Puzzler Essentials: Puzzle Labyrinth

I have a strange relationship with the Nintendo 3DS. I often find myself thinking of it as one of my least favourite gaming systems for numerous reasons… but every so often I’m reminded about the things that make it unique.

Sure, there’s the first-party Nintendo stuff that provides obvious uniqueness, but another aspect of the 3DS that is not discussed nearly as much as it deserves is the amount of interesting, creative and downright weird download-only games buried in the eShop.

Many of these games are published by a company called Circle Entertainment, and they run the gamut from retro-inspired arcade titles to highly creative puzzles and adventures. The subject of today’s piece very much falls into the latter category.

Puzzle Labyrinth is the work of a company called Intense, who has previously made a number of other 3DS-exclusive download-only games, including the unusual PicDun series, which we’ll explore in more detail another time. Intense is a company that has worked on a variety of different game styles over the last few years, but it has shown a particular aptitude for a popular offshoot of the adventure game genre in Japan: the “room escape” game.

For the unfamiliar, the “room escape” subgenre is pretty much what it sounds like: you’re stuck in a room, and you have to escape using only what is already in the room. Sometimes this basic concept is expanded in various ways — Kotaru Uchikoshi’s Zero Escape series combines room escape sequences with visual novel storytelling, for example — but essentially, the genre is about self-contained puzzles designed to get you experimenting, scratching your head and, occasionally, resorting to a walkthrough and wondering exactly how anyone would have discovered this solution for the first time.

Puzzle Labyrinth, as the name suggests, combines the basic idea of room escape with “maze” gameplay. More specifically, the game unfolds from a grid-based first-person perspective similar to a traditional dungeon crawler, requiring you to manually move around each of the self-contained stages in order to interact with the various objects and monsters that make up the puzzle.

The addition of movement to the mix allows for additional elements to be added to the puzzles on top of what the usual fixed perspective of the genre allows for. Some stages, for example, include pitfalls that open and close according to your actions; others might include obstacles that move around in relation to where you are.

There’s a lot of variety in the puzzles throughout Puzzle Labyrinth, and the early stages introduce you to a number of elements that are subsequently reused in different ways throughout the game. For example, one early level shows you that you can plant seeds in a flower bed to produce flowers; another shows that trees often hide objects that can be retrieved with the right inventory item; and plenty of them involve interacting with monsters.

The “monsters” throughout Puzzle Labyrinth aren’t necessarily aggressive, despite encountering them taking you to a self-contained “battle” screen. Some are simply looking for a particular item and will vacate the area if you provide it; others require you to fight them. Even “fights” are puzzle-based, however; simply blindly hacking away generally won’t end well. In one example, you need to use some collected magic items in a specific order; in another, you need to attack and defend in a certain sequence to avoid getting hit.

There’s generally some margin for error and, beyond not knowing what to actually do in a given stage, it’s quite hard to get stuck in an unwinnable situation. That said, it’s a simple matter to restart a stage from the beginning, and the stages themselves are all quite short — at least in the early game — so it’s generally not too much of an issue to get back to where you were to try something different.

Puzzle Labyrinth is nicely presented. The mazes themselves are depicted in an abstract white and grey blocky style, which makes the colourful interactive objects and monsters stand out against this understated backdrop. The monsters look great and animate beautifully through the use of 2D art combined with skeletal rigging, giving them a real feeling of “life” about them. And while there aren’t a lot of different types to encounter, the game mixes them up with each level so you generally won’t be encountering the same kind of creature too often in succession.

Sound, too, is decent, if a little repetitive; the music has something of an “Amiga tracker” feel to it thanks to its use of sampled, synthesised instruments, and the tunes all make use of catchy melodies and driving rhythms to keep things interesting. It would perhaps have been nice to have a bit more variety to both the music and the maze backdrop as the game progresses, but this is a small concern for a game clearly designed to be played in bite-sized bursts rather than binged on.

And yes, this is one thing I particularly like about Puzzle Labyrinth; the fact it’s been designed from the very start to be a “handheld game”. We’re given practically no narrative setup to the whole thing to bog things down — all you need to know is that you’re trapped in a series of increasingly complicated mazes, and you need to get out by solving each floor’s puzzles. From there, each level doesn’t take long to work your way through, particularly in the case of the early stages. Frustration is kept to a minimum by the fact you can unlock up to five new levels at a time, too, meaning if you get particularly stumped by one stage, you can easily head to another one and return to the troublesome one later.

Puzzle Labyrinth probably won’t be to everyone’s taste. Room escape gameplay is something of an acquired taste and occasionally relies on seemingly bizarre, illogical solutions that can only be stumbled across through trying everything. The game doesn’t exclusively rely on this kind of challenge by any means, however — and once you’ve successfully found your way through one stage like this you’ll have a better idea of what to expect in subsequent levels.

Don’t expect anything too deep and meaningful from this game, in other words; what you do get, however, is a series of 60 increasingly complex, highly creative logic puzzles presented in an unconventional, interesting and entertaining manner. It’s a great game to have loaded on your SD card for when you feel like teasing your brain rather than your reflexes — and just one of many examples of the fascinating games no-one talks about that are buried in the depths of the 3DS’ eShop.

More about Puzzle Labyrinth

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