Following the traditional course set by almost all consoles before it, the Game Boy Advance has had a series of phenomenally satisfying releases recently, in what will come to be known as its final days. The little-handheld-that-could has had a fantastic run, and I can't think of a better sendoff than to host top-notch efforts like Summon Night 1 & 2, Yggdra Union, Back to Stone, and two recent Final Fantasies. Unfortunately, any game that's less than fantastic will only look worse arriving so late in the GBA's life cycle amidst such stiff competition. Suffice it to say, Mazes of Fate is less than fantastic.
Plunked amidst a negligible tale of a society that's forgotten its gods and come under siege from marauding goatmen, players pick from one of three archetypes (or create a custom character who does not have unique art) and are set loose in a small town to talk with townsfolk and gather clues about various topics. The world soon opens up to minor exploration and sidequesting, all of it promising until the weak dialogue and uninteresting pleas for assistance begin to stack up. Sadly, the limited RPG elements seem a little too large for the development team to handle. In fact, the people behind Mazes of Fate seem to have bitten off more than they can chew in many ways.
While its graphics don't look too shabby in screenshots, the visuals have a decidedly low-rent quality to them in person. I might be inclined to cut the game some slack, but so many recent GBA carts have sported smooth, attractive looks that anything less can't cut it. The weak graphics are also an Achilles heel because most of the game takes place, naturally, in mazes.
I like a good dungeon crawl, but in this genre it doesn't pay to skimp on production values. I found it far too easy to become disoriented since walking through the drab underground tunnels was pulled off about as convincingly as something from the NES days. (Anyone who's played the atrocious Wizardry or Swords & Serpents on old Nintendo systems knows what I'm talking about.) Especially bothersome is the single-frame animation, and the way nearby enemies look like badly drawn cardboard standees.
The developers don't seem to have put much thought into acclimating gamers to their particular adventure, either. The beginning segments so vital to hooking players stumble right out of the gate with a series of obstructionary hoops to jump through before getting to the real action. Is it ever a good idea to force a multi-stage item hunt down a player's throat before they're invested? I'd say not.
Once things are underway and navigating catacombs becomes the majority of playtime, seeing a map of the current area is a constant need. Perhaps the DS's dual screens permitting dedicated displays have spoiled me, but putting everything on hold to consult cartographics every few seconds slows the game down immensely.
Besides what I've mentioned there are a number of other rough edges to discuss, but ticking them off one by one would only make me feel worse than I already do—after all, I pride myself on giving independent studios and underdog games a chance. However, though I can see what the developers were going for, the dungeon-crawl genre comes pre-loaded with a few hurdles to get over, and anyone attempting to pull it off successfully has to absolutely nail the mechanics or drown the player with charm in order to avoid turning out something that's too trudging and tedious to bear. Although it's not terrible in any aspect, Mazes of Fate simply fails to do either.
Mosquitoes might be tiny insects, but get trapped in a room with one and it soon becomes clear that something small can become a major annoyance. Get stuck in a room with a swarm, and you'll leave the room. Mazes of Fate might have had a slim chance a few years ago, but arriving alongside infinitely more capable competition renders rough, mediocre and annoying content immediately, undesirably obsolete.