I’ve always thought I was fundamentally too dumb for Metroidvanias. I’m eternally getting lost, walking past the power-up I need or the switch I have to flip. The frustration usually compounds when I search up the secret to progress and it lives on the opposite end of the genre’s trademark snaking hallway network. Though I really enjoyed Hollow Knight, it ended up permanently backlogged. Anyway, I saw that Record of Lodoss War: Deedlit in Wonder Labyrinth was on Game Pass and thought I’d give it a shot. It has a retro aesthetic that I really like – that sort of 2D PS1-era look, which in this genre basically means Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, a game I haven’t played. I gather it’s functionally very similar to that Castlevania title, with the main difference being the interesting inclusion of a swappable spirit mechanic, which I’ll get into later.
Wonder Labyrinth (not typing that whole title or trying to abbreviate it) is based on Record of Lodoss War, a long-standing Japanese fantasy novel series – which in turn is based on a replay, or transcript, of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign the author participated in. It’s received numerous adaptations and is sort of a cult classic, and the anime OVA it received in the 90s got some traction back in the videotape-swapping days of Western anime fandom. Being a D&D adaptation, it’s basically what you’d expect – a party of heroes go on adventures across the land of Lodoss. Luckily for most people on Earth, you don’t really need to know any of the story to play Wonder Labyrinth. The scant plot details it does require it tells you at the start of the game. Though the exact pertinence of many of the characters and boss enemies will be total mysteries to you (and me), it’s not hard to get the gist of what’s going on.
Running and jumping in the 90’s
Deedlit, the Lodoss War party’s High Elf, wakes up in a mysterious labyrinth, unaware of where she is or how she got there. While I won’t spoil too much about the game’s light plot elements, it’s clear from the get-go that the labyrinth itself is either magical, hallucinatory, or both. She goes off to explore the strange maze, encountering various friends and enemies from the series. Since the identity of Lodoss is inextricably tied with that particular vibe of 90’s fantasy anime, the presentation is period-appropriate. Wonder Labyrinth is a bit like if there had been an official Castlevania tie-in game made at the time of the 1998 TV anime, and it rocks. The pixel art is excellent, especially on Deedlit, with a variety of combat and idle animations. The bosses have a similar level of detail, and the normal enemies look almost as good, though I don’t remember anything particularly stand-out about most of them.
I wouldn’t say there’s anything conceptually incredible about any of the enemy types or environments; they draw on much the same cultural inheritance as most D&D-adjacent fantasy from the late 20th century. There’s goblins, dragons, black knights, lizardmen – that general assortment of baddies. The game’s 6 stages run the gamut of standard fantasy ‘vania zones, from forest, castle, pyramid interior to, er… magic stuff. They’re all well-rendered and the backgrounds are really nice. When you progress, you get a lovely, very-PS1-ish animation of a dice landon on the number of the new stage. I genuinely adore this game’s aesthetic, and though it can’t be accused of enormous originality, it combines a well-executed throwback graphical style with the 90’s anime aesthetic of my fondest nostalgic dreams. It’s enough to keep me plugging away bashing monsters, fighting bosses and finding stuff deep into its astonishing maze. If I had one complaint to make, it would be that the English text uses a typeface that’s noticeably high-resolution compared to the determinedly low-res approach of all the other UI elements.
Classic Metroidvania mechanics
The core gameplay loop of the Metroidvania genre is well established by now, and Wonder Labyrinth doesn’t go too far outside that comfort zone. You poke around, fight monsters, platform, collect new abilities that unlock previously inaccessible areas, and flip switches to unlock doors. Mercifully, there’s a detailed map of all the zones and relatively frequent save and fast travel points. This made my habit of missing important stuff not too bad – even when I’d have to backtrack, it was usually a matter of finding my way to the nearest travel point. Only on a couple of occasions did I let out a big “it’s over there?” groan. There’s a bit of very mild puzzle-platforming, if it can be called that. Nothing in this game will tax your grey matter or platforming reflexes too badly. RoLW: DiWL (sorry), despite its retro leanings, isn’t of the brutal difficulty school, which is just as well. I’m crap enough at these already.
However, there’s a compelling reason this gameplay loop is so widespread in the genre, and that’s because it works. Across the course of a couple of evenings, progressing through Deedlit in Wonder Labyrinth was consistently addictive, only ever a wee bit further away from unlocking the next traversal ability, set of colour-coded doors, or boss to defeat. The bosses are a particular highlight – you’ll fight the same enemies in the labyrinth a lot while exploring, and getting to these visually impressive bosses is unique and enjoyable. They get progressively tougher as the game goes on, and offer enough challenge to feel a bit of accomplishment when you manage to get rid of them, though maybe more hardcore aficionados of the genre will find it breezier.
The ‘party trick’ of Wonder Labyrinth is the two-spirit system. Deedlit gains the powers of wind and fire from two, instantly-swappable spirits; having either equipped at a given time will make you invulnerable to that element and regain mana points from absorbing it. You gain levels in these by dealing damage with one equipped. These come to the fore when you need to swap between the two pretty rapidly to avoid damage or skirt an elemental immunity, especially in the boss fights. It makes the game feel like a bit of a mixture of Castlevania and top-down shooter Ikaruga, and the occasional feat of elemental dexterity I could manage was intensely satisfying. As you land hits and take out enemies with one spirit equipped, it levels up the other one from 1 to 3, increasing damage and providing health regeneration at max level. These levels are lost when you get hit, so you’ll have to flip back to the other one, adding a nice sense of flow Combined with the usual collection of weapons, magic, and level-ups, there’s a solid balance of learning to use the mechanics more efficiently as well as creeping up your character power.
While I can understand the hesitance to do this from a level design standpoint, I think one thing I would have appreciated would have been a few more quiet moments in Wonder Labyrinth. Through the game’s not-enormous runtime it only does a few cutaways or low-key interludes. This is, I think, a bit of a defining feature between the very good and the properly excellent of the Metroidvania genre, at least to me as a relative outsider. Hollow Knight quite often gives you a bit of time to breathe in between exploration, either in its topside town or when talking to various NPCs. While Wonder Labyrinth is more story-light than that game, I think the effectiveness of its non-core-loop moments speak to how useful they would have been in higher quantity. Don’t get me wrong, the central experience is compelling, but a bit of gameplay ‘pillow’, compensated with smart save/travel points, wouldn’t have gone amiss.
Record of Lodoss War: Deedlit in Wonder Labyrinth is smart, relatively accessible, and very attractive. Its commitment to its retro aesthetic does it many favours, with everything from the UI to the sprites feeling authentic. It probably helps that the source material was so historically close to this art style’s pinnacle of popularity, giving a cohesion that’s occasionally absent otherwise. If you’ve tried this genre before and firmly decided it’s not for you, Wonder Labyrinth might not succeed in converting you, unless the aforementioned stylistic choices really work for you or you’re a big-time Lodoss fan. Though it doesn’t reinvent the wheel, I loved its core ideas, melding one important contrivance with solid Metroidvania fundamentals. Rushing through it in just a couple evenings, spurred on by the thrill of exploration and periodic unlocks of new areas, I feel that huge innovation isn’t necessary. Why would it need to, when it carries through on its primary concepts and aesthetic so very well? As I say farewell to Wonder Labyrinth, I’m left hoping that there’s another game so I can do it all again, and in its stead I might have to revisit all predecessors I abandoned. Maybe I should finally play Symphony of the Night after all…
We’re getting back into the swing of things re: actually producing posts. If you liked this, consider reading my other recent piece on DNF Duel, a fighting game – a genre I’m a lot more familiar with than this – or my Bargain Bits review of Rust Raiders.