Watership Down has ruined us. We approached Lapin, a game about five rabbits looking to escape their warren and find a new home, with a field-full of trepidation. When was the farmer going to appear with his snares? When was Cowslip going to knock seven shades out of us? When was – gulp – the gassing going to happen?
We wish we could have said that we needn’t have worried. We wish we could say that this is more Countryfile than Animals of Farthing Wood. But we can’t. While Lapin isn’t as consistently brutal as Richard Adams’ book or the 1978 film, it still goes there. Occasionally it can feel like Watership Down by way of Black Hawk Down.
We’ll shake off the trauma and try to lay out why Lapin might be of interest to you. First of all, it’s impossibly cute. The rabbits, dolled up in neckscarves, collars and headphones, were enough to make our whole family simultaneously ‘squee’. That’s down to the character design and animations, which are stupendously realised. They’re somewhere between the looser Studio Ghibli work, like Princes Kaguya, and old Beatrix Potter animations, and it regularly feels like you’ve intruded on a cartoon, rather than sat down to play a video game.
You play Liebe, a newcomer to a warrenful of rabbits who have escaped ‘The Cage’: a facility of some kind, which gets rounded out with some backstory. For reasons that aren’t completely explained, the rabbits need to move on, and some haven’t been out of the warren for some time – if at all. You’re led by a rabbit called Captain (name rather than rank), as you make your way over the surface, following the remnants of an expedition trail that left previously.
We’re focusing so heavily on the story because, perhaps surprisingly for a puzzle-platformer of its type, Lapin focuses on it too. A large proportion of Lapin’s preview can be spent chatting with Captain, Bianca, Jose and the fantastically named Montblanc. There is plenty of downtime, whether that’s in the wordy opening, the moments between platforming sections, or the incidental moments when you come across one of the herd. You’re rewarded for it too, as hearts appear above the rabbits’ heads, denoting that a Persona-like friendship milestone has passed. Playable memories are unlocked if you go so far as to fill a heart.
Having played Lapin through its rather substantial four levels (about six hours of content, we’d estimate, which isn’t bad at all for something on Game Pass that has a ‘Game Preview’ label), we can’t precisely state what kind of game it is.
In its opening, and moments thereafter, you could be forgiven for thinking that Lapin is in the tradition of Limbo or Inside: a kind of narrative-heavy platforming experience. But the narrative increasingly gets shed and replaced by precision-heavy platforming puzzles. Inside becomes Celeste, as the puzzles ramp up – and we mean seriously ramp up – to become the sort of challenge where you will die a dozen times per screen. See, Watership Down all over again.
The challenge ebbs and flows, and the narrative comes and goes, so our only conclusion is that Lapin sits somewhere in the middle of the two subgenres. It stamps down on the accelerator on occasion, and then lurches to the odd stop for some story.
It is, if we’re being completely honest and truthful, our biggest concern about Lapin. Over the six hours, we’ve had whiplash. Lapin presents as a gorgeous, family-friendly romp, with pawfuls of narrative and character interaction. You want to explore, stick around and chat. Everyone is so welcoming and warm (with the exception of grouchy Montblanc), and we felt like Lapin was the equivalent of a Sunday morning walk.
But then things get shifted into fifth gear, and you have to complete pixel-perfect jumps while simultaneously unravelling the puzzle of the area. On the odd occasion, you’re being chased by a weasel to add an unwanted sense of panic. The dexterity needed, both mentally and finger-wise, is exceptionally high, and while there are plentiful checkpoints, Lapin is punishing. There’s an audience for that, of course, and we’d go so far to say that we are that audience, but when partnered with everything else, it’s an odd gel that we’re not sure sets. It will be interesting to see whether anything shakes out of the Preview stage and gets changed for the full release.
Because strip out the chasing weasels and some of the relentless precision, and the level design verges on the sublime. There’s a critical path through Lapin’s story, but you can choose to stray from it. This takes you to secondary rooms, off the beaten path, where you can complete harder ‘challenge rooms’ to find a seed and immediately plant it. The resulting plant emanates a memory of the expedition that went before, and you can begin to piece together personalities and the events that led them to, well, be wherever they are.
And outside of the sudden, jolting acceleration in certain areas, there is a lovely pace at work. New mechanics leap into view every twenty minutes or so, and you’ll soon be coating yourself in blue pollen to gain a dash move (only temporary, which makes the puzzles more deft and clever, rather than less), turning taps to shut down water flows, and inhaling bubbles to give yourself an extra lift.
So sure, we feel beaten having completed Lapin’s Game Preview. It’s a punishing game that calls on the dark spirit of Watership Down to leave us feeling broken and bruised. But we also feel a glowing sense of reward, that we’ve achieved something, and we’ve protected the herd and made friends along the way.
The real question will be whether those who are drawn in by Lapin’s gorgeous art will be the same as those who want nails-hard platforming. It’s a conflict that raises questions with us, but we’re eager to find out when it fully launches on Xbox – hopefully onto Game Pass.
Lapin is due for full launch in 2023 on Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S. Grab the Game Preview version from the Xbox Store and via Game Pass.