Genre blends can make for some interesting experiences, and over the years developers have tried all sorts of things.
We’ve had racing games with RPG elements, dating sims with strategy games attached, first-person shooters combined with adventure games… at this point most things have been tried, you might think.
What about dungeon crawler, platform game, action RPG, shoot ’em up and pachinko? I bet I have your attention now, hmm? Let’s look at Lapis x Labyrinth from Nippon Ichi Software — one of the company’s best games for a long time, and a title which looks distressingly set to pass by an awful lot of people unnoticed.
The setup for Lapis x Labyrinth initially seems pretty simple. There are rumours of a golden forest that lies deep beneath a mysterious labyrinth, and naturally the golden tree at the heart of this golden forest is the sort of thing that promises untold riches, eternal happiness, all the usual sort of thing. Taking command of a plucky crew of adventurers, it’s up to you to ascertain once and for all if there’s any truth to these rumours — and to help rebuild the village that stands at the labyrinth’s entrance in the process.
In order to do this, you’ll need to work your way through a series of ten dungeons, each of which is split into eight quests, with each quest in turn consisting of two or more discrete floors. On each floor you’re tasked with tracking down a number of purple gem-like structures and destroying them; taking out a sufficient number opens the gate to the next level, while taking out all of them will improve your rewards at the conclusion of the quest.
Each floor has a five-minute time limit, and when this expires a ghost-like creature will begin pursuing you. Touching this means instant quest failure, but it is possible to escape and continue to the next floor (with its fresh time limit) with a bit of careful manoeuvring. Ultimately, success or failure in a quest will reward you with gold and experience points for the local adventurer’s guild; the only difference between success and failure is that the former also affords you the opportunity to open a number of chests to obtain the treasures within, with stronger successes making more treasures — or potentially better treasures — available to you.
With me so far? Okay.
The game unfolds as a platformer from a side-on perspective. There are eight different character classes available, and up to four can be taken on a quest at a time. You control one character at once, with the others stacking up adorably on top of this “leader”, though you can change your leader at any time with the tap of a button. Your leader has access to a number of abilities: a five-hit basic combo that varies enormously between the classes; a single attack up or down; and three skills, each of which are unleashed with a tap of a button and a direction, a la Super Smash Bros.
Those other three characters aren’t just there for you to switch to, however. Tapping another button uses a special “support” skill from the character immediately atop your leader in the stack, at which point they hop up to the top of the stack to give the next one a turn. And charging up an “EX” meter and pressing another button allows all three of your supporting characters to make use of their most powerful, unique skills at the same time.
One area where Lapis x Labyrinth really shines is in how unique each of the classes are — both in terms of how they play as a leader, and the skills they bring to the table with their support and EX abilities. Even among similar character types there is clear distinction; both the Witch and the Gunner have the ability to attack from range, for example, but the former has slower, more powerful attacks with elemental affinity — plus some attacks that are more mid-range than long-range — while the latter attacks nimbly, chipping enemies down rapidly.
Some characters are more defensive in nature: the Shielder’s EX attack, for example, summons a circular area that confers temporary invincibility on you, while the Bishop’s heals the whole party. Other characters’ EX attacks unleash offensive skills in various arrangements; the Necromancer, for example, sets off a screen-clearing Soul Bomb, while the Witch launches a powerful fireball in the direction you were facing.
You’ll quickly find a party combination that works for you, but the nice thing about the game is that you’re not locked into this at any point; nothing is really “permanent” in Lapis x Labyrinth, and so you’re free to experiment with the mechanics as you see fit. This is a blessing, particularly once you start clearing dungeons and new progression mechanics start showing themselves.
But before we get on to that, we need to address a few things. Specifically, we need to address Fever, because this is far and away Lapis x Labyrinth’s defining feature, and an aspect which takes the whole game from “entertaining side-scroller” to “monstrously addictive time-gobbler”. And this is also where the shoot ’em up and pachinko elements come in.
As you fight off beasties in Lapis x Labyrinth, they will shower you with gold and gems. And I’m not talking those pathetic little piles of gold that pop out of skeletons in Diablo; I’m talking full-on, Cave shoot ’em up-style, screen-filling torrents of shiny things that automatically get sucked towards your characters, adding to three very important meters in the process.
The first is your Treasure Point counter. This is an arcade game-style “score” and doesn’t directly correspond to the amount of gold you’ll get upon completing the quest you’re on, but generally speaking you want to get this as high as possible by the end. The way you do that is through the second meter, which is the Treasure Combo counter. This tracks how many pieces of treasure you have successfully sucked up without getting hit by an enemy. The higher this climbs, the higher the multiplication factor on the number of Treasure Points you get for each shiny thing you hoover up.
The third meter is the Fever gauge. This is a circular instrument that gradually grows in size as you acquire treasure; when its central circle is big enough to fill its constraining border, you enter “Fever” mode, at which point the dungeons’ backdrop is replaced by fireworks, your whole interface starts flashing like a jackpot-spewing pachinko machine and the music blasts out the most obnoxiously infectious little jingle you will ever hear in your life.
During fever, every hit on an enemy or destructible block causes them to spew out coloured gems, meaning the screen is even more filled with chaotic shiny things than it is under normal circumstances, and it’s one of the most inherently satisfying things you’ll ever experience.
These coloured gems have two important functions: firstly, they simply add to your Treasure Points and Treasure Combo like normal coins and gems, and secondly, every 100 you collect will reward you with a random “Fever Gift”, which can be anything from a full heal for your party to additional skill points, attack power, bonuses to the treasure you gain… all sorts. There’s no downside. Oh, and you’re also completely invincible while Fever is going on.
As you might expect, triggering Fever as often as you can is key to obtaining high scores in Lapis x Labyrinth, and this in turn will allow you to get greater rewards upon the successful completion of a quest. There’s an important thing to bear in mind, though, and that’s something I’ve already mentioned: the fact your Treasure Combo resets any time you take damage from an enemy.
Lapis x Labyrinth initially doesn’t appear to be a very difficult game. It’s extremely rare, particularly in the early game, that you will fail a quest because of all your characters being knocked out, and it’s not until later in the game that the complexity of the levels causes the time limit to really become an issue.
You will, however, get hit. And it is unbelievably heartbreaking to see a Treasure Combo well into the thousands get wiped out by a single, careless injury — particularly if that injury was caused by Fever’s temporary invincibility period causing you to get overconfident and cocky.
The true Lapis x Labyrinth, then, is a game about dodging things. It’s a game about quickly and efficiently dealing with your foes and avoiding taking damage in the process. Sure, you can brute-force your way through and clear quests with a feeble score without too much risk to your party until the later stages of the game… but before long, the allure of those big numbers will prove too much to take. If there’s one thing Nippon Ichi has always been good at, it’s big numbers.
And learning to dodge things is by no means as simple as “don’t touch the enemies”, particularly when you bear in mind that some of your available characters are melee-centric. Rather, you’ll need to learn to recognise various types of foe and the attacks they’re likely to unleash, and be ready for them either through the timely use of a defensive skill, or by killing them before they’re able to get an attack off. It’s fortunate, then, that each enemy type is very visually distinct and immediately recognisable, so you just need to learn to associate the various hazards you need to handle with the enemies who cause them. Easy, right?
At this point, it’s probably a good idea to talk about the presentation of the game as a whole, because it’s a real highlight. Besides the well-designed, distinctive enemies, the backgrounds are beautiful, adopting something of a hand-painted look about them, and the character designs of both the party members and the various NPCs who come to inhabit the village at the labyrinth’s entrance are gorgeous.
Rather than going for a straightforward anime style — or even something like stablemate Disgaea’s distinctively angular approach — Lapis x Labyrinth’s characters adopt an aesthetic that combines the adorable chubbiness of “chibi” designs with the distinctively “edible” look of the traditional Japanese snack dango… and some overt, unashamed sexiness. This isn’t an ecchi game by any means, I hasten to add, but I defy you to look at the Necromancer and say she doesn’t summon a bit of fire in the ol’ belly, to cite just one example.
The animations are outstanding too; in the chaos of the on-screen action you may not notice how much work has gone into these adorable sprites, but take a moment to truly observe them in the heat of combat and you’ll see characters that have a ton of personality about them. They pull faces, they have incredibly expressive eyes, and they really look like they’re getting into it. Couple this with the fact that you can not only name all your characters but also choose their colour schemes and voices — including assigning female voices to male-presenting characters and vice-versa if you so desire — and it’s hard not to feel attached to these dumpy little idiots in short order.
Back in town, the various NPCs don’t have a ton to say — the majority of them are there for mechanical and progression-related purposes — but each of them have a clear personality about them, and some excellent Japanese-language voice acting gives you a real feel for the character through the way they sound as much as the way they look. Particular highlights for me include the perpetually bored-sounding “Exchange” shop owner, and the polite but ever-enthusiastic mayor-cum-lunch lady of the village.
Progression, then, and those with even a passing familiarity with Nippon Ichi titles will know that this tends to make up the meat of their experiences. That is most certainly the case here, though the game takes care to spread out its progression mechanics over pretty much its entire duration rather than overwhelming you with too many options all at the same time. Instead, while you’re exploring the first dungeon, all of your progression will be simply through getting better gear. From thereon, each new dungeon cleared will unlock either a completely new mechanic, or an expansion of an existing one.
By the end of the game, you have a variety of options. The Exchange shop allows you to purchase permanent upgrades to your characters as well as increases to the “caps” on equipment levels and training. The Blacksmith will allow you to attach passive abilities to weapons, armour and accessories and upgrade those abilities. The Dojo allows you to permanently increase your characters’ base HP, attack power, elemental resistances and attack power against specific types of enemy.
The interesting thing about Lapis x Labyrinth’s progression is that your whole party is essentially treated as a single character; that’s why they’re presented stacked up like a stick of dango rather than running around independently of one another. In other words, your overall effectiveness is determined by the sum of all your active characters’ statistics, passive abilities, weapons, armour and accessories, so upgrading all of your party members, not just the one you enjoy playing the most, is essential to success.
Thankfully, as previously noted, there’s no way you can back yourself into a corner progression-wise, because you can dismantle equipment to try something different; you can reset all your training points (though you will then have to pay for them again!) and you can, of course, try out different party compositions. Later in the game you even unlock the ability to increase your maximum squad size beyond the initial eight; there aren’t any additional character classes to choose, but this option allows you to create alternative builds for various classes and see which proves to be the most effective — or simply have “specialists” ready to deal with particular situations.
Money and crafting materials aren’t a problem, either; you can replay previously completed quests if you find one that proves to be a particular money-maker, and materials can be exchanged in varying quantities to “upgrade” them and find the specific parts you need for various enchantments or training sessions.
In fact, the best way to think of Lapis x Labyrinth is that it’s a game that absolutely revels in allowing the player to have a ton of fun. It’s ridiculous, it’s nonsensical, it’s over-the-top and it’s hilarious as a result… but there’s also a ton of depth and long-term appeal here, with substantial post-game content and plenty of opportunity to continue progressing long after the credits have rolled.
It’s one of the purest examples I’ve seen of what Nippon Ichi Software has always been about. It’s fun, it’s accessible, it’s joyful… and I really hope it doesn’t get forgotten about, because it’s the very definition of a hidden gem.
Make that a screen-encompassing shower of hidden gems!
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