The Fighting Fantasy book series captured my imagination as a kid – Deathtrap Dungeon, especially. It was my doorway into tabletop RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons which I still play to this day.

As a kid, I played through every possible path in this choose your own adventure book, which is why I was excited to play Deathtrap Dungeon: The Interactive Video Adventure when it came out in Steam Early Access.

For those who are unfamiliar with the concept, choose your own adventure books are role-playing gamebooks in which the reader participates in the story. You decide what to do next, and flip over to the paragraph or page that corresponds with that choice. Kind of like Netflix’s Bandersnatch, only a book and not a TV show/game.

One of the most popular CYOA series was Fight Fantasy, by writers Ian Livingston and Steve Jackson. Deathtrap Dungeon was published in 1984 as part of this series, and later received a video game adaptation in 1998.

Now, from Branching Narrative Studios emerges a new “interactive adventure” that tries to bring back the spirit of the original Fighting Fantasy book with “live” storytelling and pen-and-paper mechanics.

The Never-ending Cutscene

Deathtrap Dungeon: The Interactive Video Adventure begins with a video clip of the excellent Eddie Marsan sitting on a fine leather couch next to a fireplace. Eddie’s face and voice will accompany you throughout the major of your time with the game. You then move on to creating your character sheet. You either toss virtual dice to determine your stats or choose from a set of prepared characters.

Eddie Marsan

From this point on, Deathtrap Dungeon becomes a series of choices and battles, with a lot of virtual dice rolls, tabletop mechanics, and narration. And even more cutscenes.

Every time you make a choice, you get a cutscene where the narrator is describing what is happening, sometimes with a page from the original book that contains a drawing of a monster or an object. And while that is a great way to narrate a book, it’s not very engaging as a video game.

The game gets so repetitive that paying any attention to it wasn’t essential. I could be on my phone or even browsing the web, and the game would act on its own. It’s merely a long and somewhat tedious collection of cutscenes, while the player can choose how to progress between them.

Now, the choices the player makes do have a significant impact on the story, together with the virtual dice rolls. But while the story is rich with well-crafted scenes, there is no actual gameplay. The player watches a video of someone reading a story and has to click on the screen occasionally. Marsan’s smooth narration, sound effects, and music are useful in setting the tone and keeping you invested, but not for long.

Imminent Death

The only element of Deathtrap Dungeon that resembles a game mechanic is the combat. When in battle, the player has a limited choice of actions, but the fight runs almost automatically while the computer rolls the dice and computes the outcome.

Deathtrap Dungeon Early Access combat

This loop repeats itself automatically, and every round feels exactly the same. After a few rounds, either your character or the enemy are dead. Combat isn’t the only way to get yourself killed in the game. You can also make fatal decisions throughout the campaign that will lead to a Game Over.

If you make a decision that has a fatal outcome, there’s nothing you can do about it. “Your story ends here,” and you load a previous save to make a different choice. Now, I know this is how the book works, but even I was caught by surprise when I just… died. This mechanic is not suitable for a video game in 2020 and makes you feel cheated.

And the Plot Thickens

If you never read-slash-played the book, here’s a little recap on the story: It’s a classic dungeon crawl, a race for fame, riches, and glory. You’re not saving the world from tyranny or demons – it’s just you against the dungeon and other capable competitors. I like this ’80s, Conan the Barbarian attitude towards fantasy.

I was excited to preview Deathtrap Dungeon because I grew up with Fighting Fantasy books and tabletop games. But I came out of the Early Access version thinking that sometimes a book should remain a book.

Or perhaps the game mechanics need a little shakeup to create a compelling game loop. Right now, it’s not a book but not quite a video game, but the potential to be an exciting game is there. Deathtrap Dungeon is in Early Access, and therefore it’s too soon to make a final judgment.

I am still excited to see how far this game can reach. If you are too, Deathtrap Dungeon is now available in Steam Early Access.

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