Much like a house that has been ravaged by a terrible fire, or a car that’s been left parked on the street overnight in Lackawanna, Fatal Labyrinth is an RPG that’s been stripped all the way down to its frame. There’s barely any story, one town, no stores, and only one playable character. The game also eschews the tedious turn-based menu-driven battles of most RPGs – which would normally be a good thing – and actually manages to come up with “combat” that’s even less interesting than picking “fight” off of a list.
You begin the game in the only town, and learn that some magic goblet has been stolen, causing darkness to fall over the land, and an evil dragon to come back into power. At first, I wasn’t too concerned – sure, lots of people were whining that it meant the end of the world, but there’s people like that in every one of these games. I mean, if Madden was an RPG, there would be some guy who’d tell you that if the Eagles don’t win on Sunday, evil would spread across the land. So I was pretty unmoved by people’s pleas for help until I saw this:
That really drove the whole thing home for me. A world plunged into perpetual darkness and about to be destroyed by an evil dragon sounds pretty bad, but it’s also really hard to relate to. It’s never happened to anyone in real life, and in video games, a crisis like that is averted on a pretty routine basis. But wet laundry? That’s something else entirely. Have you ever taken a shirt out of the dryer a little too soon, and put it on the next day, and it was still damp? It’s horrible. You walk around all day with a shirt that’s all squishy and wrinkled and feels vaguely cold. It’s probably what being attacked by one of those slimes you always see in RPGs feels like. I wasn’t about to abandon an entire town to such a miserable existence, even if it would have been a fairly brief one before they were, you know, wiped out by that dragon.
At first, I kind of dug Fatal Labyrinth’s simplified approach. The design reminded me a lot of Gateway to Apshaii, which had been one of my favorite Atari games when I was a kid. However, Fatal Labyrinth is actually a bit too simplified. Say what you want about the combat in games like Phantasy Star (and believe me, I’ve said plenty), at least it’s slightly interactive – I mean, you still have to pick “fight” off of the menu, and you even have some other options, even though you’ll rarely use them. In Fatal Labyrinth, “fight” is the only option, and you simply hold the button down in the direction of the monster you’re facing and watch them stab each other until one dies or you run away. Some might generously call it an Action/RPG, but that would be insane. This is more like an Inaction/RPG.
It wasn’t very long before the game started to get boring. Picking up equipment is almost pointless – there are only a few different pieces and plenty of duplicates, which you can’t sell or do anything useful with other than chuck at an enemy for minimal damage. There’s nobody to talk to, no side quests or sub-missions, and you can’t even leave the labyrinth once you enter it. You just explore, fight the same monsters over and over (there’s a new one every few levels), and pick up worthless items that you usually already have. The entire thing is just one long grind from start to finish. It’s straightforward and super-efficient to a fault.
Fatal Labyrinth might be ok as a cell phone game, where its streamlined, linear design would probably make it easy to play. But compared to most of the Genesis’ library, or even some Atari games from the early 1980s, it comes up severely lacking.