Thanks to a racy ad campaign featuring a whip-wielding dominatrix in a skimpy leather outfit and sporting some wicked thigh boots, Eidos Interactive managed to get a whole lot of action fans revved up for - or at least aware of - the imminent release of Deathtrap Dungeon. Of course, such a strategy can backfire: A lot of publicity often leads to unrealistic expectations. But with the exception of online play, Deathtrap Dungeon delivers nearly everything that Eidos promised.
Whether or not that's a good thing is a matter of taste. Deathtrap Dungeon follows the Tomb Raider formula, and if you didn't care for its third-person perspective and camera angles then Deathtrap Dungeon will probably leave you cold.
Don't take that to mean that Deathtrap Dungeon is simply Tomb Raider with a fantasy veneer, though. The graphics are superior, ranged and handheld weapons make for more intense combat, the addition of spells adds depth to play, and the number of enemies - the ads claim there are more than 50 - is almost mind-boggling.
Based on the Fighting Fantasy books by Ian Livingstone, Deathtrap Dungeon's premise is about as simple as it gets: Playing as the female warrior Red Lotus or the hulking ChainDog, you've got to fight your way through a dungeon chock-full of critters ranging from pesky imps to rock creatures, demons, killer bees, snake women - the list goes on and on. And those aren't the only things that stand between you and survival; countless booby traps can spell instant death just as you think you've made it to safety.
Given the fantasy setting, Eidos could easily have made Deathtrap Dungeon a gloom-and-doom affair, but a host of humorous touches brings some welcome levity to the action. Those imps I mentioned earlier snort and giggle a lot like Beavis (of Beavis & Butthead fame); clowns laugh as they wait for you to advance and fight; some enemies even slap their hands under their armpits and make the classic noise schoolchildren have known and loved for years.
There are a few puzzles thrown into the mix, but nearly all involve pulling levers and finding keys. It feels as if they were added out of obligation rather than to make gameplay more immersive or exciting. The real puzzles are the levels themselves - huge, complex mazes that'll have you scratching your head trying to figure out where you should go next. There's a nifty "chalk mark" feature that can help you keep your bearing, but if that's not enough there are several spots on the Net that have fairly detailed maps to get you back on track.
Mastering the weapons and magic system is a little confusing at first - you have to hit a function key then a number key to determine which weapons and spells are active - but given all the stuff you're dealing with there's probably no other way it could have been done. And once you memorize which number to use for each weapon, you can almost switch on the fly.
Yes, it's true that Eidos enhanced nearly every facet of Tomb Raider, but unfortunately for many fans there was one issue it didn't address: character control. The lack of improved control is mysterious, considering that it was probably the single biggest complaint lodged against Tomb Raider, but what's even stranger is that Deathtrap Dungeon might be even more aggravating than its predecessor. Walk into a room with enemies on your right and left, for instance, and frequently you'll start taking a pounding without even being able to see who's dealing out the punishment; try to run down a corridor, and just as you've got up a head of steam, the angle will switch, and you'll find yourself slamming against a wall as you try to figure out the new perspective. Even when you do figure out where the bad guys are, you'll continue to get hit because it takes so long to turn around.
At first I tried to play using the keyboard, figuring that would provide the finest degree of control over my character - but then I was stunned to learn that I couldn't use the directional arrows on the numeric keypad. Yes, you can assign nearly any key for movement, but the only arrow keys you can use for movement and turning are the four cursor keys to the left of the numeric keypad - and I hate using those because they're all bunched together.
Next I tried a mouse, but found that if I didn't center it exactly after turning left or right that I'd invariably jump in one of those directions when I really wanted to jump forward. So I plugged in my trusty Gravis GrIP, and while it made combat much easier I had major problems traveling in a straight line - just like in Tomb Raider. Even more annoying when using the GrIP was the first-person view option, which is supposed to let you look around (but not move) from a Quake-style perspective. When playing with the keyboard, you can look up, down, and left or right - but for some reason you can't use the directional pad to scan the vicinity. Instead, you have to take your hand off the controller and use those damn cursor keys. Considering that this is obviously a direct port of the PlayStation version, this is a sign of some fairly lackadaisical coding.
Another sign of laziness is the save-game feature. You can only save at certain spots, and sometimes you need to have gold coins to "pay" for the privilege of saving. Look, this game is very tough even if you don't have a problem with character control, and no one wants to cover the same ground over and over again just because someone didn't bother to take advantage of the PC's capabilities.
I'd love to check in with a report on how the game's multiplayer mode stacks up, but unfortunately the shipping version only features play over a LAN - and like most of you, I don't have access to a LAN. It's disappointing that Eidos wasn't able to include at least TCP/IP support - something that DirectPlay should have made easy to implement - but to its credit the game will soon be supported on Mplayer.
I've got to give credit to Eidos for pushing the Tomb Raider formula to its limits in Deathtrap Dungeon, and for serious Tomb Raider fans the issue of control is probably a moot point. For many of us, though, all the extra weapons and enemies seems like a case of Eidos not seeing the forest for the trees.