Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk is the latest dungeon crawler to hit Western shores from developer, and publisher, Nippon Ichi Software (NIS). NIS has created and published a lot of games over the years, games which span genres such as JRPG, Dungeon Crawlers, Tactical RPGs and even Visual Novels – Labyrinth of Refrain wants to be a Jack-of-all-trades as is dabbles with a lot of mechanics, sometimes ‘too many’ mechanics in my opinion.
If you’ve played or read my ‘The Lost Child‘ review, Labyrinth of Refrain is very similar in terms of gameplay and genre. However, there are a number of things within this game which instantly put me off and made progress through the story a lot harder than it should have been. So, let’s take a look at one of my highly anticipated titles and see why I was initially put off by a number of mechanics present within the core gameplay…
The story of Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk is quite an interesting one, it also comes with some of the best voice acting I’ve heard in a NIS title for a while (in both English and Japanese). Our adventure begins as we oversee a travelling duo. A mysterious witch who is known as Dusk Witch Dronya, and her very young apprentice, and punch bag, Luca. They are out in search of the fabled underground labyrinth which is supposedly housed beneath the isolated and forsaken town of Refrain. Refrain was once a lively town, with visitors from around the world travelling to venture deep into the labyrinth and test their luck at obtaining riches. However, when people stopped coming out of it alive, the labyrinth was sealed off and visits from the outside world stopped.
Madame Dronya, the witches alias, and Luca stroll into town and set up camp with their puppet show directly in front of the labyrinths gate. After ‘persuading’ the town’s mayor to allow them to remain in the town, at that exact point, you both begin what you came here to do. Dronya tosses a magical book, the Tractatus de Monstrum, into the well which acted as the entrance to the labyrinth and lets nature take its course – the magical energy which resides down there was enough to awaken the hidden soul within the book and thus – our game begins.
The Tractatus de Monstrum (Trackie) was written by the sole person who managed to return from the labyrinth – hence why this book is so important. As such, our protagonist of the Labyrinth of Refrain is actually… Trackie! That’s right, you play as the book, and later on its puppet companions, as you venture through many mysterious and magical realms within the labyrinth as you aim to get deeper and deeper into the unknown. The further you get, the more pages of the sacred book will become accessible and active. The question is, how low can you go?
First things first, I’ve not completed Labyrinth of Refrain, nor do I think I will do any time soon. I have, however, spent over 30 hours within the game and I seem to have access to all of the mechanics at this point – so I should be able to pull together a decent opinion of the game.
If you’ve played a Dungeon Crawler before, Labyrinth of Refrain is very similar. You must venture out into a dungeon and move around with the same control mechanisms as you do in The Lost Child – The D-pad moves you forward, backwards and turns you left/right on the spot, and L2/R2 performs a strafe. The big difference here comes with its abundance of mechanics which you must learn, understand, and put into play if you wish to stay alive. In my personal opinion though, Labyrinth of Refrain is far too complicated for its own good. It could have been a really good Dungeon Crawler with half the mechanics it currently uses – it just feels bloated as you have far too many things to take in and remember in order to survive.
Let’s start with the first thing you have to do upon returning back to Madame Dronya – the puppets. As you’re a book, you can’t directly attack the evil creatures who lie in wait of your movements down in the depths of the labyrinth. As such, you can create magical puppet companions to come with you and take all the flank for you. You have the choice of six jobs to choose from, all with a male or female visual setting, followed by a lot of customisation in terms of their stats, how they will level up, what their personality is, and even what their favourite number is. Upon setting all of those, for each puppet (up to five at first), then you have to place them all within covens.
One of the initial barriers you’ll have, in regards to creating a team of unstoppable beings, is the cost and the lack of materials. You need to use a soul gem and a puppet part in order to create a living being. You unlock the ability to buy puppet parts later on in the game, for quite a high price, but the soul gems must be found or dissembled from antique items (one of the last options to unlock as the story progresses). This means you’ll be stuck with your initial team for at least about five hours, then you’ll gain a few new ones and then hopefully a few more. The good news is that your puppets can’t die – the bad news is that they can be seriously injured.
As you embark on your adventure, the enemy can sometimes perform a ‘critical gore’ on your team, this is basically a ‘critical hit’. However, in this instance, it will cause a body part of one or more of your puppets to become damaged. Providing it isn’t the head, they will continue to fight, only with lower stats (speed if legs or attack if arms) and a lower max-health. If the head is damaged then that puppet is effectively dead until you repair it. Repairs are also stupidly expensive when you return to your base, so you need to try and not start fights with creatures above your level – otherwise, you’ll end up with a bunch of broken toys!
I don’t know how I feel about the puppet situation. I have about 20 puppets in my team and 12 currently on the front-line, yet I still get my ass handed to me in a number of battles. I’ve even tried to lower the difficulty to see if that helps – it doesn’t. This game is very hard if you don’t strategise and ensure you build the perfect dream-teams.
What’s a coven? Your guess is as good as mine! From what I gather, it’s a group of puppet soldiers which sets in stone what that particular group’s abilities are in terms of magical and physical attacks. This is where it gets a little confusing. Initially, you have five covens, simple ones which offer spells such as heal, rock throw and fire blast. These allow one puppet per coven – thus five puppets which you can take into battle with you. However, you find more advanced ones later on which may allow you to have up to three front-end puppets and five supporting puppets in the back-end per coven. What does this mean? It means you could, technically, have up to 15 puppets on the front line with three in each of the five slots.
These more advanced Covens come at a cost, which I’ll talk about later, but they tend to offer better spells for the group, it combines the magical points of all of the members so you can perform more, and they offer a lot of statistical bonuses. However, the statistical bonuses appear to come from the ‘supporting puppets’ – if the coven supports them. If it does, some of them will boost your front-line covens health by a percentage of those set in the back-end, or even boost the attack for the same reason. Back-end puppets obtain less experience than the front-end ones, but they can’t get damaged or destroyed within battles.
This whole system is pretty good and quite in-depth – if you take the time to understand what’s going on and manually set everything (as it won’t hint you in the right direction or do it automatically). However, for the majority of gamers, it can get pretty annoying and cumbersome when you have to pick all the statistics for each puppet you make, ensure they meet the criteria to fit into certain covens you wish you use, and then return to earlier dungeons in order to grind to build up their levels… Oh, I’ll get to the grind next, don’t worry!
Every NIS game seems to come with mandatory grinding, The Lost Child, Disgaea, The Witch and the Hundred Knight 2, Metal Max and now Labyrinth of Refrain. The annoying thing is, you’re barely rewarded for grinding until you reach the later dungeons, but you can’t reach the later dungeons without having grinding first to get there. It’s one of the reasons these games are easily 50-100 hours long – because the difficulty is ramped right up with no direct scale on benefits to the user. Labyrinth of Refrain operates with two core experience mechanics and one ability mechanic. Let’s take a look at them:
Okay, this is your usual mechanic, as you kill the enemies, you gain more experience, right? Kind of, Labyrinth of Refrain has a secondary mechanic to this process (do you see why I said three are more mechanics than it needed now?). After you’ve played the game for a while, you get the option to ‘stockpile’ the experience you gain. If you stockpile after every fight, it’s all put into a pot and it has an ever-increasing multiplier attached to it. This means a 10k XP pool could turn into 25k if you continuously stockpile instead of claiming. The downside of this is, if you run from a battle, get defeated, or return to your base without ‘claiming’ the stockpile after a fight – you lose everything. I didn’t realise running from a battle did this at first and I lost about 15k of points I had been farming for over an hour. To say “I was annoyed” is a massive understatement. However, once you know, you know not to do it again! Also, XP will only go to puppets that are alive, apart from when you return home and get a bonus XP boost for getting out alive – that bonus is given to all puppets, alive or damaged.
Mana is gained the same way as XP, killing the enemies. You’ll also find green walls on your map, bump into these and you’ll obtain a sum of Mana as well. Whilst within a dungeon the Mana has a different purpose than outside of it. The higher the amount gets, the more drops you’ll get from enemies and the better the rewards. However, if you exceed the Mana counter then the Reapers will come after you and pretty much slaughter you – so don’t get too greedy. Back at your base camp, Mana is used to purchase ‘Witch Petitions’. If you’ve played The Witch and the Hundred Knight – this is identical! You can use mana to increase/lower the difficulty (and also rewards you get), buy new items, active passive skills such as health regen after a battle, etc… It’s very useful and worth splashing out on as a lot of the abilities you can get will help you out big time. You also use Mana when combining items later on and you also get a bonus after each level, just like the XP above.
Okay, this one is strange. you have 100 ‘reinforce points (RP)’ by default. these are only used within a dungeon and you are always given the same number. However, the better the covens you use, the more of these points they use. For example, if you have five covens and two use 3 points and the rest use 10 points each, you will start a dungeon with 64 RP at your disposal. As your covens level increases (in time with XP earnt), the number of RP it requires will be reduced. But just what is RP used for? If it’s only to bring in new covens into the dungeons then who cares? Clearly it’s not only for that purpose, otherwise, I wouldn’t have brought it up!
Whilst in-game, you unlock various Trackie abilities – these are things you, as a book, can perform in order to aid the exploration. The two which I’ve unlocked so far allow me to break down the walls and warp back to the base camp. That’s right, even though it’s a dungeon crawler and you create the map as you walk around – the majority of the game happens behind breakable walls which require RP in order to smash through. The walls also rebuild themselves once you leave and re-enter the labyrinth, so you can’t keep coming back and smash down more of the walls.
So yeah, the more advanced covens you have, the less RP you can use in-game and thus, the less Trackie abilities you can use before having to return to base.
What’s my quest?
So, are you confused about anything yet? As I said, Labyrinth of Refrain is actually really fun and a great time-sinker, but it’s way too complicated for its own good. Having a mechanism to a mechanism that requires another set of points to use that are affected by something else is a little OTT. I’ve not even touched on the annoying story aspects yet either! Let’s do that now!
Labyrinth of Refrain is very, very vague about what it wants you to do. I found that pressing Triangle in your base camp or in the field will give you a small message about what the game requires you to do – which is nice. But most of the time it will just say something like “Explore the new dimension…” So, you go off and search the new realm you’ve found for about an hour until you’ll finally find something that triggers the game to tell you to return to base. You’ll go back to the base, have a rather amusing cutscene (the humour in the game is great) and then you’ll be told to go back to where you just were and carry on… Why couldn’t it have done that without me returning – especially when you returning has no effect on the cutscene in most instances. One was returning to see Luca post a letter and another to see her talking about what to buy Madam Dronya for her birthday – it just stops my progression and sends me back to the beginning of the dungeon.
Thankfully, I can place two exit portals now, so I found if you drop two and use one, you can return to the other upon coming back to the dungeon. It saves a lot of time in backtracking and fending off all the enemies again. The story design and process has caused quite a bit of frustration up until this point though, as I sometimes have no idea what I’m doing and I’m left feeling like I’m not making any progress when in reality I probably am. However, as long as you remember to check the Triangle menu screen constantly and always make a b-line to the red ! on any of the maps, then you’re bound to trigger the next story element – even if it is a 20ft carnivorous plant which is impossible to destroy why your band of 12 front-line puppets no matter how many times you try.
Sorry – I’m kinda stuck at the moment on an impossible to beat (even on easy) boss. It turns out this red ! wasn’t the one I was actually supposed to go to, which is why I kept dying. There was another two of them on a different area of the map – these were the ones I had to pursue, hence why I was dying so easily!
This is the part where NIS redeems themselves with the Labyrinth of Refrain. Graphically the game looks awesome with all of its hand-drawn characters and environments. Sure, some of the assets look a little like Vita ones but placed on the PS4 (as it was originally a Vita game in Japan), but a lot of the textures have been increased and cleaned up for the PS4 release. I love the art design of the creatures and the anime-characters, it all feels very, very Japanese and very NIS. Soundwise though – this is by far my favourite NIS game in terms of its voice acting. Labyrinth of Refrain comes with both a full Japanese and English voice track with excellent quality in both versions. From the extremely high-pitched and annoying, but cute when singing, Luca to the aggressive and commanding Dronya – I love all the interactions and actually listen to every cutscene – which is strange for me as I usually read the text and move on.
Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk is a difficult game to give an opinion of. Just like a few games recently, I’m unsure where I stand on this one. I really like the story, the characters are great, the overall Dungeon Crawling experience is fun and I’m really enjoying trying to make my way through and map out all the various floors. However, there are a lot of mechanics I don’t fully understand (thus not taking advantage of), a lot of pointless and stupid breaks where I have to return to base for no reason, a silly amount of options and abilities, and it’s easy to forget what you’re trying to do. Oh, don’t forget the ramp in difficulty which requires you to grind for hours and hours just so you can try and take on a boss which is clearly about 5-10 times your level.
If you step back and look at the game as a whole, I would say what I said at the beginning, it’s a Jack-of-all-trades, master of none situation. It’s rolled a Jrpg, Visual Novel, Tactical and Dungeon Crawler all into one game without really emphasising on one core aspect. Well, I guess you could say the Dungeon Crawling is the core element, but that’s then crammed with the tactical side of the character creation and coven selection along with the JRPG of ensuring everyone is at a decent enough level. I have trouble with progression as I’m never sure exactly where I’m supposed to go or what I’m supposed to do. However, Once I do finally figure it out, I get a few hours of entertainment out of it until I become confused again. So it does have it’s moments.
Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk feels like the Marmite of dungeon crawlers, you’ll either love it or hate it. If you played The Lost Child recently and you really enjoyed that game, even with its steep learning curve, then you’ll most likely really enjoy Labyrinth of Refrain, especially if you are also a fan of the Witch and Hundred Kight and Disgaea series’. The narrative and dialogue are one of the best I’ve experienced so far in recent NIS titles – it really draws you in and has you laughing along. At some points, I even replayed the voice track and sang along with young Luca – She’s so cute! If you overcome the difficulty, learn the mechanics and put up with the constant back-tracking, Labyrinth of Refrain is a solid RPG which adds a lot to the Dungeon Crawling genre.
To the general consumer out there who likes Dungeon Crawlers which are nice and simple with no complicated mechanics or many processes to take in and remember, this one may not be for you. Personally, I’m enjoying my time with it and the story elements are holding my interest so far, so I’ll continue to play the game – if it didn’t have the charm and likeability factor in those then I could see myself giving up a long time ago.
Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk£44.99
- Interesting story and really funny characters
- Great voice acting in both English and Japanese
- Offers some new, interesting mechanics into the genre
- Many hours of story and even more if you wish to 100% it
- Too many processes behind mechanics which are behind menus which makes it confusing
- The constant 'return to the base' for unrelated cutscenes starts to get a little annoying - even though the cutscenes are funny
- Very steep difficulty curve, especially if you wander behind a wall you shouldn't access yet
- Hard to tell what you actually have to do half the time with multiple ! markers, some of which lead to impossibly hard bosses
- The puppet creation station is great for creating custom soldiers, but it can get a bit cumbersome and 'too' in-depth