in roguelikes that at times it feels like playing a regular RPG in fast-forward.
Still, apart from some fun callbacks to Adventure Bar Story (including a rudimentary cooking system), CIRCLE's take on the formula is distinctly lacking in personality, and suffers very much from a feeling that it's been designed to tick a series of feature boxes more than anything else. There's nothing particularly unappealing about it, but the experience is so aggressively generic that it's hard to find any specific elements to latch onto and remember as 'Adventure Labyrinth Story', rather than simply 'a roguelike'.
That feeling isn't helped by the presentation, either. The graphics give off an entirely competent 16-bit vibe, with cute sprites and crisp anime-style character portraits, but the pedestrian art direction seems to take 'retro' and 'RPG' as its only inspirations, and is hardly memorable as a result. The music is nice, with a pleasantly wistful town theme and a MIDI-woodwind-fronted fanfare in the dungeon, and while it's nothing you'll be humming to yourself days after the fact, it makes a good backing track for exploration.
A perfectly passable, prototypical roguelike RPG, Adventure Labyrinth Story is a decently diverting game that's happy to entertain without leaving a lasting impression. It takes tried and true gameplay elements and wraps them up in a plain presentation, resulting in a dependable experience that does what it says on the tin. That's not a problem in and of itself, of course, and if you're just looking to do some randomized exploring with all the trappings (and traps!) of the genre, this will definitely scratch that itch — it's comfort gaming, and on the cheap, too. But it's severely lacking in soul, and if you've got a few more gold to spare, we'd recommend Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Gates to Infinity or Etrian Mystery Dungeon as far more memorable experiences in the same vein.