Lapis x Labyrinth is a lot. From the crowded HUD and gem-filled explosions of its 2D action gameplay to the procession of stat boosting systems and vast item lists of its role-playing layers, Nippon Ichi Software’s cute and colourful dungeon platformer threatens to overwhelm, but nonetheless skilfully onboards players for a charming and generous (though perhaps repetitive) experience.
Players start out in the world of Lapis x Labyrinth by selecting two characters from a colourful cast of RPG archetypes (with some characteristically off-kilter options, such as the status-effect dealing Maid). As you enter the first level, you quickly discover the game’s first and most memorable gimmick – that your party sallies forth stacked on top of each other – an amusing, kids-in-a-trenchcoat arrangement the designers call the ‘Dango’ system (after the Japanese sweet you’ve may have picked up at a Japanese cultural fair, or in a Katamari. Or you know, Japan).
As daft as this sounds, this stack of adorable chibi warriors is a typically smart bit of design, communicating things like the currently selected leader (cycled with L) and how many jumps you have left to perform. Once clear of the tutorial, you are free to create more party members in the game’s simple hub town, where you can equip, accept and travel to the next quest with up to four in a team.
Four adventurers mean four jumps, and the gameplay space in the game’s dungeons trends towards being sufficiently roomy in order to accommodate this, as well as to fill the screen with enemies. Swinging or firing a weapon has a Smash Bros-lite set up where there are two main attack buttons (Y and X) and the type of attack you perform can be altered by pressing a certain direction. The basic attacks on Y can be chained together, and there are additional party attacks on A and R.
However you choose to battle, the way that your attacks connect is suitably crunchy and the controls are pleasingly responsive. Attacks tend to allow the player to float in place and can be combined with the quadruple jump, allowing players to avoid dungeon floors teeming with critters and a continually expanding list of environmental hazards. In this way, the platforming and fighting elements are pulled to extremes fitting the aesthetic – think Steamworld Dig or Monster Boy caught in an explosion at a pachinko parlour, and you’re some of the way there.
This is never truer than when you successfully dispatch enough enemies to trigger Fever mode, granting you invincibility, filling the screen with fireworks and bright lights, and causing enemies to explode in a shower of gems that feed into a slot system for some additional loot. An endless deluge of coins, crafting materials, weapons and gear is a central hook of exploration and combat in the game, and fever mode is a dopamine hit given form, emblematic of the game’s overall addictiveness.
So far, so busy – so in order to keep things focussed, each floor in a quest has a five-minute time limit. It’s up to you to use this time to find and destroy the gems locking the floor’s exit, level up your party sufficiently for the quest’s boss and gather enough loot to feed into the many minor goals you’ll have related to the crafting, exchange and dojo elements back at the game’s main hub. Cleverly, the time-limit isn’t a hard deadline – you will instead be ambushed by an indestructible spectre that can kill you on contact (and death means losing almost everything gained in your attempt). It’s possible (but nonetheless challenging) to evade this, meaning you’re always weighing up the pros and cons of going deeper into the maze-like levels.
At its best, Nippon Ichi Software is a master of this kind of busy game system marshalling, and it’s no surprise to see the more traditional roleplaying elements handled with their usual aptitude. The hub-town’s dojo, foundry, item exchange and lunch shop allow players to invest in their character’s base stats, item enhancements, crafting and other modifiers. Thankfully, these are introduced and expanded at a suitably slow pace giving players time and ample space to learn and understand their nuanced effects.
Best of all, this aspect of the game doesn’t undermine the dungeon exploration or skirmishes. Cleverly, you start every quest at level one, so even though there are numerous ways of investing in growth, you can’t simply enter a dungeon overpowered and ready to run past all enemies to reach the exit. This is something the game further enforces by regularly locking you into encounters with large groups – and the last quest of each area, which pits you against a screen-filling boss creature, must be challenged with only a single floor worth of levelling.
Before the credits roll on Lapis x Labyrinth, you’ll take on 80 quests across 10 distinct level types and travel through approximately 220 maps, so it is perhaps unsurprising that there is a fair amount of repeated content. In the early-mid game, the reuse of earlier layouts makes the player suspect that the game is stretched a little too thin, but thankfully in the long term, this doesn’t develop into a prominent issue. Furthermore, the balance of the game is such that grinding earlier quests isn’t a necessity – though this is always an option, and players looking for a real challenge will find a selection of postgame levels that will require this kind of preparation.
Overall, the game presents a significant chunk of content in terms of levels and systems, and the quality of presentation – appealing character and enemy art, painterly backgrounds and eye-catching graphical overlays all thrown at the screen with only a hint of framerate unsteadiness – is high.
Nonetheless, it’s easy to see where improvements could be made: behind the appealing art the level designs are slightly rudimentary block mazes; the combat elements are repetitious by their nature, and it’s definitely too easy to fall back on mindlessly hammering Y to attack; the difference between each character class isn’t especially pronounced, and investing in more than four characters seems a little pointless; it’s also true that if story is important to you, there’s not a lot of it here. However, if you leave these concerns for a sequel, force yourself to experiment and tackle the game in several sittings, you’ll find that Lapis x Labyrinth offers more than its fair share of riches to uncover.
Nippon Ichi Software has hit a great formula that avoids the worst excesses of repetition or frustration. An addictive mix of 2D exploration and combat, Lapis x Labyrinth is a cavalcade of colour and complex systems that doesn’t outstay its welcome through a sizeable 20-hour campaign.