For fans of JRPGs and Japanese games in general, the name Nippon Ichi Software, or NIS, is one that will be well known. Responsible for bringing their own unique brand of games to the west, NIS have wowed and amazed gamers for many years. Despite this, not every game in NIS’s extensive back catalogue has been sure fire success, which has hit the company hard. Despite the mixed bag of goodies NIS has brought to the table over the years, I for one have always found myself a big fan of their games, even if one or two haven’t really gelled all that well with me.
Cut to May of this year, where NIS had a brand new and exciting game coming out on both the Nintendo Switch and PS4, the new IP, Lapis x Labyrinth, a dungeon-crawling RPG that utilises a new stacking-based team mechanic, with a bright and in-your-face roulette system for gathering loot. Now, as gorgeous as the game was, after picking up the game at launch, it sadly sat in my collection gathering dust until a few weeks ago, when I finally decided to dust the game off and give it a whirl.
In an age where massive, 50+ hour epic RPGs dominate the gaming landscape, can Lapis x Labyrinth, with its humble 20 or so hours of arcade-style gameplay and light story, make a lasting impression for those who play it? Well, for this week’s trip down the Otaku Rabbit Hole, that’s exactly what we’ll be looking at, while also considering whether Lapis x Labyrinth is a jewel in NIS’s crown, or if its just another lacklustre pebble that’s fallen by the roadside, destined to be forgotten. Without further ado, let’s jump right into it.
Let’s start by addressing the elephant in the room, that being Lapis x Labyrinth‘s story (or lack thereof). The game opens with an introduction to the world, where a majestic golden tree resides deep within an enchanted forest, located at the base of a grand labyrinth. Many adventurers have come and gone in an attempt to descend through this labyrinth and usurp the treasure resting within for themselves, but to no success.
The town built at the entrance of the labyrinth once flourished with visitors and budding adventurers from far and wide, making it their home. But, as time passed and adventurers were called less and less by the labyrinth’s siren song, so too has the town begun to dwindle and fade.
You take up the role of a team of adventurers that have decided to once again dive head-first into the labyrinth, answering the desperate plea from the Mayor to help breathe new life into the town by finally unravelling the mysteries of the labyrinth and bringing back the treasure that lies at its centre.
While at first glance this may seem like a fantastic setup for an incredibly grand adventure, in reality, this small amount of exposition is handed to players in the first five minutes of the game. Additionally, this is the ONLY meaningful story that players get throughout the 20-hour playtime – the only exception being the final scene, once players have bested the boss at the labyrinth’s core.
As you advance through the game, new facilities are unlocked and small details are teased about the upcoming section of the labyrinth, and it’s pretty much as bare boned as it can get. If you came to Lapis x Labyrinth hoping for a grand adventure with a sprawling narrative that helped flesh out an interesting world, you will likely find yourself bitterly disappointed.
I must admit, despite how non-existent the story is, it never felt like a major deal-breaker for me. The gameplay, combat and exploration are 100% the focus in Lapis x Labyrinth, for reasons I’ll cover shortly. The story is only there to help provide some basic motivation behind the action taking place on screen – nothing more.
While more world-building or exposition is never a bad thing, if you can look past the lack of story, there is a pretty fun game to be had here. What I must warn you, however, is that the enjoyment you as a player will get from Lapis x Labyrinth is heavily dependent on how necessary a story is in your ability to appreciate a game – if a story is make or break for you, then Lapis x Labyrinth will probably fall short. If you are more gameplay-focused, then it might just hook you in with its box of tricks.
It Takes a Town to Raise an Adventurer
This is the biggest aspect of the Lapis x Labyrinth experience and is where it can either amaze or disappoint most spectacularly. To start, let’s discuss the town, as it’s where all missions are accepted and where you’ll find yourself spending your time preparing for missions while not in the labyrinth.
The game opens with the player creating and customising two characters from eight possible classes. These classes are diverse and range from a lovable Necromancer to an adorable Maid. Each class has their own unique set of advantages and disadvantages when it comes to combat, but you’ll want to make sure to have the maximum four characters in your party at all times, as diving into the labyrinth with an incomplete team is practically suicidal!
Apart from the ability to accept quests and enter and leave the labyrinth at will, there’s very little to do in town early on, forcing players to dive into the labyrinth and become accustomed with the gameplay and their new party members, toying with the party composition to find what fits best with their personal playstyle.
As you descend through the labyrinth, more and more facilities are added to the town, increasing its population and expanding the number of things players can do while there to make their adventures easier. This ranges from the addition of a forge to improve weapons gained in the labyrinth, to providing access to the dojo – easily one of the most important facilities you’ll use during your playthrough.
When combined with the canteen, where ability- and stat-boosting items can be bought for a paltry 1000 gold, the dojo, which allows players to purchase permanent stat boosts, can totally mitigate the challenge in any battle, especially if players focus their attention on boosting the strength and HP stats.
Exploration and Combat
Exploration and combat are the stand-out features in Lapis x Labyrinth, and the entire experience is built around these two aspects. As the labyrinth is where players will spend most of their time, it’s only fair that this aspect receive the most attention and scrutiny.
The controls during the labyrinth sections are tight and responsive, both in combat and during exploration. Attacks feel weighty and are combined with over-the-top and exciting animations, where sensory overload is the name of the game. Basic combos can be executed by mashing Y, where characters will attack up to five times, while special attacks are tied to directional inputs and the X button (think Smash Bros) and require you to manage your action gauges well. This was done to help avoid specials from being abused, but with a short recharge period to these gauges, the specials will easily become a staple in your combat strategies.
As you can take four characters into the labyrinth at a time, you’re not stuck using a single character for a whole run. The characters you take along will be stacked on top of one another, forming a Tsum Tsum-like tower. You can switch rapidly between the characters in your stack, but your allies can also become another weapon in your arsenal, and this will prove more useful than you’d imagine!
By pressing the A button, you can fling the next character in your stack at enemies to set off an explosive special attack that can really help with taking down enemies. If you enjoy the idea of one ally being thrown and tearing through your enemies, then the idea of all of your allies being thrown to unleash a screen-filling explosion of destructive colour will sound more than a little tempting. This is one of the most broken moves and, depending on your stack makeup, can totally annihilate a screen full of enemies in the blink of an eye. This move is tied to the EX gauge, which slowly fills over time – but not that slowly. The speed of the EX gauge means that this becomes an easily abusable powerhouse move, which can make or break the combat experience.
Speaking of busted mechanics, how can we forget the Fever mode, the most unique feature standout feature of Lapis x Labyrinth and the thing that can potentially break the whole game? The Treasure gauge is essential and builds as you gather treasure and loot from enemies and chests found in the labyrinth. Your final total here will dictate your rank and money earned in each mission. You’ll want to build this gauge as quickly and as highly as possible, and maintain it by avoiding damage from enemies, which is no easy feat given the amount of enemies and attacks you’ll find yourself constantly bombarded by.
This is where the Fever mode comes in. Fever mode prevents you from losing your Treasure gauge, and with every attack you’ll be rewarded with explosions of colourful gems that quickly fill the Treasure gauge far beyond its normal means. While this can be fun and addictive to run around attacking enemies and the environment as quickly as you can in an attempt to build and maintain your Treasure gauge, annoying enemy placements and rinse-repeat-style gameplay can really start to peel away the shiny veneer and reveal the glaring weaknesses hidden beneath, especially during longer play sessions. As such, to get the most out of Lapis x Labyrinth, it’s highly recommended that players stick to short bursts, rather than long binge sessions.
Characters, Equipment and the Things You Need to Know!
Let’s backtrack a second to the character classes available in Lapis x Labyrinth. The eight available classes are the Hunter, the Necromancer, Shielder, Maid, Bishop, Gunner, Witch and Destroyer. Each class has a speciality, be that offensive, defensive or supportive, and you’re free to build your team how you want. I would HEAVILY advise one specific class be included in your labyrinth party build, however – and that class is the Hunter.
Each class can equip only a single weapon type and even have some class-specific armour, like Shielder being the only class able to equip a shield. These weapons can be gathered in dungeons from chests, monster drops or randomly at the mission-end screen by using keys, and each weapon will helpfully have a set number of abilities already installed on them for use.
Some abilities will fortify defences with elemental buffs and affinities, while others increase damage output by adding a damage modifier to each attack, but the most useful of all comes in the form of the Hunter-specific ability Vampire.
Vampire was an ability I stumbled upon purely by chance in my playthrough, and at first glance it seems very unassuming. The ability restores 1% of the damage dealt by normal physical attacks as HP, and this ability isn’t specific to the Hunter – if the ability is equipped to a hunter in your stack, then all attacks performed by your party will have the effect applied. What makes this so broken as an ability, however, is the fact that by attacking, you’ll often hit multiple enemies at once, due to the nature of the game, for high damage. During later levels, it becomes very common for damage to exceed 2000 damage PER HIT, meaning that you can quickly heal considerably more damage than any enemy could hope to inflict – it’s INSANE.
Combining this with the healing potential of the Bishop class, or the incredible defensive capabilities of the Shielder class, can make missions a cakewalk and is definitely one of the more broken abilities in the game. If you want a challenge then please feel free to avoid using this ability and to mix up your stacks as you like, but for the post-game, it quickly becomes essential to take full advantage of abilities and characters with useful traits, as enemy levels skyrocket after the main story!
A Voice to Cut Through the Darkest Labyrinth – And Test Your Last Nerve!
The voice acting in this game is pretty bare and is kept to a minimal. It’s an exclusively Japanese voice cast, but what little voice acting there is pretty solid and overall plays into the cute aesthetic.
When you initially customise your characters, you can choose what voice you’d like them to have, and while you may love hearing your mouse maid Fillet (yes, I called my Maid Fillet) talk in an adorably high-pitched voice for now, the worst is soon to come.
Battle and exploration have audio clips that repeat indefinitely. So, by combo-ing, jumping and just playing the game normally, high-pitched noises will be looped over and over in what eventually becomes a migraine-inducing buzz. If you can, I’d highly recommend choosing lower-pitched voices for your characters, as this will help, even if the issue of repeated audio clips will undoubtedly still become annoying over time.
With Music as Good as This, Who Needs Treasure?
In staunch opposition to the voice acting, the soundtrack here really blew me away. The soundtrack is by far the BEST aspect of Lapis x Labyrinth, reminiscent of the incredible music found in older Sonic The Hedgehog titles – catchy electropop-style tracks that really help bring some much needed energy to the whole experience. It also plays heavily into the arcade-like aesthetic, and I must admit that a lot of my enjoyment came from how well the music worked with the action happening on screen.
The Fever mode music in particular worked fantastically in heightening the tension and excitement, with its hyperactive and erratic melody that really gets the blood boiling. Whenever the mode would activate, the Fever mode theme would overwrite whatever music was playing and really helped define this mode as something new and exciting, and without such amazing music flowing throughout, this game may have been a far worse off experience.
The visuals in Lapis x Labyrinth is a tale of two halves, with some aspects standing out beautifully, while others feel bland and uninspired.
Treasure, Treasure Everywhere and I Can’t See a Thing!
The most divisive aspect of Lapis x Labyrinth will be the Fever mode colour explosions. While this was designed to increase excitement and drive home how much loot and treasure this mode is netting the player, it is a little messy, often fully obscuring the events unfolding on screen, even going as far as hiding enemies and incoming projectiles entirely. Additionally, the continuous onslaught of colour and flashing lights is pretty disorientating, almost to the point of being dangerous, and I couldn’t in good conscience recommend players with epilepsy pick up this game for that very reason!
When is Simple Just Too Simple?
The character designs are absolutely adorable, with hyper-mobile chibi sprites that really contribute to the overall cutesy aesthetic that this game does so very well. Enemy designs also tread the line between adorable and slightly disturbing, while also holding their own unique sense of identity – even if many of the enemies are simple pallet swaps of one another, a trend commonly seen in many JRPGs over the years.
The simplicity of the character designs are a double-edged sword, however, as it does at times make the experience feel cheaper – almost like a glorified mobile game – and can really detract from the tight and responsive action taking place on screen.
If You Go Down to the Labyrinth Today, You’re Sure of a Bland Design
The dungeon designs can be described very easily – if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Most of the dungeons are only distinguishable from one another thanks to the different background, a swapped colour palette and occasional region specific hazards, ranging from sand traps to poisonous spike traps. Apart from this, there’s very little present to help keep players engaged for prolonged play sessions, as the floors are difficult to navigate and quickly begin to feel very uninspired after a while.
To make matters worse, many of the colour schemes chosen in Lapis x Labyrinth are murky and bland, making it very difficult in some cases to distinguish barricades and environmental hazards. Environments quickly become boring to navigate, and apart from battling in hopes of increasing your treasure gauge, there’s nothing to keep you from descending quickly through the floors as soon as the exit opens, which is a major shame.
Lapis x Labyrinth is one of those games that’s hard to pin down – it’s charming and colourful, with tight controls and satisfying combat, but also suffers from a somewhat shallow and unrewarding gameplay loop that revolves entirely around it’s admittedly excellent combat, without also providing a solid foundation from which the combat could springboard. The sentiment that too much of a good thing can cause problems is most definitely the case here, as during longer play sessions, Lapis x Labyrinth can quickly outstay its welcome with repetitive mechanisms and uninspired dungeon designs.
Despite this, as far as dungeon crawlers go, you’d be hard pushed to find one that’s as fun to just pick up and play for short bursts at a time, and for that I award Lapis x Labyrinth:
With all that being said, thanks again for joining me on this week’s trip down the Otaku Rabbit Hole, and I hope you’ve enjoyed your time here. If you did, that’s amazing, and please consider sharing. If you didn’t, then please get in touch and let me know why. I would love to hear your thoughts! Thank you all once again and, until next time, keep it weeby everyone!