Reader, I have a confession. I have never played an early access game. I don't have a good reason for it. I've just never felt tempted to jump into a game before it's finished. Heck, I don't even buy episodic games before they're done, as I much prefer to wolf things down in one go than suffer the long wait until the next instalment. Until now, that is. Last week, I finally bit the bullet and bought Deedlit In Wonder Labyrinth, an early access Castlevania-like by tiny Japanese studios Team Ladybug and Why So Serious? that's based on the Record Of Lodoss War anime. You might recognise the former developer as the maker of Touhou Luna Nights, and Deedlit has a very similar vibe. It's a gorgeous homage to the 2D Castlevania and Metroid games of yore, while also incorporating some shump-elements to give it some extra zing. And it's properly great.
I think part of what pushed me over the edge with Deedlit In Wonder Labyrinth is a) I like the Record Of Lodoss War anime and its Dungeons & Dragons-esque fantasy world, b) I really like Deedlit as a character (who wouldn't with those giant shoulder pads?), and c) I mean, honestly, just look at that gorgeous artwork. If I wasn't already a little bit in love with Deedlit, this would definitely push me over the edge. It's a potent mix that was too good to resist on this occasion, and I'm glad I decided to take the plunge, as this kind of 2D Castlevania game is very much up my street.
You don't really need to know much about Record Of Lodoss War in order to play Deedlit In Wonder Labyrinth. Indeed, my own working knowledge of the series is rudimentary at best, especially having only watched the anime once a good decade ago now. You meet other characters from the series in passing, but I wouldn't say they're that crucial to the overarching story. To all intents and purposes, you're just a kick-ass elf who needs to get out of this dreamlike labyrinth she's found herself in before 'bad stuff' goes down back home.
At the moment, the game has four stages available, which are all loosely tied to set areas on its twisty-turny map. Its environments aren't perhaps quite as grand and visually intricate as older 2D Castlevania games, but Deedlit In Wonder Labyrinth still looks and feels absolutely gorgeous. Deedlit's fluid movements are beautifully animated, and I adore the ghostly apparitions that trail in her wake when you've got one of two elemental sprites equipped. It's like watching a frame-by-frame replay of each and every move she makes, and it looks cool as hell. These orange and blue spectres never get in the way of the action, either, which is important when you're navigating a room full of enemies that are all firing various projectiles at you.
It's not just elemental sprites you've got at your disposal, either. Over the course of your travels you'll come across all manner of different weapon types to try out, from short and fast stabby daggers to huge great axes, spears and bows. You'll even pick up enemy weapons from time to time, too, although the best ones are hidden away in Ghim's shop. As well as having their own attack power stat, each weapon has a speed rating that affects their handling, too, and I was surprised by how much of a difference this made to my overall fighting style. I eventually settled on a massive, double-handed greatsword that had a big reach, but was quite slow to wind up, but I also spent a good portion of the game played with a shorter, but faster spear.
Bows, meanwhile, have two functions here. As well as serving as long-range weapons, you'll also be using them to solve light environmental puzzles, bouncing arrows off metal walls to hit gears or cut ropes that are holding up obstacles in the way of your path. It's a neat, if simple twist on the old 'hitting switches to open doors' motif - although you'll be doing plenty of the latter as well to open up new areas of the map. Some might find its colour-coded doors and switches a little unimaginative, but honestly, I like the simplicity of it. It make it a lot easier to see where you need to go next on the map, and I think they fit well with its weird, dream-like hodge-podge of interconnecting forests, dungeons, castles and caverns.
Back to the combat, though, another cool wrinkle in Deedlit In Wonder Labyrinth's battle system is that attacking while you've got one elemental sprite enabled powers up the other, increasing their attack strength while they wait in reserve. When they hit 'Level 3' (always announced in a cool deep, dredge voice so you know when it's ass-kicking time), they can also restore lost health when you switch over to them with a tap of the shoulder button - although they'll drop back to Level 2 if you get hit in the meantime. Sprites can also let you absorb other elemental attacks, too, and boss battles in particular will see you constantly switching between to avoid taking damage. It all makes for a wonderful ballet of interplaying systems, and the resulting battles are rad to play as they look and feel under the thumbs.
And woof, that soundtrack. My favourite track is actually the one Team Ladybug have (happily) used for their recent Stage 3 & 4 gameplay trailer (see below), and cor, it's a real toe-tapping banger. I love its medley of synthesised bleeps and strange, electronic roars, and honestly, I could listen to it for hours. I have the game playing in the background right now, in fact, just so I can carry on listening while I type.
The good news is that we hopefully won't have to wait too long before Deedlit In Wonder Labyrinth is completely finished, either, as developers Team Ladybug and Why So Serious? are currently hoping to come out of early access sometime later this spring when they deliver the game's next big content update. I expect this will be the final two stages of the game (5 and 6), as so far each one has been introduced by a roll of a die - and I'm assuming they'll be one for each of its six sides.
Either way, I'm well up for the finale, although there are a couple of things I hope the developers tune up before its final release. Most enemies you encounter can be mashed into pulp long before they even start thinking about launching an attack, for example, and I think it could benefit from leaning more heavily into its elemental shmup inclinations earlier on in the game. The bosses are pretty meaty challenges, but I still rinsed through all four stages in just over three hours - although it felt longer in the moment. The look and feel of Deedlit In Wonder Labyrinth, however, are top notch. I just want more of it. And soon.