Beyond the Labyrinth (Labyrinth no Kanata) is a dungeon-crawler released January 19th for the 3DS here in Japan. We mentioned it once before in a 'This Week in Famitsu', but we finally got the chance to sit down and play it for a while, and as always, we'd like to share our experience with all of you.
I admit I'm not usually a fan of dungeon-crawlers... I do have a soft-spot in my heart for games like 'Gauntlet' and 'Baldur's Gate', but only because I have fond memories of playing them together with my Dad for hours on end when I was younger. Any dungeon-crawler without a multi-player component, however, will make me fall asleep faster than a frying pan to the back of my head. I haven't played a true 'dungeon-crawler' in years. (On a side-note, yes, this means I skipped over both Demon's Souls and Dark Souls. Sacrilege, I know, but my idea of 'multi-player' means co-operative play, not random strangers invading my game and shanking me while I'm trying to do something important.) Beyond the Labyrinth managed to overcome my natural aversion to dungeon-crawlers and make me buy it for two reasons: one, the game looked gorgeous, and two, there was some sort of female companion that you were expected to help/lead around the dungeon. Both these aspects appealed to the ICO lover in me, so the game was purchased and put into my 3DS before my inner-skeptic had a chance to warn me of incoming frying pans. Luckily, no warning was needed.
Labyrinth no Kanata starts off by scaring the living crap out of you, making you think that you just spent upwards of $40 on a game with the graphical quality of the original Doom. Literally. I could count the pixels making up the monsters that jumped out in front of my character as I walked down hallways that all looked the same. Let me take the opportunity to assure you now that it's the tutorial level, so you won't have to fight the urge to fling your 3DS against a wall like I wanted to. As you are wandering around, killing awfully pixelated static monsters (the game plays in the first-person, by the way, so you never see your own character) you are joined by another 'player'. It turns out the awful-looking Doom clone is an online game, and you just got your first party-member! Huzzah! Then another joins, and another, until you have a full 4-man party, including yourself. None of the other characters are actual people, they're npc's masquerading as real 'online players' (think of the .hack// series for a good comparison) but they will engage you in conversations that you can respond to as they teach you how to play this 'super-awesome-high-tech-mega-popular-online-game'. After a little more wandering around in early 90s PC game land, you and your party members start seeing static flicker across your screen, and hear a girl's voice crying out for help. Suddenly, you are all transported to a beautiful, lush, actually-graphically-pretty land, with the afore-mentioned girl sitting in front of you. You and your party members appear as some sort of floating cube or window to the girl, and while she can tell that you are people, and can speak to you, you and your party members are apparently unable to speak back to her. Your party members can still type things on your screen to talk to you though, and use the opportunity to immediately freak out about where you all got transported to, and what the heck is going on. Regardless of an inability to communicate with her, the girl eventually admits that she has fallen down to the place you now all find yourselves in from a land above, and asks you, Mr. Floating Cube Thingy, to help her climb back up the tower and escape from the monsters roaming the place. Thus begins your dungeon-crawling adventure.
Battle in the pretty-land plays the same as in the tutorial ugly-Doom land: it uses a rock-paper-scissors based battle system. It's an incredibly simple gameplay mechanic, but surprisingly fun. Monsters will be one of three different colors: red, blue, or green. Your party members, including yourself, are also one of those three colors, and can only use an attack based on that color (you can choose which color you and your party members are, and change those colors at set points in the game). Green attacks beat blue, blue beats red, and red beats green. You have to choose which monster to attack with which character in order to defeat them. You have a limited amount of time to do this in, though, so often times one of your party members will throw out their attack, say a green one, for example, before you had a chance to change them to fighting the blue monster.... so instead they attack the green monster, and heal it back to full health. Thanks, random party member! The mysterious girl will also travel with you, occasionally throwing a rock that does NO damage to the monsters. She's basically there for you to escort safely, as once her health bar reaches zero it's game over for you. As she has hands, and is not a faceless floating magic cube, however, she can also do things like open doors and lower bridges in the dungeon, which I suppose is useful.
Regardless of the annoyances of having your party members occasionally heal the monster you were about to kill, or the girl almost dying because she decided to play the hero and throw her pebble at the giant fire-monster and make it angry, I was grateful they were there. You see, without them, Beyond the Labyrinth would be just another single-player dungeon-crawler, trying its hardest to put me to sleep. With them there, I got the illusion of playing a game with others, and listening to the girl's chatter or watching my party members get into some sort of fight because such-and-such has no idea what they're doing was entertaining to me. Entertaining enough to keep me playing the game, and even though I haven't beaten it yet (this is a 'hands-on', after all, not a full review), I have every intention of trying to. While I personally think the chances of Beyond the Labyrinth being released in the States are slim, for the simple fact that it got me to not only play a single-player dungeon-crawler, but actually enjoy it, I hope some publisher decides to pick it up and give it a chance to convert other non-believers.