Growing up in the '90s, Record of Lodoss War was that anime with the intriguing name that nevertheless sat collecting dust on the shelf at Suncoast Video. What was a Lodoss War? The only person who knew was that one guy who had read the novels (of course there were novels) and was prepared to explain them to you in great detail.
I know now that Record of Lodoss War is basically just Dungeons & Dragons, but in anime form. It began in the mid-80s as a series of popular first edition D&D campaigns that were adapted into a handful of fantasy novels, and then a bestselling tabletop game. It’s since become a sprawling multimedia series featuring anime, comics, dungeon crawlers, and now, 35 years in, a Metroidvania.
Developed by Team Ladybug, a tiny Japanese indie studio, Record of Lodoss War: Deedlit in Wonder Labyrinth is an action game featuring Deedlit, a high elf who's among the most popular characters in the series. It's been in Early Access for almost a year, and just got a major update on January 18 with its third and fourth stages—an old fortress and a desert-like environment. Like most games of this type, Record of Lodoss War is centered around an ever-expanding map, with progression tied to discovering new abilities that allow you to, say, jump up to a previously inaccessible cliff. But it’s also more linear than similar games like Hollow Knight, with most of its exploration taking place in a contained loop through discrete sections of the map. Each time a boss serves as the bottleneck preventing you from entering the next stage.
Record of Lodoss War’s map is by far its weakest element. While it retains some degree of backtracking, it does so in a way that feels clumsy compared to its peers, leaning on hoary video game tropes like color-coded doors. It reads less as a coherent world and more as a series of loosely-connected stages built around typical fantasy themes.
The pixel art graphics and frequent weapon drops make it easy to compare to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, but Lodoss War’s world simply can’t compare to the majesty of Dracula’s Castle.
What Record of Lodoss War does offer is a gorgeous aesthetic. There are all kinds of little flourishes I appreciate, like a barely conscious Deedlit lifting herself from the ground in one smooth movement, or a shopkeeper gently pulling open his satchel to reveal his wares. Boss creatures are likewise huge and gorgeously animated—particularly the towering water serpent that you encounter at the end of the first stage, which bursts out of pools at either end of the room in a shower of pixelated droplets to spray a devastating deluge at Deedlit. Even though the environment themes don’t stand out in any particular way, Record of Lodoss is a beautiful game.
It’s really the artwork that keeps bringing me back to Record of Lodoss War, as it’s a throwback to the sprite-based 32-bit console games that I loved so much. That, and Deedlit herself is pretty cool. Look, I know what I like—and what I like is playing as a blonde high elf wielding a bow. In the anime Deedlit is a skilled warrior and mage, and Team Ladybug embraces that by allowing her to fire off elemental magic that can effectively clear the screen, and she can smoothly switch between wind and fire magic to easily clear dangerous obstacles.
The focus is squarely on Deedlit: the fun of Wonder Labyrinth is more in sweeping through hordes of monsters than solving environmental puzzles. She can wreck foes right from the start.
Not that Record of Lodoss War is easy, mind you. While Deedlit has several powerful tools at her disposal, they’re all tied to a magic bar that runs down quickly if you’re not careful. Bosses have distinct patterns and will punish you heavily if you rush in and attack. Interestingly, there’s a bit of a bullet hell dynamic to many fights. One of my favorite boss battles involves two djinns who flood the screen with wind and fire, forcing Deedlit to rapidly switch between her two elemental types in order to absorb damage and counter. Fans of Ikaruga, a classic shoot ‘em up in which you shift colors to avoid clouds of bullets, will quickly pick up on the dynamic.
The lush animation and Deedlit's screen-clearing magic have kept me captivated by Record of Lodoss War: Deedlit in Wonder Labyrinth, even if I still don’t know all that much about the franchise at large. The lore is irrelevant, really, as there's really no story to speak of here (at least for now). It thrives on its combat, its art, and its sometimes tricky difficulty.
So even if you were like me and left the old Record of Lodoss War VHS tapes to languish at the back of the video store, it's worth checking out this curious new Metroidvania. I want to see Team Ladybug use the Early Access period to continue sharpening the exploration, connecting the map in a way that feels less artificial. In the meantime, Record of Lodoss War: Deedlit in Wonder Labyrinth’s entertaining combat and beautiful artwork are more than enough for it to stand on its own.