One part strategy role-playing game, one part card-based battle game, one part open-ended skill sets, and you have Labyrinth, a new game from the folks at Free Range Games, available now on Steam Greenlight for MAC and PC. Stated by the developers as a “love letter” to old-school fantasy games of the past, this game reads much like the original Diablo in the sense that you very much make the adventure that unfolds in front of you, at your pace and in a style all your own. I have a soft spot for an approach like this so when one of the guys on the development team decided to drop me a line and invited me to try out an Early Access version of this game, I was delighted and agreed right away to give it a good test run.
I have to admit, the game’s quite ambitious: of the three battles I was able to go through, I found myself needing to be fully engaged and determined in order to complete them all. Each battle opens with you under control of three characters, each with its own initial load-out of cards specific to the class of character that owns them; you get a chance, before battle starts, to swap some of these cards out, if you weren’t dealt ones you like. Once that’s done, you’re dropped right into the thick of things and the initial tutorial does a pretty nice job of letting you know what’s up: each of the characters move around the field, taking actions based on the cards in their hands, eating up ability points to do so. It’s actually really basic, when you get down to brass tacks, but in order to succeed, you need to get good at it, and you need to get good at it pretty fast as the game challenges you from step one and doesn’t let up.
I think part of the challenge for me was the fact that I didn’t really get to build my decks or my characters prior to jumping into battle – or, if there was a way, I was not made aware of it – and that meant that I was learning how to play my characters effectively as I battled with them for the first time and it took a lot of trial and error in order to really make good use of them. I have to admit, that took some time before that happened. It’ll likely come with some bumps along the way for a lot of people who try this game for the first time but one of the best parts about this game is that it doesn’t punish you for learning the game and failing to succeed: it picks you up, dusts you off, and encourages you to try again. While it took me a few attempts to get through the first battle – just barely, I might add – it was quite rewarding and I never felt angry or upset that I lost. It felt more like a lesson than a loss, when it did happen.
The Good and The Bad
This game feels, in theme and flow, a lot like the original Diablo and Dragon Age games: you’re pitted in a battle of wits and strength in a timed battle that does nothing to sacrifice a sense of urgency and adrenaline that you would get if it were a real-time battle with easy-access abilities. You’re always free to move at your own pace and in the proper flow of your ability: there are no impending timers that rush you to make your decision. While this means that you’re free to do as you like, when you like, this also means that nothing is left to chance and that every win and loss is your own. This works out well to your advantage as you’re not knee deep in information you won’t need: every card’s skill and use is plainly explained and only requires a little bit of trial and error to understand. Put plainly: you think you grasp it but when you see it in action, you understand it; after that, it’s a matter of adapting it into your current strategy. It’s really that easy to get into. One of the best joys in a game is the one that allows you to enjoy a game right away and gives you the opportunity to scale your skill at it over time. This is one of those games that are incredibly easy to get into but hard to master.
I have a few concerns, though, and most come from the format the game takes: there’s a lot of new feelings that come with this game but it gets the convenience of being made up of parts of old ideas. These parts have been, to some extent, done to death and while they come together in this package quite well it really depends on what direction the development team takes the game from this point forward: this game could develop into something absolutely amazing or this could go way south and the game, in the state I’ve played, is at a crossroads. There’s many mobile games that have taken components and turned them into cash cows and, by proxy, ruined the good fun of the game by turning them into a pay-to-win approach. Another thing that I’m worried about is that even if it does well and it goes places, it could feel like it goes the way of Divinity: Original Sin in that it gets so big and ambitious that it practically loses all direction and feels lost for those not really well-versed in the genre: problem here, is that there’s no real way for anyone to be well-versed as this is a combination of multiple game genres, so it could be very easy for this to happen. It’s hard to say that these are bad things, necessarily, as they’re more like apprehensions I have, but they’re not entirely positive, either.
Where to Go From Here
My sincerest hope for this game is that the developers keep themselves grounded and listen very carefully to player feedback – while this is advisable for almost any developer in the industry it is especially so for those in the position Free Range Games finds themselves in, currently: their game, as presented to me, has a really good concept here and they’ve executed it well. At this point, only refinement and addition is entirely necessary, in my opinion: perhaps throw in some Magic: The Gathering style backstory to give a backdrop to everything that’s happening and maybe a little more art to the cards and that’s about all I can think up. If you tinker too much with the gameplay, at this point, beyond tweaking the balancing, you risk breaking it and it’s at a sensitive point right now and it should be left right as it is. It’s challenging but it’s not unfair. The learning curve is a little steep but it’s not without reward. All it really needs, at this point, is a little immersion that would draw someone into the game even further without even doing much.
If Free Range Games has gotten this far and done this much without much interaction with the fans – I can only assume as, honestly, I don’t have much prior experience with this developer – I trust that they will do well in the future. I just hope they don’t fix what isn’t broken, like so many big house developers do; they just need to take what they currently have and refine it, polish it. I enjoyed the game as it is. It would be a shame to see it go anywhere but upwards from here.