The good old RPG has been around since pretty much the dawn of gaming. These epic quests of sword and sorcery, planets and aliens, and everything in between come in many forms but all of these styles follow a basic formula that just keeps us coming back for more. If you’ve never played a videogame, (unlikely,) or you’ve been living under a rock for all this time an RPG simply sees you taking the role of a character or band of characters before sending them on a quest or adventure. I’m not teaching my granny to suck eggs, just covering the bases, let’s get back on topic. The RPG genre has always been one of my favorites and I’ve played countless titles hailing from its storied ranks over the years. I’ve just added a new one to this list and obviously had to tell you how I got on. We’re looking at Labyrinth of Zangetsu on PS4 today. Let’s see if it’s worth its salt.
What makes this game really special is the aesthetic that’s being used and the great amount of care that’s clearly been taken to make Labyrinth of Zangetsu feel like something straight out of a book of Japanese legend. The graphics are beautifully painted and the characters you meet, all fit the theme perfectly. This feels less than a game that’s been inspired by something, (inspired meaning, met in passing but then we went and did our own thing,) and more like one that’s really rooted in its source material. I absolutely love this. If you’re going to follow in the footsteps of something as deep and colorful as another culture, make sure you do it justice. This is something we very much see here and it’s admirable. This is also the perfect segway to the tiny amount of story I’m going to tell you.
In Labyrinth of Zangetsu, your world has been invaded by the ruinous ink. This is warping and twisting everything and demons, vengeful ghosts, undead and other terrors are rampaging across the land. Interestingly, this isn’t a game about good fighting evil, it’s a game about opposing sides coming together to battle something that will leave only oblivion in its wake. This is referenced in your party makeup. Good and evil characters won’t work together on the same party but these parties won’t go looking to end each other either. This is about setting your differences to one side to deal with a much more dangerous problem. Neither side can win if there’s nothing left to fight over. With this in mind teams of warriors, druids, mages and other professional killers travel into ink-infested dungeons in a bid to clear them out and free them of corruption.
In and of itself the overall playstyle used in Labyrinth of Zangetsu isn’t one for me. This is a turn-based RPG taken from the first-person perspective. You’ll move around the map and get thrown into battles as creatures appear in front of you in the form of smoke. Your party can be seen at the bottom of the screen and in combat you’ll jump between your teammates having them attack, cast spells, and so on. This format has been going since the early 90s and probably before that. I wasn’t a fan of it then and I’m still not. I can’t put my finger on why because all the components are great it’s just never been something that’s done it for me. Does this mean that I’m going to be marking this title accordingly? No, of course, it doesn’t. Just because I don’t like something doesn’t mean it’s the fault of the game, it’s a taste thing and you might love it. If you’re someone that prefers a more isometric approach to your RPGs it’s really worth noting though on account of this being a huge part of the core gameplay.
One thing I don’t like about Labyrinth of Zangetsu is the way death works. Losing your party members is incredibly easy as the monsters you’ll face hit hard and are a formidable force even at the very beginning of the game. If one of your party dies you’ll need to go back to base camp and resurrect them at the temple there. This is fine, but it costs gold and there’s only a percentile chance it’ll work. For me, it should be that it’s free but comes with a risk or that it’s expensive and works every time. If you’ve got a teammate to a decent level and then can’t get them back you’re wasting resources and this is frustrating at best. As I’m complaining about this mechanic I can also see why they’ve implemented it. You won’t go placing your team at unnecessary risk knowing they aren’t just going to respawn. This makes you care about them a lot more. I just wish they’d found a slightly less punishing way of doing this.
Something else I find frustrating is the way your team layout works. You have a front and back row and strategically this is fine, you don’t want your spell casters and ranged troops sitting right in the line of fire. The problem is that spellcasters can only cast so many spells of each rank per journey into the labyrinth and being mages they aren’t the best with a weapon. This means that your squishy wizards suddenly become useless because they can’t cast spells and they might as well be blowing on the enemy for all the damage they’re doing. Adding insult to injury you have to remember to make sure they’re carrying weapons that can hit from a distance or they won’t be attacking anything at all. Having a team of six adventurers is brilliant but when you’re going up against a tough opponent and you can only use three of them effectively you’re putting yourself at a real disadvantage.
Between dungeon runs you’ll spend time at your HQ. This is where you’ll resurrect fallen teammates, buy items in the shops and recruit fresh warriors to your cause to ensure you have a full team at all times. You have to bare in mind, though, that new recruits really are new. Having a high-level team with a couple of completely green members isn’t going to help the composition overall. This makes you care so much more about your conscripts and making sure they’re skilled and geared well enough to remain alive. In a game as tough as this one, though, that’s absolutely easier said than done. As a caveat to this point, your team obviously gets tougher the more they level up; even so, complacency is a dangerous thing if you want to keep your party balanced.
So what can we say about gameplay? In Labyrinth of Zangetsu the battles are addictive and you’re kept on your toes because you’re never a hundred percent sure what enemies you’ll be facing at any given point. You can’t prepare for status effects if you don’t know what medicine you need to be carrying so this adds a level of challenge that I quite like. The downside is that this is a menu-based system and clicking from command to command can become a little tedious. Thankfully, there’s a repeat command that simply replays the last set of orders you gave but you need to be careful here if you’ve got spells being cast in that sequence so you don’t waste them. At the end of each battle, you’ll find and open a chest, get some gear, and move on. You fall into a routine of walking, fighting, and collecting really quickly. It’s fine for short sessions but I think some could find gameplay a bit repetitive over longer periods. It’ll depend on the player but I think you’ll either take it in your stride and it won’t bother you or you’ll really notice it and it’ll start to grate on you quite quickly.
Something I have absolutely no complaints about is the aesthetical direction that’s been taking with Labyrinth of Zangetsu. Everything is gorgeously hand painted and drawn and the dungeons have a watercolor feel to them in places that’s really appealing. When this is juxtaposed against the hands-drawn enemies you end up with a slightly hazy otherworldly feel that is perfectly fitting for the approach this game is taking. On a look-and-feel basis, I definitely don’t have any problems.
All in all Labyrinth of Zangetsu is a bit of a mixed bag for me. It looks great and I’m really enjoying the story. I’m even becoming drawn in enough that I can let my issues with the first-person nature of this title drop. I’m still not sold on this choice but it isn’t bothering me either. After this, the gameplay is fun if a little bit repetitive, and like I’ve mentioned, this will possibly become more of an issue when you’re playing in longer sessions. This is not a game that’s friendly for new players and you’ll lose team members left at right at the start. When you get into the swing of things this is less of a problem but initially, it’s aggravating and would have been off-putting for me if I had just bought Labyrinth of Zangetsu knowing nothing about it.
On the plus side, you have the depth of a dungeon runner without crossing into the realm of micromanagement and those of you that like a hard time find a lot to love here. If you liked classic RPGs that were really unforgiving Labyrinth of Zangetsu is likely an excellent choice for your collection. All in all, from a personal perspective this is above average but nothing to shout about. In the same breath, though, above average is still really good. If you’re new to this style of gaming and like a challenge, fill your boots, I think you’ll really enjoy yourself. There’s a great level of tactical strategy for those of you that like planning ahead too. If you want kid gloves and an easy ride, on the other hand, you’ll have a nightmare here.
Classic dungeon running
Labyrinth of Zangetsu is not a perfect game. There are a few balancing issues in my book and a few of the choices made by the devs feel a bit too punitive to make this a game for every RPG fan out there. This being said, the story is intriguing and the graphics are gorgeous, There is still a hell of a lot to love here. If you’re not sure whether this title is going to be more frustrating than fun for you, maybe do a little more research before spending those hard-earned funds.