The Magic of Mazes
When it comes to video games, there are two things that NIS is known in particular for; RPGs, and their unmistakably approachable version of the occult. Whether it’s their iconic, over-the-top SRPG Disgaea, or a hack-and-slash like The Witch and the Hundred Knight, NIS games’ unique and fun style has always made their games impossible not to spot if you’re even slightly familiar with them; and I’m happy to say that said style has very much carried over into their latest game, Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk.
A Well-Deserved Adventure
Labyrinth of Refrain follows the story of a powerful witch named Dronya and her young apprentice Luca who, by following the writings of a mysterious book titled the “Tractatus de Monstrum”, find themselves arriving in the town of Refrain. Though small and otherwise unassuming to the average person, Refrain hides within its quaint walls a dark and menacing secret, whose power seems to be emanating from none other than an old well placed smack-dab within the middle of town. Well aware (hah!) of this otherworldly mystery thanks to her book, and cementing her presence within the town under the guise of a performing caravan, Dronya immediately begins her attempt to conquer the secrets of the well – completely unaware of just how dangerous things could, and will, become.
But that’s not all! You see, Dronya may be aware of the labyrinth world beneath the well, but she can’t get to it. The labyrinth is a place filled with miasma levels so high that any human would quickly succumb to them, and, despite being a witch, Dronya is still human. So, what does she do? She sends the Tractatus de Monstrum (that’s you, by the way) down to do her dirty work for her. This act creates a “dual narrative” of sorts. On the surface there’s Dronya, the powerful witch trying to figure out the mysteries of Refrain and its labyrinth. And, inside of the labyrinth, there’s you, the person (or book, I guess) living out the many bizarre scenarios in which you ultimately find yourself entangled. Because of the way the story is set up, Labyrinth of Refrain essentially features two entirely unique casts of characters who, barring a few specific individuals, rarely end up interacting with their cross-world counterparts. While this might not seem like much to those of you who haven’t played the game, I can tell you from personal experience that it ends up being pretty unique.
An A-Maze-Ing Time
Labyrinth of Refrain performs its duties as a dungeon-crawling RPG admirably overall, and has some of the most comfortable pacing that I’ve experienced with this genre in quite some time. As is typical of most DRPGs, progression is based on the exploration of a number of non-connected worlds. While most of your time spent cruising and perusing through the various hellscapes of the well in which you’ve been thrown is pretty standard fare, Labyrinth of Refrain does mix things up a little bit with its Reinforcement and Mana mechanics. Acting as a sort of “exploration-based MP”, Reinforcement lets players use a number of skills during exploration and in battle, including the ability to hide from enemies (no random encounters here!), smash through walls, and, my personal favorite, the ability to stockpile EXP for a bigger payoff later on. Reinforcement ends up being helpful, but it’s really easy to run out of – just be sure not to waste it all at the very beginning of an exploration!
Mana, on the other hand, is collected during exploration and can be extremely beneficial – both increasing drop rates while the player is holding onto it in the dungeon and acting as a secondary currency on the surface. Although mana is seemingly entirely beneficial, it does have a drawback in the form of Mana Density which, if exceeded, will cause a special monster known as the Reaper to spawn (which I promise isn’t something that you want to fight). All-in-all, both the Reinforcement and mana improve the overall quality of gameplay, adding both an extra later of exploration-based strategy as well as a risk-and-reward system for players to be on the lookout for.
Labyrinth of Refrain’s most innovative feature by far is the way in which it approaches party and character creation, which, contrary to initial appearances, ends up being deceptively deep. In true DRPG fashion, players are able to create their own characters, or Manania (who are actually all just wooden puppets), but customization goes well past the basics. In addition to things like name, appearance, and facet (character class), players are also able to select a number of other features, including their preferred stat growth, which can either balance a character’s stat growth out or min-max it to the extreme, stance, which effects basic stats and aggro, and nature, which effects both how a character will benefit from equipped weapons and armor as well as how they interact with their fellow puppet party members. I won’t deny that it’s a lot to digest – especially in the beginning when all you want to do is start playing – but it does wonders for party personalization in the long run. Labyrinth of Refrain’s generous customization options give players the ability to put together a party tailored perfectly to their liking, and, should they like, ensure that no two characters are the same. And that’s especially good here, because, in this game, you’ll be doing a whole lot of character creating.
You know how most DRPG parties consist of around 4 – 5 characters? Well get ready to start laughing at numbers like that, because Labyrinth of Refrain will have you running around with 15-man (puppet?) parties – and that’s only counting the active members! Rather than confining a character slot to but a single character, Labyrinth of Refain utilizes what are known as “covens”. Simply put, covens are groups of characters that (usually) act as a single unit. A single coven can contain up to three active members (who participate in battles), and over twice the amount of standby characters. And, since Labyrinth of Refrain allows players to take up to five different covens with them at once, those who play their cards right can easily find themselves in control of an incredibly powerful party.
Covens do come with a major caveat, however. Rather than letting players go hog-wild with 30+ character parties from the get-go, Labyrinth of Refrain restricts party sizes with coven pacts. Much in the same way that equipment is equipped by individual characters, pacts are equipped onto the player’s coven slots. Although the most obvious thing that pacts determine are the coven’s size, they also come with a number of other beneficial, and on occasion detrimental – effects and restrictions, such as, for example, increasing DEF but only allowing the use of Peer Fortresses (the tank class of the game), or restricting a coven to being exclusively male or female. Additionally, pacts allow covens to use Donum (spells), which, since individual characters in this game don’t learn magic, becomes yet another important aspect to consider when dealing with certain coven builds. Like its character creation process, Labyrinth of Refrain’s coven mechanic is definitely a bit of a head-scratcher at first, but building up your very own mega party does become fun after you get the hang of it. And, thanks to the decent party-building pacing that pacts inherently provide, you’ll never feel an overwhelming need to create too many characters at once (nor will you most likely even be able to!).
All Aboard the Puppet Pain Train
With as many characters as you’re able to take into battle, you might think that Labyrinth of Refrain’s turn-based combat would be confusing – or at the very least complicated. But you would be wrong! Despite the considerable amount of time that this game has players putting into creating characters and setting up the perfect coven, combat is actually simpler here than in most other DRPGs. This is largely due to how it sets up skills. Your characters, as I’ve already mentioned, never learn active skills themselves (passives are another story), instead having to rely on the Donum skill list provided to them by their equipped pact. This in itself isn’t a huge deal, but it does seem like most of this game’s pacts are lacking in terms of quantity – generally providing characters with only a handful of skills at a time – leaving most characters sticking to their basic attacks.
Despite my overwhelmingly positive view on this game, I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed by how it approached skills. By letting players use so many characters at once, Labyrinth of Refrain had some serious potential to let players mess around with unique skill combinations as much as it did with its character and coven customization mechanics. Not capitalizing on that just feels like a missed opportunity, in my opinion.
Fortunately, Labyrinth of Refrain’s hands-off approach to magic doesn’t mean that it’s devoid of the need for strategy. Normally, each coven is only able to carry out one action – choosing “Attack” will cause all coven members to attack normally, using a Donum uses all members of a coven and so on – however the player can spend one Reinforcement point to issue commands individually. While individual coven members cannot use magic, the player is free to command them to do anything else, including using items (which a coven cannot normally do) – and can even spend Reinforcement to fortify attack and defense for a turn – allowing for deeper and more specific strategies. Of course, because of how things are set up, this also means that players should only use these tactics as necessary. I’m aware that this pseudo lack of control over the flow of battle might upset some people, I was personally just fine with it. I feel as though issuing dozens of commands per turn would do nothing more than severely muck up the flow of battle. Having the player only get specific when it accounts not only adds more options when needed, but it also serves to prevent battles from going slowly (because no one likes a slow battle).
That Witch is Said and Done
Simply put, Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk is a quality game. It’s also one that manages to tick off all of the right boxes in terms of both what a good dungeon-crawler should be, and what a good NIS game should be. Whether it’s its unique “dual-story”, well-built dungeons, solid pacing, or enjoyably smooth large-party combat, there’s a lot to like about Labyrinth of Refrain, and I highly recommend it to anyone looking to get into their next dungeon-crawling adventure – as well as to all of you NIS junkies out there!
FINAL VERDICT: 4/5
Available on: PlayStation 4 (Reviewed), Nintendo Switch ; Publisher: NIS America ; Developer: Nippon Ichi Software, Inc. ; Players: 1 ; Released: September 18, 2018 ; ESRB: $49.99 ; MSRP: M for Mature
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk given to Hey Poor Player by the publisher.