Thanks to NIS America for the review code
Title: Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk
System: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: 09/18/2018
In this dungeon crawler RPG, you take control of puppet soldiers created from a mystical book, under the control of a witch named Dronya, who moves into a new town in hopes of unlocking the secrets behind the town’s forbidden well and the treasures which lie within.
Being developed by the same team behind the Disgaea games, the art style feels very similar to what was established in that franchise, with the usual anime character designs, only with more distinctive features that make some of the classes look identical to the ones you could use in the Disgaea series, so you can tell that at least one of the same artists worked on this game. Being that this is a first person dungeon crawler, navigating menus are still the main focus before you enter the dungeons, and while there are fully voiced story bits between the main objectives that are done in the same way as they would be in Disgaea, there’s little else of note in terms of looks, since the dungeons and enemies you’ll encounter look pretty uninspired, with oddball designs for the enemies and plenty of rooms looking the same until you finally get done with a section of the Labyrinth. The music isn’t that memorable either, going for a more classical approach with the usage of a piano for the main battle theme as an example.
The main goal of Labyrinth of Refrain is to explore the forbidden well using an army of puppet soldiers stored within a mythical book, completing an objective before returning to the caravan and reporting back to Dronya to advance the plot. This style of progression is fairly similar to most of the other games I’ve played in this style, so it was fairly simple to get into, although I felt that this one tried to be more like Etrian Odyssey when it came to the combat and focus on exploration. (although this game doesn’t let you map out the layout by yourself, if you’re into that)
While pretty much all games in this genre share the same focus on clearing plot-related objectives before you’re allowed to progress further in the dungeons, Labyrinth of Refrain gives you a bit more leeway. Like with Etrian Odyssey, each part of the labyrinth is broken up into multiple floors, with the next segment of the dungeon kicking in after you clear the floors related to the prior segment and advance the story enough.
While the game will tell you to report back to base as soon as you clear an objective, also trying to prevent you from exploring further, sometimes you are able to completely ignore those prompts and find a pitfall to the next floor down, either by design of one of the floors or by breaking a wall with a reinforcement skill and discovering one that way. You’ll still need to advance the plot to ultimately learn what you’ll need to complete the sector and stand a chance at fighting the enemies in these lower floors, but you can also go out of your way to sequence break a bit for extra experience. You’ll find some helpful equipment and items much earlier than intended if you manage to find your way out from these pitfalls alive, but you also have to deal with the incredibly high risk of running into a dangerous enemy and getting killed in the dungeon, even if your characters are at max health. This adds a risk and reward element to the exploration which can actually become a little addicting once you get used to the exploration and figure out ways to avoid the enemies in your path to get to safety.
Regardless on whether you choose to play it safe and stick to the story or try to explore every nook and cranny of a floor, Labyrinth of Refrain is incredibly tough, especially at first. You see, while you’re able to create characters and build your team to guide them to victory, you only have a limited amount of puppet parts and soul vials, which are both needed in order to create a new team member. In order to get more soul vials, you’ll have to find them in the Labyrinth, which means you may end up in a situation similar to mine where you won’t get your final party slot filled out until you’re four hours into the adventure.
This means the party members that you are allowed to create at the start must be treated with absolute care, equipping and purchasing every good piece of armor you can find in the dungeon and parting in every single battle you come across to gain as much EXP as possible. You’ll need those level ups if you want to survive the later floors, or even make it back to the starting point in one piece. One feature that this game introduces to you very quickly comes from how your puppets can be severely wounded if you’re too careless. While losing all your HP will lead to a standard game over, sometimes a puppet’s individual body parts can be destroyed entirely, requiring that you repair them back at the caravan in order for them to be combat ready again. You can buy these materials from the town’s shop, (which uses silver coins to buy) although the stronger your character is, the higher quality materials they’ll need, which will cost more. You may end up having to sell a lot of excess equipment and items found within the dungeon in order to make ends meet, though luckily a lot of random chests spawn on floors you’ve already revisited which contain sellable items, so you can’t get stuck entirely.
Still, if your party member suffers a gore hit before they die, that also prevents them from using their full range of stats, and thus they’ll also have to be repaired even if they are still alive in the dungeon. There is a weakness system in this game after all, and the battle system is pretty standard, with basic attack, skill menu, defend and escape options all available from the start, but if you want to use an item or switch equipment around, you’ll need to use reinforcement points to get that extra boost. Some weapons and elements do more to enemies than others, and if you manage to figure out a perfect combo (such as both an effective weapon AND elemental skill) you can do a ridiculous amount of damage to an enemy, and have a chance of dealing a gore hit and weakening them more. Likewise, they can do the same to you, so be careful and equip properly and make sure you’re safe from status conditions.
The aforementioned reinforcement meter is refilled every time you enter the dungeon, and is used up whenever a reinforcement skill or the extra battle options are used. You can restore some reinforcement points with the mana you find in the dungeon, but it’s simply easier to head back to base ASAP if you’re running low. Speaking of mana, this is what you can spend in order to change entire aspects of the game or get upgrades via Witch Petitions. The most helpful upgrade by far comes from the difficulty options, which can either increase or decrease the difficulty in the dungeons, pretty much replacing your typical difficulty level in a game like this. It’s introduced around two hours into your quest, and the game before then isn’t too difficult, but I do find it very strange that it doesn’t give you a standard option from the start, and even on easier difficulties, falling into lower floors too early will still lead to dangerous encounters, so you’ll still get quite the challenge out of the dungeon crawler regardless.
In conclusion, Labyrinth of Refrain was an enjoyable crawler, with a cool focus on exploration and survival, but it wasn’t anything I haven’t seen in some form or another before. While the story is mildly amusing due to the outlandish behavior of Dronya and her assistant, and the combat is easy to get into, this game can be a grindfest at times, whether it’s searching for a certain amount of an item to progress the plot, or just making sure you can properly survive the floors ahead. The difficulty options in the Witch’s Petition is nice, but the fact they’re locked behind this odd shop of sorts instead of being an option from the start of the game is a decision I couldn’t quite understand. While I had fun with the game and also had the urge to come back to it in order to explore more of the dungeon, I still feel that there are better alternatives in the genre, so this didn’t really impress me all that much in the end. Still, if you’re looking for another dungeon crawler to play on the go, then Labyrinth of Refrain is a serviceable solution.
I give Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk a 6 out of 10.