One of the central dilemmas faced in video game development is the eternal question: to innovate or not to innovate? Do you invest significant time and resources into experimental gameplay mechanics that could end up either a triumph or disaster? Or do you focus on iteration, polishing up familiar staples into competent (albeit all too familiar) diamonds? This is particularly true for the dungeon crawler: experiment with the familiar genre tropes and risk alienating long-term fans to bring in new ones, or provide more of the same? Aside from distinctive art direction, Labyrinth of Zangetsu opts for the latter, for better and for worse.
Developed by ACQUIRE and KaeruPanda, Labyrinth of Zangetsu finds the feudal Japan-inspired city of Ido overrun by a mysterious black ink, an existentially terrifying evil threatening to envelop and destroy the city for ever. You are tasked with leading a party of characters, both premade and player-created, through a nightmarish labyrinth, increasing in death and danger as you progress. It’s a standard dark fantasy story, neither gripping nor off-putting. What players will first notice, however, is how Zangetsu looks.
It is impossible to talk about this game without mentioning its distinctive art style. Inspired by sumi-e ink brush painting, the dungeons are rendered in gloomy black and white, adding to the oppressive and almost nauseating atmosphere. This is an inspired choice – subverting expectations by depicting a beautiful traditional art style as a corrupted and malignant force helps to flesh out the game’s world. Not many games are this successful in synergising different elements of a game’s presentation to achieve a cohesive effect. Enemies are largely yōkai, supernatural creatures drawn from Japanese mythology and folklore. For a game with such accomplished art direction, the enemy design feels a little dull. They’re far from bad, but with such a rich well of mythology to work with, they aren’t quite as impressive as other games with the same inspiration.
While Zangetsu innovates aesthetically, mechanically it plays like a standard dungeon crawler. Your party members can be customised through both species and class, allowing you to experiment and discover ideal builds through good old-fashioned trial and error. Classes are generally fairly self-explanatory: Samurai are powerful physical attackers best suited for your front line, while a Thief works best on the back line, skilled in both ranged attacks and disarming and opening treasure chests. For fans of the genre, this will be a familiar and comfortable gameplay loop; if that’s not you, you might find the experience repetitive and a little dull.
When it comes to anti-frustration features, a common obstacle for people looking to get into dungeon crawlers, Zangetsu has a lot to be commended on. The difficulty is well-balanced, slowly ramping up as players venture deeper into the ink brush dungeons. For experienced veterans, there’s a hard difficulty that’ll provide you with a real challenge. The lack of random encounters is particularly welcome, which at this point should be near mandatory. Not only does it take away so much frustration, it allows players more opportunity to strategise and experiment with different builds, without fear of a random encounter taking your party out through a lack of preparation.
Nevertheless, that’s not to say this game is without annoying features. Many basic actions require the player to hold down buttons for a second as opposed to a simple button press. This might make sense if the action in question was something significant that a player wouldn’t want to take accidentally with a mistaken button press. However, there is no reason why basic interactions in-game require this, and over the course of the game it becomes deeply irritating.
Your enjoyment of Labyrinth of Zangetsu will largely depend on how you feel about dungeon crawlers as a whole: despite its fascinating aesthetics, at its core this game is a very familiar experience. If you’re not already a fan of the genre, this probably won’t be a particularly enjoyable use of your time. However, if you’re looking for your next dungeon crawler fix, you could do much worse than Labyrinth of Zangetsu.