Dragon Lapis Review (Switch)
Release Date: November 5, 2020
File Size: 94MB
Developer: EXE Create
Click here to view on the Nintendo eShop.
I don’t care what anyone says, KEMCO is the gift that keeps on giving! While that adage can be associated with both the good and the bad, including the seasonally appropriate (and often feared) fruitcake, both sides are applicable to KEMCO. Although some might say that a publisher averaging one RPG release every two months since the inception of Switch is a bit much (and that isn’t necessarily wrong) it has sometimes proven to be a blessing in disguise. Not all KEMCO RPGs are that great, certainly, but most are decent, and a select few are among the best bang for your buck in the retro JRPG market.
From the start, Dragon Lapis has the advantage of a rich, established heritage thanks to its close relatives, Dragon Sinker and Alvastia Chronicles, both being shining examples of “KEMCO RPGs done right.” But, as you’ll soon see for yourself, a distinguished legacy doesn’t mean that a new release under the same umbrella will have chops equal to those that came before it.
A millenia ago, two mighty dragons fought to stake a claim in the realm of the humans, leaving destruction in their wake. This spurred on heroes and heroines alike to attempt to defeat – or at the very least, suppress – the dragons, though this task would prove impossible for all but one hero, Alaric. While unable to completely destroy the dragons, he would successfully imprison their physical forms and separate their souls (or power) in a set of stones known as the Dragon Lapis. All things would be good for many centuries.
1000 years later, the player controls Lucas – the medieval equivalent of Napoleon Dynamite. Working as a guard for the royal family, he is mocked by his peers for his lack of sweet skills. Gosh! Before long, however, news of the Silver Dragon’s reawakening spreads, and so too does its destruction, like wildfire. This destruction soon finds itself in the village where Lucas is stationed, and coincidentally, where the husk of the Gold Dragon has laid dormant…until now.
The dragons reawaken, and with it, so do Napoleon’s — sorry, Lucas — latent powers. This can only mean one thing: Lucas is a descendant of Alaric, the hero that sealed the dragons away a millenia ago. While he shares an interesting bond with the Gold Dragon – now in human form – there is another descendant of Alaric, Ramires, that has the same relationship with the destructive Silver Dragon. But, of course, he’s a complete butthole.
Thus, Lucas, Iria (The Gold Dragon), Melvin (a mercenary), and Elodia (a witch) set out to not only stamp out the threat that is the Silver Dragon Duo, but also to find each Dragon Lapis, which will increase the Gold Dragon Duo’s powers with every discovery. Bonding with historically destructive dragons, while certainly odd, is something that must ultimately be done if the world is to be saved from their wrath.
Unfortunately, very little impresses in terms of plot here. The most interesting points – the bond between the dragons and their hero descendants, and the fact that the latter is essentially talentless before the awakening of the former – have more or less climaxed in the first hour of gameplay. Ramires is a weak villain thats vile tendencies are nothing but a byproduct of being teased for being a talentless oaf, and the Silver Dragon doesn’t fare much better. There is an additional layer to the tale that comes much later in the experience, but it does little to excite by that point.
The companions of Lucas aren’t very interesting, either. Melvin is a 35-year-old scoundrel that often acts as if he’s in the body of someone twice his age, and not because of any wounds incurred from years at his “day job.” There is not much to even say about Elodia since she has a paper-thin personality. Although I rarely critique the narrative of KEMCO RPGs to this fine of a degree – most of their catalog features average plotlines and characters at best – I expected more here because of its ties to Alvastia Chronicles and Dragon Sinker and how both titles raised the bar in that regard.
The story and characters aren’t terrible, but are a bit disappointing overall. The occasional, humorous dialogue choices scattered about do help smoothen things out a bit, but collectively don’t feel as clever or charming as the choices found in Dragon Sinker.
Dragon Lapis follows the same song and dance of most KEMCO RPGs, meaning it is a retro-inspired JRPG infused with some modern conveniences, ever-changing progression systems, and everyone’s favorite pastime, microtransactions! Fortunately, the microtransactions are about as noninvasive as they can get — great, considering the game isn’t free. Going down that path is still easy, mind you, thanks to both the occasional acquisition of premium currency or by voluntarily opening your wallet. For the best experience, though, it is advised to avoid these things entirely for a base difficulty run (except for that random encounter toggle ring — that thing is HANDY).
Dragon Lapis provides multi-layered character progression in the form of character levels, job levels, and growth plates. Killing enemies will increase the level of your party members at certain thresholds, but does little in terms of actually developing them on their own. Heroes receive a set amount of EP each time they level, which can be used to unlock nodes on growth plates – a system which is essentially an unintuitive version of the sphere grid found in Final Fantasy X. Fill out an entire growth plate and it will disappear, granting you additional stats and allowing for another growth plate to be pursued. Each growth plate is tied to a certain job that will increase the character’s rank in that specialization with each completion. Small chunks of EP can also be collected through using certain rare consumables, defeating metal monsters, and by completing in-combat missions. These missions are varied but always simple, typically requiring the player to achieve a certain damage threshold or use a specific action in order to fulfill it.
Various jobs are unlocked through progressing both the main story and side content, some of which are exclusive to certain characters, and swapping between them is as easy as pulling up the main menu and making that choice. Achieving a certain level in each job will allow those characters to take advantage of the job’s auto-skills, or specific passives, without actually having to commit to that job. Interestingly enough, you don’t have to be a specific job in order to progress their associated growth plates, so you can remain whatever job you prefer while simultaneously progressing another job. The only caveat here is that you can’t take advantage of job-specific abilities of a different class (outside of the aforementioned passives) while committed to another one. The freedom of choice here is great, but there’s very little reason to do much swapping between jobs, at least on the standard difficulty. For reference, I was able to one-shot the final boss (and more or less everything before that) with Iria’s Dragonite job alone, and no help from any microtransaction or lottery nonsense. It’s very possible that more min-maxing would be required for the higher difficulty, or the postgame content on standard, though.
The best part about character progression is that each character’s power will grow from the growth plate stat bonuses regardless of their chosen job, meaning that working on ANY growth plate will in turn increase the power of that character permanently! Although I appreciate the flexibility and control the player has over progression with the growth plates, it becomes tiresome quickly with how difficult their associated UI can be to navigate. Also, since you can only really make big progress on them after level ups, it ultimately doesn’t feel that much different than a more traditional leveling system where stats are allocated automatically. Regardless, if you have enough EP, you can autofill a growth plate, but anything less and you have to click each individual node yourself. This in itself wouldn’t be a big issue if it didn’t feel like it was designed with touch controls in mind.
On top of the control issues, your team can only hold so many excess growth plates before you have to start throwing some away en masse, especially if you have a Thief-based character in your party (they increase the drop rate). The game will not hard prompt you when you are full, unless you happen upon a plate tucked away in a chest (which is rare). If you aren’t paying close attention to the spoils of each random encounter – and it’s difficult to when there are so many – then you could easily go a long time without realizing you aren’t picking up new growth plates. Not good!
Besides the unique character progression system, Dragon Lapis is very much a by-the-numbers affair in terms of KEMCO offerings. The player will quickly progress through a series of towns and dungeons, facing off against bosses at the end of each dungeon for either story progression of some fat loot. While brisk pacing is always refreshing to see in the realm of retro JRPGs – many titles in this vein tend to be the exact opposite – there is an issue early on where it can be difficult to keep your gear up to date without focusing on grinding or exchanging some premium currency for cash. Stay strong, friends, do not be tempted by the microtransaction fiend!
The cashflow issue does eventually subside, and thankfully gear isn’t quite as beneficial as simply doubling down on growth plate progression. This in turn does make the gearing process a bit boring, since most upgrades offer measly stat bonuses and rarely offer unique perks. Players will already have their hands full with the growth plates, however, so I suppose that gear being less relevant isn’t entirely a bad thing. You will be in and out of most areas in a flash anyway, at least until the final few dungeons where you will pray for speedy progression once more. To make matters worse, the final few dungeons have a bad habit of teaching you extremely basic dungeoneering tactics – switches and the like – that would have been far better suited for the beginning of the game rather than at the end. You’re telling me the hero is moments away from fighting a dragon, but doesn’t know how to solve a simple dungeon puzzle. Nonsense! This behavior occurs in just about every KEMCO RPG, but most of them do a better job of distributing that information as early as possible. Groanworthy for veterans, but beneficial for newcomers, I suppose.
KEMCO RPGs often feature systems designed to respect the player’s time, and Dragon Lapis is no different. An easy-to-use warp systems, checkpoints in dungeons, and an auto battle toggle in combat help make the arguably dated framework more approachable to the average consumer. Side quests are anything but respectful of your time, though, and almost always send you off to the dungeon you just completed to fulfill some mundane task. There aren’t many side quests, thankfully, but you’re encouraged to complete them for both their base rewards and their association with one of the most OP job passives available to our hero, Lucas. All in all, Dragon Lapis does an acceptable job of keeping you busy with its multifaceted progression system and by throwing lots and lots of bad guys at you. There’s even some postgame content to complete for those that desire more mayhem after the credits roll.
Presentation and Performance
Dragon Lapis follows the same design framework of Dragon Sinker and Alvastia: colorful, retro-inspired graphics, and a catchy (albeit repetitive) chiptune soundtrack. KEMCO and EXE CREATE are arguably at their best when they commit to this style rather than pursuing the anime-inspired design prevalent in the majority of their other titles. Focusing on this clean and simple design helps shed the “RPG Maker” vibes often associated with their other format, and it’s something I’d love to see them fully embrace in their titles moving forward.
Despite the overall sleek presentation, Dragon Lapis does have some occasional performance issues. The framerate can debilitate over time, something I believe is tied to suspending the game multiple times over many hours, but I cannot say that with complete certainty. Rebooting the game seems to fix the issue, and it only became egregious enough that I had to resort to that tactic once. Otherwise, the game looks and runs quite well.
Overall, Dragon Lapis is painfully average in spite of its rather impressive heritage. Story-wise, I hoped that it would fall somewhere between the interesting cast of Alvastia Chronicles and the charming, age-old simplicity of Dragon Sinker, but it more or less falls flat right out of the gate thanks to an underwhelming plot and uninteresting characters. The wealth of customization provided by the various jobs and individual growth plates are appreciated, but not at the expense of an unintuitive UI and pretty much burying the importance of the gear treadmill.
I, as always, commend KEMCO for trying different things in their RPGs, but sometimes the results feel half baked, and that is pretty much the case here. While this isn’t a terrible way to spend a few bucks on a 10-20 hour adventure, there are better KEMCO RPGs out there that should take priority. But if you’ve played them all and are just looking for your next budget-friendly fix, then Dragon Lapis shouldn’t disappoint.