Lapis x Labyrinth
PlayStation 4/Nintendo Switch
EVERY ONCE in a while, gamers are struck by the stunning simplicity of a new release. With myriad titles vying for their attention and seeking to rise above the din by striving to outshout the competition, they find themselves appreciating the modulated approach of an astutely positioned title. Such has been the reception generated by Lapis x Labyrinth, which hit store shelves in Japan (as Lapis Re Abyss) late last year and which just made its way to the West. Even official Nintendo sites for United States and United Kingdom constituencies yield little by way of information. “Help a struggling town recover from bankruptcy in an age of dwindling adventuring,” they intone. “Plunge into the mysterious Labyrinth while collecting more loot than you can ever imagine.”
As far as the counter-programmed marketing goes, Lapis x Labyrinth is nothing if not consistent with its identity. Straightforward is certainly how its story can be termed. A small town located in the far reaches of a certain dominion is in danger of extinction. Once a go-to destination for daredevil explorers bent on discovering the Golden Tree within its enchanted forest, it has fallen on hard times and is thus forced to bank on the very premise and promise of riches. In an effort to escape subsistence, it taps a group of heroes for hire to go treasure hunting in its dungeons. In typical action role-playing-game fashion, gamers get to choose the composition of the group of four from eight playable characters of classes that feature distinct sets of strengths and weaknesses manifested in skills and traits, as well as in combat techniques and equipment.
Needless to say, the gameplay of Lapis x Labyrinth is equally uncomplicated.
As with countless other side-scrolling platformers, the party goes on quests that require it to clear floor after floor of enemies, avoiding traps and collecting loot en route to a protracted boss fight, within a specific time frame. Unlike countless other side-scrolling platformers, however, it makes use of a “dango” positioning, with the protagonists stacked on top of each other. The totem-pole formation has the bottom character taking the lead and the others providing support; gamers can change the order depending on preference and in response to specific situations.
Parenthetically, the variety of classes offers a bevy of combat options. The necromancer summons magic for midrange attacks. The maid and bishop use their article of choice (a pan and a spear, respectively) to hurt and help as needed. The shielder is great at blocking and countering. The hunter strikes quickly with dual daggers. The gunner and witch keep enemies at bay from afar. The destroyer, well, destroys with a greatsword. All told, 4,096 combinations are at gamers’ disposal, and part of the challenge is to find alliances that work well even as it becomes obvious early on which characters are better suited to lead.
In keeping with Lapis x Labyrinth’s straightforward design, controls are such a breeze to handle. After a fittingly short tutorial at the start, gamers should be good to go and ready to perform actions with single-button presses. Whether toggling between characters, chaining attacks, or initiating special moves, they won’t at any time feel as if they’re jumping through hoops just to see their plans pan out. And when they manage to string together a bevy of combos, Fever Mode is triggered and the screen becomes a veritable celebration of color as fireworks unleash gems for the taking.
Creditably, Lapis x Labyrinth boasts of audio-visual charms that underscore its anime-cum-chibi predilections. Backgrounds are superbly rendered and harmonize with the looks of the heroes and their enemies, while the music tracks help set the atmosphere. True, it’s far from perfect; on the Nintendo Switch (and, on occasion, even on the PlayStation 4 Pro), frame drops are evident during busy moments, with the slowdowns serving to dull the experience. That said, they wind up being minor inconveniences in the face of an unrelenting aim to please. Moreover, the danger of succumbing to the monotony of gameplay (typical of action RPGs) is overcome by the game’s daring to be different and earnest desire to please.
In Lapis x Labyrinth, combat hauls per run can number in the hundreds. Setting aside its materialistic leanings, it spares gamers of the need to grind. Upgrades come by way of battle yields, with the right choices of weapons, armor, and supplementary objects serving to strengthen characters in the group. To be sure, “right” becomes a relative term given the sheer volume of inventory at gamers’ disposal. Meanwhile, additional customization and stat padding come courtesy of new areas in the town that are unlocked with each successful quest.
On aggregate, Lapis x Labyrinth meets its objectives in style. As understated as it may seem to be at the outset, it winds up as a decidedly fresh take in a crowded genre. It aims to please at every turn, and while it fails to escape the repetitive nature of dungeon crawling, it offsets its intrinsic frailties with a determined resolve to delight. A feast for the senses, it likewise features an easy interface and a generous rewards system that eschews grinding in favor of natural progression. Whether on the couch or on the go, it figures to bring about some 20-odd hours of enjoyment to otherwise-jaded gamers. At $29.99, it’s a definite recommend.
• Astutely positioned as counter-programmed action RPG
• “Dango” formation of lead characters underscores uniqueness
• Grinding eschewed in favor of natural progression
• Fever Mode a feast for the senses
• Fails to escape repetitive nature of dungeon crawling
• Frame drops evident on occasion
• Relatively short