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RPG Codex Review: Labyrinth of Touhou 1 and 2
Review - posted by Crooked Bee on Thu 21 September 2017, 14:30:06Tags: Labyrinth of Touhou; Labyrinth of Touhou 2
[Review by Suicidal]
The last several years have certainly been an interesting time for RPGs. Between the advent of games funded with Kickstarter, successful indie titles popping seemingly out of nowhere, some games finally being released after many years of development and revitalizations of long forgotten franchises it looks like the market now has enough new games to satisfy every type of RPG fan. Of course, not all of those games were good and some were massive disappointments for a lot of people, but compared to the dark times of the great CRPG drought, RPG fans are a lot better off now.
But never could I have imagined that some of my favorite games of recent memory would come from a tiny team of amateur game developers from Japan – a couple of turn-based dungeon crawler RPGs with hideous graphics and ghetto-tier production values, but with a level of depth and complexity in their systems and encounter design that I don’t often see. They quenched my thirst for a truly challenging combat-focused RPG that has built up over many years – something that no other game I’ve played recently managed to accomplish.
They’re called Labyrinth of Touhou 1 and 2. They were released in 2009 and 2013 respectively, but only in Japan. Luckily, some kind folks decided to fix this problem and made unofficial English translations so that the rest of the world could give these games a try as well. And if not for some local forum threads I probably wouldn’t have ever found out about them.
So what the hell are these games anyway? Are they even good? Should I bother trying them out? I’ll answer these questions the best I can. Since these two games are nearly identical to each other, this review is going to be dedicated to the entire series. My familiarity with it actually started from the sequel and out of the two, I think it’s the better game by far and should be played first. However, let’s start this story from the beginning.
Be warned, however - these games are definitely not for everyone and can be difficult to get into if you don’t have the right mindset. If you’re the type of person who refuses to play games with terrible graphics; if you consider the invention of anime art style to be one of humankind’s biggest atrocities; if you think that combat in RPGs should only serve as glue connecting all the other parts of the game, such as story, quests and exploration and not be the main purpose of the game by itself and if you are angered by game worlds that don’t make any logical sense and storytelling that doesn’t take itself even the tiniest bit seriously then I recommend closing this page right now, because you’ll probably hate these games no matter what I say.
These games don’t have good visuals because they don’t need to (and because the developers most definitely couldn’t afford them). They don’t care in the slightest about creating any sort of coherent and believable game world or crafting an engaging story. They are all about numbers and using these numbers to overcome the challenges you are faced with. Now that that’s out of the way, allow me to explain what it is that makes the Labyrinth of Touhou games so interesting.
An RPG for me is running around in a dungeon, killing things
Labyrinth of Touhou and its sequel are turn-based dungeon crawlers, however they are quite a different breed of dungeon crawler compared to games like Wizardry or Might & Magic. I think it would be more accurate to say that they are a combination of a dungeon crawler and a turn-based tactical combat game.
Without a doubt, the core gameplay of LoT resembles a typical dungeon crawler – you assemble your party in a town and then enter the dungeon to live out your deep dark fantasies. You explore the place, fight enemies, solve puzzles, gain experience, level up your characters and find loot that lets you fight bigger enemies and find better loot. Your goal is to get to the bottom of the dungeon, where the strongest enemies and the best loot await. In this respect the game is quite similar to dungeon crawlers like e.g. Wizardry 5 that take place almost entirely in one gigantic dungeon without any need to travel to other locations.
The dungeon exploration is grid-based, but unlike most other dungeon crawlers of this kind, it happens from an isometric perspective. The dungeon is represented by a yellowish grid you move around on and gradually map out. There are some minor graphical details indicating the type of location you’re in.
This is what exploration looks like. The trees on the sides mean we’re currently in a forest.
Needless to say, visually it is very unimpressive and lacks the charm and atmosphere of 3D first person exploration found in other dungeon crawlers and may definitely be off-putting for fans of the genre. However, the main strengths of LoT lie not in its dungeon exploration, but rather in some of the best combat I’ve ever in an RPG, and trust me - combat is something you will be doing a lot in this game.
LoT’s combat system is actually very simple, primitive even. It works similarly to most first-person dungeon crawlers. When you encounter something the game switches to a first person view with a row of enemies standing in front of you. Combat is purely turn-based and when one of the combatants gets a turn, they can perform a single action. The turn order is displayed in the following way: every character has a bar that fills in in real time. When a character’s bar fills, that character gets to act and the game pauses until an action is taken.
There is a minor positioning element in combat. Your characters are displayed in a horizontal row on the combat screen. The leftmost character in the row is the one standing closest to the enemies, while the rightmost character is the one furthest away. Certain enemy abilities are only able to target characters standing in specific positions and the closest character is generally the most likely one to be attacked and will take more damage from some abilities. This positioning system is actually quite similar to the one used in Darkest Dungeon, where different abilities can only target specific slots on the battlefield and where party members are also standing from closest to farthest relative to the enemy group.
When your characters get a turn, they can perform one of the following actions: attack, cast a spell, run, concentrate or do a formation change. I don’t think I need to explain the concepts of attacking or running from combat, so let’s focus on the remaining two. Concentration is one of two ways your characters can restore mana in combat, and mana is, of course, used to cast spells. Formation change lets you switch the positions of any two characters in your party – the character performing the formation change can either trade places with someone else or command two other characters to do it instead. Believe it or not this is actually extremely important and is the basis on which the game’s combat works, so we’ll come back to it in a few moments.
Another thing to note is that the combat in LoT is influenced by randomness a lot less than in many other dungeon crawlers. There are no critical hits, the damage spread is miniscule and if an enemy has a spell that afflicts your characters with a status effect, if you don’t have any resistance to that effect then it will most likely land. It’s not a deterministic system by any means, but when you die in this game it usually happens because you messed up and not because you rolled snake eyes 5 times in a row.
The combat looks very simple at first glance
So as you can see, the combat system in this game is actually quite basic. So how the hell can combat that is using this system be in any way interesting or tactical? What makes the combat in this game truly unique is not the combat system itself, but rather, the way it works together with the game’s unorthodox approach to party building and encounter design.
Bringing an army into the dungeon
Unlike most dungeon crawlers that let you create your own party from scratch, picking your characters’ classes, attributes and abilities as you see fit, in LoT you build your party from a selection of pre-made characters. This is where my earlier comparison with a turn-based tactical game comes in, as the characters here are more akin to “units” in a tactical game rather than adventurers in a dungeon crawler. Each character in LoT is completely unique, with different strengths, weaknesses, abilities and distinct combat roles, be it nullifying damage, assassinating priority targets or weakening the enemy.
One of the main challenges the player faces is creating a party for each unique combat encounter, which requires getting familiar with strengths and weaknesses of each party member, coming up with strategies that amplify the former and minimize the latter and figuring out who works better with what.
But let’s talk about the characters – there’s a lot of them, a whole 40 actually, although some are only available in the post-game. However, you start with only 5: a versatile supportive spell caster; a mage specializing in only one damage element; a durable warrior that has a self-strengthening spell with negative side effects; a supportive physical attacker with the ability to stop time (which is sadly not as useful as it seems because it affects her allies as well) and another mage with a variety of powerful spells but the worst defensive stats in the game. While exploring the dungeon you will encounter other characters, who end up joining your cause – some join immediately, some ask you to do a small quest (that usually involves bringing them an item you find elsewhere, or killing a certain monster), some will attack your party and join after you defeat them.
Ironically, one of the most eager characters has one of the most annoying recruitment quests
So apart from finding loot and gaining experience, dungeon exploration is rewarded with new party members, which open up new tactics and synergies you can exploit when organizing your party. For example, the aforementioned warrior can be paired up with a character that can remove status afflictions to negate the side effects of her self-buff and your mages really benefit from having an ally that can quickly boost their damage or reduce the enemy’s magic defense. This, however, means that the game has a bit of a slow start – there aren’t that many tactical decisions you can make with your starting 5 characters, however once you acquire enough characters to build a full party of 12, the fun really starts.
Yes, the game’s maximum party size is actually 12 characters. Right now you may be wondering how that works since the interface in the screenshots clearly shows only 4 faces. Well, here’s how. Even though the size of your party can go up to 12, only 4 characters can participate in combat at any given time, while the other 8 stay in reserve. Active characters can perform various combat actions described above, while reserve characters slowly regenerate health and mana and cannot be affected by most abilities. To bring a character from reserve into combat and vice a versa, one of the active characters must use the formation change command to make an active character switch places with someone in reserve.
The dirty dozen
Mindful use of formation switching is one of the key skills you need to succeed at combat in LoT for a few reasons. Firstly, all of your characters are actually quite weak and ensuring their survival is not easy – your armored frontline warrior WILL die to a strong magic attack, your squishy mage WILL die to an arrow to the head and your tank that specializes in mitigating damage WILL die to a defense-piercing ability.
Secondly, the game has no consumables and no way to revive fallen characters in combat, something I really appreciate, because being able to hook your party members up to a nearly limitless potion life support just kills the challenge in so many games, especially Japanese RPGs. In LoT healing spells are few in number and are quite costly or have other drawbacks and require putting your healers in harm’s way.
Lastly, you will be fighting a lot of powerful enemies that will assault you with all manner of nasty abilities and these battles can be very long. As a result, anticipating, preventing and negating the enemy’s actions through skillful formation changes and ability usage is extremely important in LoT, because losing the wrong character at the wrong time can lead to failure later down the road in a particular battle.
Another important thing to note is that all abilities have not only different mana costs, but also “time costs”, meaning that some abilities will delay a character’s next turn more than others. For example, using a powerful party-wide buff may delay the caster’s next turn for twice as long compared to a simple magic attack. Turn order management is another thing you will need to get good at, because knowing when it’s safe to use an ability or bring in a certain character into combat can mean the difference between victory and death. The simplest example of this would be bringing out one of your damage dealing characters to the front line, but then being unable to hide them before the enemy gets its turn and kills them.
These elements make the combat in the game highly tactical despite the relative simplicity of the underlying systems. You won’t get very far in LoT by just spamming the abilities with the highest numbers and you will actually need to keep track of a lot of variables, think a few steps ahead and consider your options carefully, and every mistake you make can result in the untimely demise of your party.
Increasing your numbers, the core of every RPG experience
Like in any RPG, as you go deeper into the dungeon your characters gain experience and find items they can use to become stronger. LoT’s character development options complement the game’s already impressive party building mechanics by giving you a good amount of control over the stats of each of your characters, while at the same time avoiding the power creep that plagues so many RPGs.
Leveling in LoT works in the following way: when you kill enemies all of your characters, even the ones you didn’t bring to the dungeon, gain the same amount of experience. Since the game requires you to constantly use different party members depending on the situation, this is a very welcome feature. When your characters gain enough experience, you can level them up in town.
When you level up a character, all of their stats increase and they also gain a single point you can spend on any stat you want. Since the game consists mostly of combat, all of the things you can upgrade are directly related with your ability to fight. Among the things you can improve are several combat statistics and the 3 resources your characters use while adventuring – health, mana and TP. TP is something akin to stamina – it depletes after each battle depending on how much health a character had left at the end. When a character runs out of TP, they leave the party for the remainder of the run. Fleeing from battles also drains TP, so running too many times in order to get to a difficult encounter deeper in the dungeon can result in you losing half your party along the way. You can also recover mana at the cost of TP in-between battles. Furthermore, TP is used for formation changing and if a character runs out of TP in the middle of combat, you will not be able to make them switch positions. Lastly, TP is used for certain abilities, although they are very few in number.
The other stats you can upgrade include attack and magic, which increase the damage of your abilities, defense and mind, which make your characters take less damage, speed, which makes your characters act more quickly and frequently, evasion, which doesn’t even work in the latest version, and 6 elemental resistances.
Leveling up is not the only way to upgrade your characters’ stats. You also gain skill points for killing monsters, looting chests and selling items. You can’t buy items in this game so the skill points are essentially your currency. You can spend these points in town to “buy” stats for each character. There is no limit to how much you can improve a character’s stats, but every subsequent improvement costs more and the speed at which the cost ramps up also depends on the character. Say, you decide to put all your skill points into improving the magic power of one of your mages. At some point buying even a single additional point of magic power is going to cost you more than significantly powering up a character you haven’t used before. This further encourages the player to distribute resources among their entire “army”, rather than focusing only on a small number of characters and attempting to brute force the entire game by having an overpowered “main party”.
Skill points are essentially your currency, making this one of the rare RPGs where money is always useful
Your characters gain no new abilities as they level up. All characters in LoT can do the exact same things at level 1 and level 100. While this eliminates some of the thrill that leveling up brings in an RPG, I quite like this design decision. RPGs tend to have a massive drop in difficulty at some point in the game due to the player having access to a lot of powerful abilities at any given time. To use some recent examples, Lords of Xulima stopped being challenging as soon as my priest learned the Mass Regeneration spell and Divinity: Original Sin stopped being challenging as soon as my party had several stun spells available. LoT avoids this pitfall by giving you access to stuff like mass healing and time stop from the start and balances its challenges around that fact. You gain access to new abilities by acquiring new characters, which increase the number of possible party compositions. However the characters that join your party will not be stronger than what you already have - they will be different. They can be better at some things, but they will be worse at others. So instead of going constantly upwards, your party’s combat capabilities are instead enhanced by an increasing number of situational abilities. This allows the game to remain challenging from start to finish.
Nevertheless, your characters still get stronger, because most abilities in the game scale with stats. The way offensive abilities scale is quite interesting. Each ability has a different damage modifier, meaning that some abilities will benefit from your characters’ attack or magic power more than others. But abilities are also influenced differently by their targets’ defensive stats. For example, some abilities benefit greatly from offensive stats but are practically nullified by the enemy’s defense or mind. On the contrary, someone with a defense-piercing ability will easily cut through enemy armor, but will do inferior damage against most other targets. The game’s character building system lets you play around with these scaling abilities to your heart’s content and do fun things, like killing a sturdy enemy with a few attacks through a combination of stat purchases, equipment and stacking multiple buffs and debuffs.
It would have been better if they just showed the actual numbers
Speaking of equipment, this game has an item system, but it’s very simple. Each character has 3 equipment slots that can be filled with any 3 items that grant various bonuses. The items in LoT are generally very powerful – they can double a character’s damage potential or make them nearly impervious to spells of a certain element. The game has a lot of unique items and considering that you have to equip 12 characters, deciding on who gets which items and why is very important. For example, somewhere around mid-game you will come across an item that grants huge bonuses to magic power, mana pool, mana regeneration and defense against mystic damage. Obviously, the prime candidate to wield this item would be one of your damage-dealing mages. However, there were times when I found it more useful to give this item to a support character so that they could cast a protection spell more times before needing to recover mana, even though I was losing out on the damage bonus. Sometimes it might even make sense to give this item to a frontline tank – the mystic resistance could help them survive the enemy’s magic attacks, and since tanks generally have a very small mana pool, the huge increase in mana could give them a chance to use their utility spells more frequently. Once again, despite the simplicity of the item system, I still had to think a lot about properly utilizing my growing collection of treasures and I treated each new item as boon, rather than something to put into the stash and forget it ever existed.
Still, even though LoT’s character development and customization offers plenty of ways to improve your combatants and it all feels very straightforward and organic, the game locks your characters into their pre-defined roles and there is little you can do to change that. Sure, you can fine tune your characters in order to beat a certain enemy by playing around with their stats and resistances, but you won’t achieve any major shifts in their performance. You won’t be able to make one of the slowest characters in the game out-speed a fast one without blowing all of your skill points on their speed, and wasting resources on making suboptimal builds is the last thing you want to do in LoT. As a result, while building and customizing your party is indeed very fun and thought-provoking, customizing individual characters is not, because you will most likely just focus on the things those characters are best at, with occasional tweaking if the situation demands.
A worthy opponent
A great variety of characters, abilities and party compositions is all well and good, but what does any of this matter if the game is not challenging enough to warrant digging around in its systems? Let me assure you that this game is anything but easy. It’s finally time to talk about the area, in which LoT goes above and beyond most other games in the genre – the encounter design.
If a game like, say, Divinity: Original Sin gives the player a whole bunch of powerful tools but doesn’t bother giving the enemies anything to compensate, so it ends up being as challenging as shooting ducks with an M60, LoT gives you all the fun stuff as well, but then pits you against some of the most infuriating enemies imaginable that will test the limits of your game knowledge and tactical and strategic decision making.
The game has two types of combat encounters. The first are random encounters, which work like any other dungeon crawler. As you run around the dungeon you periodically get accosted by monsters, which are not visible on the map. Random encounters in this game aren’t really challenging and are mainly used to feed your party with experience and skill points. While the variety of different monsters you can encounter is quite substantial and you certainly can die from them, especially late in the game, with a properly built party, most random monsters will drop like flies before even getting a chance to act. The best thing I can say about the random encounters in this game is that they don’t waste too much of your time – they tend to be over really quickly and there is a limit to how often they can occur.
The second type are stationary boss enemies that are visible on the map. Most floors of the dungeon have at least a couple of these. Often, they block the path to the next level or a device you have to activate to open the way. Sometimes, they are completely optional, but will reward you with good loot or new characters for your party, so there’s no reason not to fight them.
Boss encounters in LoT are very challenging and require a significant amount of preparation, from selecting the right characters and giving them the right items to carefully adjusting your party members’ stats to make sure they get to act in the necessary order or have just enough HP to survive an enemy’s spell. If you go in expecting to win without some sort of plan you’ll get slaughtered pretty quickly. Even formulating the plan is only half the battle – you still need to put it into action and the fights themselves can get quite complicated. There are a lot of different bosses in the game – not counting the ones you’re supposed to fight after you’ve beaten the game, there are 35 boss encounters. All of them are unique - you won’t just be fighting slightly stronger versions of the same enemy, or differently colored dragons with differently colored breath attacks. Bosses in LoT will constantly surprise you with new and creative ways to make your day miserable. I'd like to avoid going into detail about these encounters because spoiling the boss fights in LoT is the same as spoiling the plot in Planescape: Torment – figuring all the stuff out by yourself is the reason to play the game in the first place. Let’s just look at one example, which I think perfectly illustrates the way these encounters are designed.
Very early in the game you have to fight a small party of enemies – a puppet master and her 3 puppets – a warrior, a mage and a healer. If you do enough damage to one of the enemies, on its next turn the healer will instantly recover all of their health. The healer itself has pretty high defenses and the warrior and mage will boost them further by casting powerful protection spells. Moreover, if the healer has no one to heal, it will cast debuffs on your characters, significantly inhibiting their ability to do damage. And remember what I said about how easy it is for your characters to get killed in this game? While you’re fighting, the warrior and the mage will bombard your party with powerful attacks and spells, some of which can instantly kill certain characters. And then there’s the boss herself. At the beginning she will only cast weak crowd control spells on your party, but gains increasingly deadly abilities as the fight progresses.
The reason why I like this particular battle is because it works like a final exam for everything you’ve learned up until this point – formation switching, timing your attacks, target prioritization, turn order management, use of buffs, debuffs and status effects – you’ll need all of this if you want to win. The enemies have a very strong defensive formation that may appear impregnable at first glance and figuring out their weaknesses and behavior patterns took a lot of careful consideration. I had to think strategically when deciding on which role each character will perform and distributing items and available resources, as well as tactically during the fight itself, where I was faced with many smaller issues, like putting the right characters to the front at the right time, maintaining my debuffs or status effects on the targets and finding the best moment to attack. Another great thing about this battle is that there are several ways to beat it, depending on which order you decide to kill the enemies in, and each method has its own advantages and disadvantages. On paper, the fight is quite simple – it’s just a party of 4 simple enemies, nothing we haven’t seen before, but the way it works within the context of the game’s combat and party systems made it one of the most challenging and interesting battles I’ve seen in an RPG in the last several years.
The puppet theater is likely to be the first major roadblock a new player encounters
Sure, occasionally I would encounter relatively simple enemies - big walls of hit points with several abilities and a simple attack pattern – so called “gear check” encounters, which merely tested whether my party was at an adequate level, and sometimes the trash monster slaughter marathon would drag on for a bit too long, but at the end I was rewarded with a new interesting boss battle, and after I beat it I had a craving to plow through a bunch of random encounters to relieve stress.
The process of killing these enemies is based heavily on trial-and-error and experimentation – when you go into a fight not knowing what to expect you will most likely die. But every time you die, you learn more and more about the enemy you are facing, while adjusting your character lineup, their stats and equipment in the process until you finally formulate that perfect plan and kill that enemy, who had been giving you hell for the last hour or two. Since your health is restored after combat at the cost of TP and the dungeon is littered with teleport points, the game expects you to go into these fights with your party fully healed and at peak strength. Unlike many other dungeon crawlers the challenge lies not in getting to the enemy, but rather fighting it.
Expect to see stuff like this a lot. It’s just the game’s way of telling you it loves you and wants you to improve
Another good thing about the boss encounters in LoT is that they don’t require you to grind levels in order to beat them and most, with the exception of the last couple of bosses and post-game encounters, can be fought at the level you bump into them. If you take the time to learn the combat system and the capabilities of your party then you will be able to come up with a strategy for anything without having to rely on superior numbers.
LoT’s boss encounters are definitely among its biggest strengths and their challenge and fun factor are amplified by the game’s unique approach to party management and combat. It’s pretty ironic that a game with such a simple (at least at first glance) system forced me to constantly optimize my party, come up with different strategies and think every combat action through carefully.
I suppose I should say a few words about the aesthetical components of the game. After all, a video game is a sum of all of its parts, no matter how neglected and unimportant some of them are.
As I mentioned before, Labyrinth of Touhou is one of the ugliest games I have ever played, and it has nothing to do with the fact that it was made in Japan and uses anime art style. Other Japanese dungeon crawlers that recently came to PC, such as Stranger of Sword City and Elminage Gothic, have very detailed background and character art and good-looking 3D dungeon environments that enhance the game’s atmosphere.
Of course, LoT is nowhere near those games in terms of visuals. The graphics in this game feel like they were done overnight by one of the developers or by the lowest bidder on whatever the Japanese equivalent of Deviantart is. The only thing I think is done well are the spell animations, which are very varied, flashy but also happen quickly enough to not become a nuisance. However, graphics aren’t everything, and indie RPGs that manage to have both great visuals and gameplay are almost nonexistent. Darkest Dungeon, for example, looks excellent, yet the gameplay suffers from extreme repetition, lack of content and simplistic systems. And out of the two, I’m pretty sure it had the higher budget, but at the same time provided me with much less entertainment.
The game’s setting will also undoubtedly make some people raise their eyebrows. The events take place in a strange fantasy land where gods walk among men and frequently get into bar fights. The character cast consists almost entirely of various monsters, demons, Japanese folklore creatures and godlike beings that happen to look like teenage girls, who run around fighting all manner of creatures, from balls of fur to hideous Lovecraftian monstrosities. Even for me, a person who is no stranger to Japanese RPGs and doesn’t mind anime art, getting into this game was a bit difficult at first – knowing how much the Japanese love oversexualized underage characters and cringy dating games, I was worried I might accidentally stumble upon a graphic scene that would have me put on the FBI watchlist. Fortunately, the games turned out to be quite clean and free from such degeneracy.
The enemy design in LoT is all over the place
If you can’t stand this kind of 4th wall breaking humor, then it’s a good idea to follow this advice
The game also has a pretty good soundtrack with a surprisingly large number of different exploration and combat themes of various genres and styles. It’s nothing special, but it gets the job done, especially compared to many other dungeon crawlers that give you 2-3 short combat loops to listen to for the entire game. There is even an option to switch to an alternative soundtrack in-game if you get bored of the first one.
Underdeveloped features and questionable mechanics
We’ve talked about the good and the ugly of LoT, but what about the bad? As in, the elements of the core gameplay that could have been better or just completely suck. Let’s start with the elephant in the room – the dungeon crawling in this turn-based dungeon crawler is not very good.
A truly good dungeon must provide the player’s party with a place, which they can explore and where they can uncover treasures and secrets and find enemies to fight, but at the same time the dungeon should be a threat to the player as much as any enemy it contains within – it should lure you into traps and ambushes, make you fall through floors, walk in pits of poison, fight in situations where you are severely disadvantaged and drain your ever-dwindling resources. It must make the player feel constantly in danger and consider each move they make carefully lest they want to lose an hour of progress or face permanent consequences. And LoT’s dungeon definitely fails hard at the second part.
I don’t think the dungeon in LoT is terrible – it has a lot of floors and they are rather distinct, with a unique twist to each one, be it limited visibility, confusing layouts or teleport mazes. There are optional areas that are possible to miss. There are occasional puzzles that sometimes span through several floors. Yet all of this is meaningless, because unlike the combat encounters, dungeon exploration in LoT fails to provide the player with adequate challenge and doesn’t require much skill or thought.
The eponymous labyrinth can get pretty labyrinthine sometimes
One of the reasons for this is that your party is always completely safe when exploring the dungeon because your only threats are the combat encounters, which can be dispatched of or escaped from with ease. The boss encounters cannot be escaped from, but are visible on the map, so you will probably not bump into them unprepared. Apart from this, the game does not try to kill you in any other way. There are no traps, no pitfalls, no ways to prevent you from leaving – your trusty “return to town” button will always return you to safety at no cost whatsoever. There is also no resource management, as your health is replenished after battles, your fallen characters just return to town until the next adventure and the only thing stopping you from going further is your TP stat, which you can replenish by returning to town. Because of this, all of the tension you might experience while exploring is completely eliminated.
Moreover, the dungeon is also quite easy to explore. Yes, there are optional places that can be missed, but as long as you keep moving in whatever direction of the map that still has unexplored tiles, you’ll probably find them all. The puzzles you occasionally come across are also pretty simple – usually they just involve running around the level and pushing buttons until the door blocking your patch is opened. Sometimes there is a teleport maze that may require a bit of memorization to get through. There is one exception when the game actually makes you use your party building skills for dungeon exploration in the form of a puzzle that requires you to run around the dungeon for an extended period of time without going to town. It actually required a bit of effort as it is necessary to organize a party capable of surviving the lengthy onslaught of random encounters and plan the shortest possible route to your objective. However that’s about it as far as challenging puzzles in LoT go.
All in all, LoT’s dungeon feels like a bunch of misplaced effort that could have instead gone towards adding more depth to the combat system or character customization. It’s certainly not the most boring place I’ve ever explored in a game, but it doesn’t serve any purpose apart from lengthening the play time and providing your party with a source of experience and loot. Personally, I would have preferred if the game had no dungeon at all and instead let you fight the enemies one after the next while allowing you to level and gear up in between battles.
My second biggest complaint with the game is its tendency to hide information from the player – both in combat and exploration. In a game where knowing your enemy down to the very last detail is so important, this is particularly aggravating. The fault of this lies within the game’s lackluster interface, which is, fortunately, improved in the sequel, and the cryptic way some of the information is presented.
Say, you encounter a new enemy and start fighting it to learn its strengths and weaknesses. Want to know whether its attacks target your characters’ defense or mind? Too bad - the game doesn’t show what kind of damage the enemy does to you and the over-elaborate spell animations certainly don't help. Want to see if the enemy is weak or resistant to a particular damage element? The game doesn’t show that either and there is no in-game bestiary where such information could be found. Remember what I said about the different damage and defense modifiers of every skill? Of course, the game doesn’t show them. Also, there is no way to see your party’s stats and resistances during combat.
Lastly, you can’t see the HP of your enemies. Normally this isn’t a problem in dungeon crawlers, but in LoT you will be facing off against opponents that not only massively grow in power once their HP reaches a certain threshold, but also require you to have a defensive formation set up before this happens in order to survive. Well then why don’t you just count how much damage you’ve dealt? A viable method, sure… unless you’re using poison or the enemy has health regeneration because the game doesn’t display damage or healing over time.
While it’s certainly possible to learn all you need to defeat a boss with this kind of imperfect information through trial and error, a hefty dose of experimentation and an excel spreadsheet, sometimes it really feels like playing chess without being able to see where your opponent’s pieces are. The final boss is particularly obnoxious in this regard. I can guarantee you that unless you spend an ungodly amount of time grinding levels it will not be beatable without a guide. The mechanics in that fight are actually quite interesting and complement each other very well but are nearly impossible to figure out because of all the things the game doesn't show you.
Dungeon exploration also has its fair share of confusing and poorly explained events and quests. For example, around the mid game you encounter a party of three characters. Two join your party while the third stays behind and suggests none too subtly that you should return to this location after you’ve progressed further into the dungeon. Sometime later you return to the same spot and fight a boss, which also joins your party. However, the event marker still remains in the exact same place, meaning that there’s more to that quest. This time, however, you are given no clue about what you should do next and there is no quest log to consult. You have to progress a bit further into the dungeon, and then return to this spot once more. But that’s not all – you also need to have a certain amount of battle points on specific characters, and this brings us to one more thing I really hate – the battle point system, the dumbest and most unnecessary “feature” in the game.
Basically, every character in your active party gains battle points every time you win a battle. You also gain a reduced amount for fleeing. Moreover, characters, who finish the battle in the active row, gain more points than the rest. Having a certain amount of these points on specific characters is required to trigger certain quest events that usually lead to recruiting new characters. Does the game tell you how many of these battle points you need to have on which characters? Of course not - it doesn’t even tell you that these points exist in the first place! That’s right - there is zero mention of this number anywhere within the game. The only way to know about it is to use a guide. I can’t even fathom why the developers would include a mechanic this asinine into the game. Fortunately, the quests that involve this mechanic are few in number. Because of these problems, if you decide to give this game a shot, I strongly recommend using a guide for exploring the dungeon to make sure you don’t miss any obscure events and checking enemy stats.
There are a few more things I’d like to mention. While the game does a pretty good job at minimizing the need to grind levels, there are a few places where it becomes unavoidable. Maybe, if you are a very patient person who enjoys crushing every single trash monster beneath his or her heel, you may be able to beat the entire game without stopping to grind once. I am not one of those people, so I was best friends with the “run from combat” button. For most of the game, I got by just fine. However, I was severely underleveled for the last several bosses and couldn’t even survive the start of the fight. Also, if you’re thinking of doing any optional content that comes after you beat the final boss (and there’s a lot of said content) then be prepared to grind like you’ve never ground before. The level requirements for optional bosses can reach absurd heights. Most of them you can’t even fight until you’ve completed specific objectives that also involve grinding.
Lastly, the game is quite buggy. Here’s the “best” one - the evasion and accuracy stats don’t work at all and this eliminates a portion of the combat mechanics. Apparently, they work in some versions of the game, but not in others. I was playing the final version and they weren’t working there, so the developers have pretty weird ideas about how patches are supposed to work. There are also a lot more minor bugs, like spell descriptions not matching the actual effects of the spell, damage numbers displaying incorrectly and crashes that can happen under certain conditions. Also, the game’s only options menu takes the form of a separate file, where you can change some settings, like audio volume and animation speed, but it didn’t work for me and none of the changes I’ve made actually carried over into the game. Fortunately, there don’t seem to be any game-breaking bugs that mess up quest scripts and prevent you from finishing the game.
Labyrinth of Touhou 2, or how to make a sequel the right way
Labyrinth of Touhou was definitely an unusual game, combining shoddy, amateurish production values and some really baffling design decisions with very interesting gameplay mechanics and the kind of challenging combat encounters I don’t see very often. It was a game that excelled at a couple of things only, but it did those things well enough to make me tolerate its otherwise numerous flaws.
In one game, LoT managed to combine very casual design elements – lack of resource management in dungeon exploration, absence of any sort of permanent consequences and inability to actually lose the game – with some pretty hardcore ones, namely the combat and encounter design that required a significant amount of effort and mercilessly punished every bad decision I made. This resulted in the game being very easy to pick up and play for a few hours after a long day at work, while the boss encounters made for some interesting number crunching and strategizing sessions when I was feeling up to the challenge.
It felt like I was playing the result of somebody’s weird experiment, a rather unique game wrapped in the familiar trappings of the turn-based dungeon crawler. And apparently there were enough people that liked this experiment to warrant a sequel. Labyrinth of Touhou 2 was released in 2013 and translated into English on the following year. This game also happened to be my first encounter with the series and out of the two, I think it is the superior game by far. I’d love to talk about in great detail, but there is no need - LoT2 has the exact same gameplay style and mechanics as its predecessor. Both games involve a huge cast of pre-made characters, 12-man parties, difficult turn-based combat against powerful enemies and a long-ass dungeon you need to crawl through.
However, LoT2 is what I would consider an example of an excellent sequel. Instead of adding unnecessary features, reducing the amount of content or trying to make the game accessible for a broader audience the developers just built upon the game’s main strengths and ironed out some of the flaws. Obviously, not everything that was wrong with the first game was fixed, but the improvements were numerous and substantial and the result was one of the best games I’ve played in the last several years.
A fair bit of depth and variety was added to the combat through the addition of new status effects, damage types, interesting skills with numerous tactical applications, passive effects as well as distinctions between different enemy types. Also, accuracy and evasion work properly now, which opens a new dimension in combat, since now you actually have to deal with some abilities having really low accuracy and some enemies being highly evasive.
The sequel followed in the original’s footsteps by providing the player with an impressive number of recruitable party members and went even further. The number of characters was increased to 48 with the addition of some pretty interesting party members, such as a character who becomes stronger from being affected by debuffs and negative status effects or a character that possesses no spells of her own, but can replicate any spell cast by an ally.
The dungeon exploration was improved, or rather – made less tedious. Dungeon floors don’t drag on as much and there are fewer places where you’re going to be wandering around for an hour without a boss battle in sight. The dungeons are now simpler, the puzzles are less frequent and obnoxious and there are fewer floors where you fight nothing but random encounters. Furthermore, dying no longer forces you to reload a save and just takes you back to town, which is a nice time saver. You may call this dumbing down, but remember – the exploration part of LoT is pretty weak anyway, so making it waste less of the player’s time is a positive change in my book. The less time I have to spend wandering around before I encounter an interesting enemy, the better.
There is also a new twist in the way the boss encounters work. Every static encounter on the map now has a visible level. Going into this encounter with your party’s average level at or below the enemy’s level will grant you extra rewards for winning. I found it to be a nice additional incentive to fight the enemies at the proper level. For people with poor self-control there is a hard mode that forbids you from fighting the bosses while overleveled. The game gives you the option to reduce your level in town for this purpose – don’t worry, your experience will not disappear and you can set your character’s level back to normal at any time. There is also a new type of encounter – wandering bosses, a feature copied shamelessly down to the way those enemies are called, from Etrian Odyssey, a somewhat popular dungeon crawler series on Nintendo DS. These move around the map and can start chasing you if you get too close and you may actually need to run from them because fighting them unprepared is not a good idea.
All of the pre-encounter dialogue in LoT boiled down to its simplest form
LoT2 is also a lot lighter on the grind than its predecessor. First of all, killing the random encounters in this game takes even less time than in LoT1, so gaining experience is easier. Secondly, it takes less experience to level up your characters. Lastly, the level requirements for fighting the late game bosses don’t go as high as they did in the first game. The need to grind levels is almost non-existent in LoT2 and it’s highly unlikely that you will encounter a new boss while being severely underleveled. Even if you are underleveled, almost all of the enemies in the game will still be beatable, because just like in its predecessor, a good party composition and proper tactics trump having a level advantage in LoT2.
More features have also been added to the town. You can buy equipment now. There’s also crafting, because, after all, this is an RPG made in the 2010s, of course it’s going to have crafting in it! Sadly, the crafting system offers nothing interesting besides another way to buy equipment, except instead of money you exchange 5 discarded condoms and 2 unicorn livers for a new item. There is only one time crafting actually forces you to make a meaningful decision – late in the game you acquire a single ingredient that you can use to build one of two very powerful items. There is also a building where you can see the bestiary of enemies you’ve encountered, their stats and possible item drops, a very welcome addition, because in the first game you’re always kept in the dark about all of these things.
LoT2 also does a much better job at providing information to the player. Finally, essential things, like enemy health, elemental weaknesses and status effect durations are visible in the game’s interface, so you spend more time making informed tactical decisions and less time counting numbers in your head and making random guesses. There are also in-game explanations of the mechanics, such as character positioning and formation changes as well as a short in-game manual.
However, the biggest and most important improvement was made to the party building aspect. In LoT1 there wasn’t much you could do with character builds or specializations – each character had a very specific role and the best you could do was fine tune one or another stat depending on the situation, whether it was making your characters more resistant to a certain element or boosting someone’s speed so that they could act first in combat. The game was more about customizing your party as a whole, rather than individual characters.
LoT2 gives you much greater control over the builds of your individual party members. Leveling up, allocating stat points and “buying” stats are still here, except now stat purchases provide more substantial bonuses and offer more freedom in specializing your characters even outside their intended roles.
In LoT2 every character also has learnable skills. You gain skill points each level and use them to purchase different skills, ranging from simple stat increases to various improvements to a character’s core abilities to some extremely powerful stuff, like the ability to avoid death, bypass enemy immunities or attack several times per turn. All of the game’s 48 characters have their own unique skill sets – some are very straightforward with obvious “must pick” skills, while others give you more incentive to experiment. You probably won’t be able to completely max out every character’s skills in a single playthrough, so decisions on which skills to invest in first and which to forego completely will have to be made.
The perfect skill for you if you feel this game lacks RNG
That’s not all – every character can also be assigned one of 14 classes that you unlock as you progress further into the game. Each class grants the character bonus stats and a small additional skill set, which can create interesting synergies with the character’s already existing skills. Some classes simply provide all-around stat improvements and passive abilities, while others grant unique skills, like the ability to transfer mana between characters or significantly empower an ally’s next attack.
The class name sounds like something you would write on the character sheet to troll your dungeon master
The equipment variety has also been improved significantly. Items in the first LoT offered simple stat increases and little else, while in the sequel you will find gear that allows your party to inflict status effects on the enemy, score critical hits or gain huge bonuses to one stat at the cost of another. This opens up more party building strategies - for example, you can equip your characters with items that add a poison effect to their abilities instead of bringing a dedicated poisoner to a fight, or give your attacker an item that increases damage if the wielder is unhurt if you know that the enemy will be unable to target that character.
Finally, in your adventures you will come across gems that can be used to permanently increase your party members’ stats, as well as skill books that can be used to unlock different passive skills, ones that a character may not possess by default. These items are finite, so cleverly distributing them among your party can give you a great advantage in combat, especially considering that there are characters that benefit massively from certain stats.
What all of this means is that in LoT2 the amount of stuff you can do in terms of building your party and individual characters is truly staggering. Between 48 unique characters, 14 classes, different gear, learnable skills and upgradable stats, there are dozens of viable strategies and party combinations for every combat encounter in the game. Without a doubt, LoT2 is far superior to its predecessor in this regard. But that’s not all – I think LoT2’s party building system is much deeper and more interesting than in many other RPGs. It was the first game I’ve played in years that not only gave me a massive box of tools to play with, but also pitted me against enemies that forced me to learn all the different ways I could use those tools.
LoT2 really rewards creative thinking. For example, there are several enemies in the game with sky-high defensive stats and good resistances to negative effects. The obvious strategy is to pick your strongest damage dealers and buff up their offense until they are able to damage the enemy. Or you can bring a few party members that have defense-piercing skills. Or bring someone, who can use poison and try to afflict the enemy with it once and then extend its duration with another spell until the enemy dies. There were very difficult battles against groups of strong enemies that I won with a very aggressive party composition that focused on doing as much damage as possible during the first few moments of the fight. Alternatively, I could have won those fights with defensive builds or control-heavy builds that could render some of the enemies ineffective for extended periods of time.
There were times where I used different characters for a purpose they were not meant for, like using an offensive mage in place of a tank or using support characters to deal damage. Some characters, for example, can be unexpectedly useful thanks a single passive ability that can turn the tides in a particular encounter. With a proper build many characters in LoT2 are able to fulfill several roles and there are even viable single-character strategies for some encounters. There are still quite a lot of limits to what you can do and some characters will always be better at some things than others, but now there’s certainly a lot more flexibility in what your characters can do with the right amount of encouragement. It’s a real shame that RPGs with this kind of flexibility in party building are so rare.
To incentivize experimentation with building your party, the developers added the ability to freely reassign character stats and even completely reset and refund all resources spent on improving a party member so you could try something else if your original plan didn’t work, although the latter requires special items, which you can find in the dungeon. This eliminates the need to constantly save and reload if you want to test different builds and strategies and makes the party preparation part of the game much more convenient.
The party building mechanics in LoT2 brought me many hours of entertainment. Not only because organizing an effective party and experimenting with different combinations of characters, classes and items was fun by itself, but also because the game was challenging enough to warrant me spending hours in the party interface and coming up with different strategies. It’s not easy for a game mostly consisting of combat to remain fun for the entire run, but the LoT games, especially LoT2, managed this through sheer amount, complexity and variety of different combat encounters and party building strategies and the close relationship between these two gameplay aspects. While playing the game, I was constantly finding new characters and trying new things. There were characters that I initially considered useless that later proved instrumental in beating certain parts of the game. There were bosses that made me go over several different strategies before finally finding the one that works. Unlike a lot of other modern RPGs, coming up with a good strategy and correctly applying it to kill a particularly irritating enemy felt very rewarding.
Apart from rampaging monsters and interdimensional cataclysms LoT’s world seems to be facing a literacy crisis, since apparently the ability to read is considered a noteworthy superpower
However, while having this many different party building options in a game is certainly fun for the player, it turns into a balancing nightmare for the developers. This brings us to my main criticism of LoT2 – compared with the original, the game is a fair bit easier. The developers gave the player a much bigger set of tools to use against the game’s challenges, but the difficulty of those challenges wasn’t increased to compensate. Now don’t get me wrong, LoT2 is still chock-full of tough and rage-inducing enemies that require a thoughtful approach to beat. But these enemies don’t really differ in terms of difficulty and complexity to what you could fight in the first game, and with the greatly expanded party and character customization it is now much easier to find a broken party combination that lets you completely breeze through certain encounters. And there are quite many of these broken combinations to be found. I don’t think it’s feasible for a small indie developer team to properly balance this many options, so some classes, characters and skills just work too damn well together. But to the game’s credit, finding and using overpowered builds still takes at least some effort. Because of the huge number of party combinations you can use, you are unlikely to just randomly stumble over an unbalanced build or ability combo and then proceed to kill everything in your path.
I think the developers did a very good job at improving almost every aspect of the original game. They understood what the main strengths of the game were and what they should focus their effort on and which features were not as important and could be scaled down to waste less of the player’s time to get to the good parts. Nowadays, it’s rare to see a sequel that actually goes for more mechanics and more content while keeping the things that made the original great, instead of making changes to the core formula just for the sake of it or trying to attract a new audience that probably won’t care. This is something I would really like to see more of in the future.
The LoT series is definitely what I would call diamonds in the rough, even though I hate this overused definition. More specifically, LoT is the kind of diamond you find in a dumpster, covered in a layer of filth and dried up stains of old dogshit, but if you take this diamond and look at it from the right angle you’ll see how beautifully it shines.
And then the developers took this diamond, cleaned up the filth and scrubbed off the dogshit to the best of their abilities, polished it and fashioned it into a necklace, unfortunately breaking a few pieces off the gem in the process, which resulted in LoT2.
It definitely is not a game for everyone – out of the people who like RPGs it’s already limited to the niche that enjoys turn-based dungeon crawlers, and even within this niche it’s limited further to people who like their dungeon crawlers combat-focused and highly abstract and also don’t mind the anime graphics.
Will you like this game if you enjoy dungeon crawlers mostly for the exploration aspect and want to be immersed into the game’s atmosphere, to feel as if you are wandering around that haunted forest inside the screen, with death lurking around every corner? Probably not. Will you enjoy it if you play RPGs for the setting, writing and plot? Definitely not, and why are you still reading this?
However, if you enjoy killing things with a large party in a turn-based environment without the plot getting in the way; if you enjoy watching your party grow stronger with each victory, while constantly making decisions on which stats or skills to improve and which piece of equipment should go to which party member; if you enjoy fighting enemies that actually pose a challenge and WILL kill you if you go in without a plan or if you use the resources available to you unwisely – then I recommend checking these games out.
For me, the LoT games were something I never knew I wanted until I had it and maybe they will evoke this reaction from you as well. Just don’t expect a traditional dungeon crawler in the veins of Wizardry or Might and Magic. To be honest, I wouldn’t even call them dungeon crawlers, since the actual crawling in these games is rather lackluster, while the combat and party building are the bread and butter.
A word of advice if you do decide to give them a shot – play the second game first, as it has deeper mechanics and more polish and does a much better job at teaching these mechanics to the player. Since there are no story connections between the games and the plot is irrelevant anyway, getting into the first game after playing the sequel will be a much smoother experience.
Unfortunately, these games are not available on Steam by virtue of being indie Japanese games without an official English release. But don’t worry, your good friends at the Codex have got you covered! The local threads on Labyrinth of Touhou 1 and Labyrinth of Touhou 2 contain instructions on downloading the unofficial English-patched versions of the game and buying the original versions if you want to support the developers.