Review by Synesthesian

"Big, tough, nasty."

Back when I was nine or ten, I had the book ‘Deathtrap Dungeon’ by Ian Livingstone. Never finished it (I played gamebooks by the rules, strangely enough, and DD was a tough one). Years later Ian Livingstone set up a little UK video game publishing house called Eidos, and a bunch of ex-Games Workshop designers and artists let loose upon a video game version of the story. Their goal – the biggest, baddest game ever made.

Contrary to public opinion, work on Deathtrap Dungeon was begun before Core began work on Tomb Raider. The two teams took similar inspiration – the power on modern machines to produce a 3D 3rd person action game – and produced two very different games. DD shares very few similarities with TR – core gameplay is different, camera style is different, controls are biased toward different aims, and atmosphere has been produced with different goals in mind. To say that DD is a Tomb Raider clone is, in my opinion, ignorant. So there.

Deathtrap Dungeon’s gameplay has two main points of focus – combat (both hand-to-hand and ranged) and deathtraps. Levels are designed with the sole aim of challenging the player. While save points are well placed and mostly reusable, practically everything else in the game is designed to kill the player. Instant death situations are many, and combat is lethal for the unskilled. My first play reached the fourth level (of forty) before my character was bleeding from every pore. I honestly thought that my money had been wasted upon a rabidly frustrating game.

Luckily, I was wrong. I was forced to adapt my play to a guerrilla, hit and run style, with many re-saves per level (sadly hindered by the insufferable ability to save only once per memory card – much card switching ensued). I learned how to maximise the effectiveness of the vast amount of equipment my character found to use – hand-to-hand combat for single opponents, destructive spells for multiple foes, long range weaponry against the more lethal monsters, War Pigs saved for the dragon at the end. I scrimped and saved for every health point I could get. A single level could take me hours of testing and refining to play. The game often went back to my shelf while I played other games to relax. My campaign to complete DD was one of war.

As I progressed, I became genuinely impressed by the sheer variety the game offered. Not only does it feature nearly fifty different styles of enemy (only a few of which are ugly enough for me to consider their design to be poor), but the set pieces are incredibly numerous and varied. An early level releases some angry snake women upon the player, in an area characterised by large ceiling-high crushing devices that trigger randomly. “Well,” I thought, as I lured a hissing snakestress beneath one of them and watched it pulverise her scaly body – “I’ll being seeing more of these.” But they only occurred once in the entire game. The series of levels leading to combat with a sprightly but most evil fire demon chap featured one area populated by two T-Rex and a whole array of traps, flamethrowers, portcullises and levels. This area engaged the player in trapping and toasting the ravenous beasts upon the dungeon’s own traps. That I stood upon a balcony and shot them both with my blunderbuss merely demonstrates the freedom this game lent the player in defeating its challenges (and, yes, my cowardice).

The whole game is punctuated by these imaginative devices, game tools, traps and set pieces. Pretty much every level has more than one feature which is new and interesting. The game never lets the player slip into a meditational rut of going through the motions – instead choosing to prod and poke the player each time they feel complacent.

That the graphics are rough around the edges, that some sound effects are quite coarse and grating (though the sound pleased me for the most part, being a genuine aid to an already impressive sense of dank atmosphere), that loading times are a little long, that there are no in-game story elements whatsoever – these things failed to matter as I charged the rat-man trenches with my mortar, used huge flame launchers to down a massive purple dragon, rode upon giant turtles between towers built upon the sheer walls of a black-bottomed pit, fled from dinosaurs, pushed skeletons off of cliffs… and so on. Once the Deathtrap Dungeon player is hooked into the stiff challenge and adapts to it, the rewards are immense. I am convinced that the general dislike of this game by players is wholly due to it being of a game style they do not care for and it being so very demanding and unforgiving.

I’m convinced that the majority of DD’s detractors have played less than a quarter of the game. Even in this they should have recognised the variety it presented. Sadly, no.

My only true disappointment with Deathtrap Dungeon was the ending, which, after such a battle (literally months of play, perhaps eighty hours in total) came as a big let down. But to this day DD lives on in my mind as ‘that bloody game I finally beat’ – one of the ten most satisfying video game experiences of my life.


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 11/07/01, Updated 11/07/01


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