Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk allows you to dungeon crawl with an entire custom-made army. Sweet.
Genre: RPG, Dungeon Crawler
Release date: 18 Sept, 2018
When is the last time you played a dungeon crawler? I’m talking about the type of game where you move tile by tile in an unmapped dungeon, learning every inch of the layout, and fighting who knows what lurks in the murky depths until your party dies a horrible death at the hands of, let’s say, a Koala Bear Troll?. Well, that’s too long! Perhaps, though, you have never played a dungeon crawler and have an interest now that you see Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk releasing on the PS4, Switch, and Steam. Admittedly, I’ve played very few dungeon crawlers, so label me as an average gamer who just happens to enjoy JRPG and SRPG combat. I was intrigued by this PS Vita original being ported to other platforms and after seeing the trailer, I just had to see what this NIS game had in store. Previously, this was released only in Japan. So, looking this game up before the release date of September 18th, 2018 may not get you a lot of info in English and I can see why, this game is really long. From what little I could gather, it’s somewhere along the lines of 70-80 hours long give or take. I’m only 30 hrs in at the moment, but I’ve seriously enjoyed every minute of it. I’ll remark on my journey thus far and some of the really interesting rules and constructs used in the game that make this turn-based gameplay so addictive.
Surprisingly, you do not play as a witch. Instead, you play as…a book. A magic book with freaky eyes and pointy teeth, but a book nonetheless. If I’ve lost some of you by now, my apologies, but while the witch is the main character of the story, she is not the main character of the action. Our Dusk Witch is named Madam Dronya and has traveled across mountains to get to this little rural town called Refrain during a time period of what feels like the early 1700’s. Here, a powerful amount of magical mana is contained underground, sealed off by a well. Alongside her is her apprentice, Luca, who is pretty much her cheap child labor. No one knows who made the labyrinth, or how long it has been around. Only one person has ever left the labyrinth alive and he wrote a book called the Tractatus de Monstrum, after which he met an untimely demise. The book became bewitched and can create puppets with actual lost souls in them. Your job, ironically enough, is that you are essentially Madam Dronya’s puppet, doing her bidding whether you like it or not. Since humans cannot survive in the labyrinth, you go in her stead with your puppet soldiers to map it out and face all the battles while she stays in her caravan up above ground waiting for you.
The story is well acted in a good anime sort of way and in the format of 2D visuals without full animation, much like a visual novel. You’ll start off right in the middle of the action only to be thrown back to the start to give yourself a bit of time to wrap your head around the mechanics involved. And, frankly, that’s fine because then you get to the cut scenes of the game for some background before moving along back to dungeon crawling. The story comes in tidbits, but not too long or too short. I’ve played RPG’s with super long spans of story scenes before and this is not the case with Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk. Expect maybe 10-20 minutes of dialogue and then back to the gameplay. If you enjoy anime or visual novels, you’ll likely enjoy the story as it moves along, but the characters don’t draw me in as much as I had hoped. I do have to remark, it is mature. Not in the full nudity sort of way, but more along the lines of sexual matter with a smidgen of lewdness now and then. It’s been enjoyable thus far, and you unlock the next chapter once you’ve discovered something important in the labyrinth. The trouble is, you have no idea what is you are actually looking for, so it really requires players to look through every square inch of the dungeon to progress.
There is some occasional storyline dialogue within the dungeons as well, as you come across characters and make choices about what you say in order to elicit a response from them. Sometimes, a positive response will move you forward, sometimes a negative response is what you need, and other times it makes no difference because the enemy plans on kicking your ass anyway. So, look forward to these mini-chapters of storyline hidden deep in the labyrinth, they are surprising and fun to watch unfold.
Graphics and Sound
For those that enjoy 2D sprite artwork, there are plenty of very well rendered monsters and characters involved. If you are looking for an amazing 3D style game, it is somewhat more basic than you may be expecting. The enemies are 3D black and red balls ( or other colors like purple ), and the first person viewpoint is of you traversing through the dungeon one tile at a time. Consistent with dungeon crawlers, you can see the enemies close by, but you have no idea what type of monster it is until you fight it. Encounters are a mystery to be uncovered, not spotted from a distance unless it’s a higher tier monster denoted by little horns on its head. Even then, it makes a difference depending on which dungeon level you are on. What could be a monster with devil horns on one level with a 4500 HP could be a normal monster just one level down. The fact that you don’t know what could be coming your way makes it all the more tense during gameplay as you try to uncover the next discovery to bestow to Madam Dronya.
I have to say, the graphics, while very adequate and well done for a dungeon crawler, are not going to wow you. This was previously on the PS Vita and its emphasis is on the gameplay, not graphic bells and whistles. The best parts are generally in the surprising characters you encounter and the bosses that pop up along your journey.
Sonically, while I enjoyed the music I felt the default settings were way too high. I lowered it to the lowest setting to keep it from breaking my concentration during battles. During the dialogue scenes, the only voice I found irritating was that of the little girl Luca, who I literally would fast forward to avoid listening to. Everyone else was really on the ball and I enjoyed the English voice acting quite a bit. Actually, Luca’s shrill voice was good just annoying is all. The game does a good job of using proper audio cues to inform the gamer of enemies or battle situations during the gameplay as well. Overall, a well done audio production.
Delve and explore, that’s the main draw of this game. It’s addictive and downright hard to put down once you get deep into a dungeon with loot to plunder and secrets to unearth, even at 2AM in the morning with your eyes burning and knowing you have to wake up early to get back to work. It’s this constant desire to see what comes next that gets me into this game. As I said earlier, I’m not a dungeon crawler master. I enjoy the sort of chess match tension of turn-based combat and I have an innately strong urge to look in every nook and cranny of a game, but that’s about all I know when it comes to dungeon crawlers. So, in regards to the crawling aspect, it can really get to you. There were times when I swore I had gone over every single square, searching for up to half an hour straight, only to see I overlooked a switch that was on a wall as I was crawling too quickly. Note to other players, look at all your surroundings because there are switches here and there and traps that you may overlook entirely as you move too fast.
Traps and surprises are nothing new to dungeon crawlers, as are ridiculously intertwined levels with treasures purposely out of reach until you get much further in the game. You’ll find all of those in Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk. So, then, how do they make the combat interesting? This is done with a myriad of options, battle systems, combat loadouts, multipliers, and a bit of random luck.
The structure of your party, or Covens, is a really nice way to give players the option to customize their party build for a given level from the ground up. You have certain Pacts that you use, offering special attacks, healing, or other attributes to form distinct party covens that will join you in your fight. You start out with a small number of folks, with just one person per coven, but eventually you unlock the ability to have up to three characters playing in the battles with up to five covens involved. Yep, that’s 15 characters, but wait there’s more. Some covens can handle up to eight puppet soldiers with three attacking and five supporting as stat boosts, so with five covens, that’s FORTY CHARACTERS MAX for your party build, making the game really interesting with how you can group these covens strategically to your advantage fighting against enemies with thousands of HP with a custom-made army. Have a strong warrior puppet with only 300 MP and another with over 600 MP? Group them together in a coven to share the MP and have your warrior rip right through the enemies. Another option is to stack up healers with folks that have a lot of MP, or Donum as it is referred to in this game, and then you have a giant well of health to draw from when in battle. If a certain coven isn’t working well, just switch while in the dungeon! In between battles, you can make changes on the fly to see if it works better against the next enemy.
The puppets have weapons, headwear, shoes, armor, shields that are one handed or two handed, and relics. These are mostly item drops, and my advice is to go as far as you can early on, even if you die. Try to get some amazing weapons deep down in the labyrinth and go back to the levels you really should be playing in to wreak havoc. You never quite know when you suddenly find a weapon with a tremendous amount of Attack power, making a mediocre character a sudden super-warrior. I’ve played with the character builds, and it’s a wonderful way to tweak each puppet to their full potential with a variety of stats. It’s actually a bit dizzying, but man is it well thought out and versatile. It’s also very easy to switch out the items, so you don’t have to worry about being stuck with a certain character build. However, there is one thing to note, each character has a unique disposition to a certain type of weapon. So, be mindful to equip them with their highest rated weapon or you will never unlock their potential as a fighter.
Another thing to remember is don’t sell all your crappy weapons at the Market to get silver coins. Instead, later in the game you get access to an Alchemy Pot where you can make much better weapons and items from stuff you find in the labyrinth, with the more rare items being the best choices for upgrades. Items can be turned into Mana to be used as well with some even containing a soul inside, often denoted in the item description, and use that to make a new Puppet Soldier.
Some Interesting Battle Features
There are a few things here that give the game some extra pizazz, and I thought I would mention them. First, there is a feature called Resonance. When you have consecutive attacks against a foe, you can trigger this Resonance as an attack multiplier. When it happens, especially when you have a good sized crew of 15 or more puppets, it’s really amazing as it can make or break a difficult battle when it kicks in. Now, you can have a high chance of this Resonance when you have characters with compatible personalities and get along well, and there is even a Love Potion you can use to help them out. Always consider this before you attempt a difficult area.
Another feature is Donum ( Magic ) Echo. The Echo works with consecutive magic attacks to give you a blast of magic that damages the enemy and restores a bit back to the character. Now you may think, eh big deal. It’s the same as Resonance. There is a big but with that. The Echo can happen for the enemy as well because it occurs from *any* consecutive use of Donum magic spells, meaning you can end up on the end of the Echo attack as well. I’ve yet to master this feature, but if an enemy is using spells to attack, I just use some of my own and hope the Echo ends up attacking them instead of me.
Witches are good for something, right? Yes, they are. Dronya will offer you special magic buffs through her Witch Petition with abilities such as being able to escape from a battle that is over your head, find treasure on a level, recoup a percentage of health after each battle, make magical Mud Exits to get back to base and other things. These all come at the expense of Mana, so the general trick is to go as deep as you can into the dungeon, nearly max out the amount of Mana you collect( magic power, not points ), and then make a Mud Exit and return back to base ASAP (though you lose a percentage of Mana in doing this ). If you opt to try to make it back without a Mud Exit, you can use an Antechamber, a magic elevator for lack of a better term, and keep all your Mana. However, it can be a slog to get to it in time or even find it in the first place. If you go over the Mana limit for a given level you will face an all-powerful evil and be killed, losing way more Mana than if you had just used a Mud Exit.
The most daunting thing that can occur are what are called Gore Hits. These will literally rip a limb, or more, off a puppet, cutting their health down substantially and lowering their stats. You never know when this will happen, it is somewhat random from what I see, but more often it happens with highly powered enemies. Once it occurs, your puppet will not be able to recover until you repair them back at the base. There is also this puppet repair kit in the Market, but I haven’t tried it yet because it’s really expensive and it’s cheaper to just use a Mud Exit and go back to the base.
Now, if you have a ton of puppets and you need to level them up, you need something to speed that up, right? Yes, and that is why you can use another feature called Stockpiling. Instead of gathering your XP after a battle, you can stockpile it and use a multiplier to get your puppets leveled up extra fast when you decide to redeem all that XP. The downside is, if you have the witch’s buff to regain lost HP after a battle, it will not work while you are stockpiling. So, you have to carefully balance when to stockpile and when to heal up, you stockpile at your own risk. Also, if you return back to base before redeeming your stockpile, you lose all that XP. Just keep that in mind before you try to backtrack and find yourself against an enemy that looked innocent but had thousands of HP once you started the battle.
Reinforcement is something that really comes into play during the game. I’m a little shaky on exact details, but it’s something along the lines of points you can use for the Witch’s Petition and they are used when you do things like making a Mud Exit or breaking a wall. Using them all up while surveying the level can leave you in a bad position because you may not be able to get back. However, you can earn them back up by collecting Mana. They are also subtracted with the more puppets you take into battle when leaving for the labyrinth.
While this game is a 3D first-person dungeon crawler where you move tile by tile, you will not be looking at the actual first-person view the whole time. I can guarantee you will be looking primarily at the little mini-map in the right-hand corner. This map is absolutely essential to the gameplay. You will not be able to make heads or tails of an area without it and there is even a shortcut to view the whole map that is uncovered by pressing R1+ Dpad Down.
The map will show you where enemies are lurking, though you can see them on the main view as well. You’ll mostly be concerned with the solid walls that are golden and the light brown walls which can be broken after you gain the Wallbreaker spell from the witch. Many times, you can’t get somewhere because of a required key and using the Wallbreaker spell, at the cost of Reinforcement points, is not only easier but may be the action *required* by the game because it’s impossible to proceed without it.
I have to point out, uncovering all the hidden areas of a level in the map is totally addictive. I lost track of time every instance where I came into a new area of a level because I had a need, almost like a drug, to reveal the whole map. I can’t stand it when there is a little black area there where I can’t see what comes next. It’s like a pet peeve or something, but don’t be surprised when you look at a blank area of a map and think, “No. That’s not right. I need to see the rest. I must. Aggh!” It’s like a little bit of video game crack or something. Maybe it unlocked the dungeon crawler in me, but I hate not having everything mapped out. When you do get it all revealed, it’s so satisfying too. Plus, you often unlock hidden item drops and treasures. At least when you don’t land on a patch of poison or fall through a hole you do. Some of those treasure chests can’t even be opened until later in the game, so knowing where those are once you get the correct key will keep you eager with anticipation to unlock those.
I have to comment that when you make your puppet fighters, you will likely have no idea what in the world Stat Growth, Natures, Stances, Skill Selections, and Lucky Numbers are for. It’s very confusing and probably my main gripe with the game. The character building is so complex that you could be playing for hours on end and have no idea if anything you chose had any meaning whatsoever. I generally picked an interesting Skill Selection and the Standard Stance rather than the Moon or Sun options which can change their Defensive or Offensive effectiveness, but lose some Magic or Defence in doing so. Standard seemed fine by me. I’ve still got no idea what Nature really does, picking from Passionate, Happy, Cheerful, Reckless, and so on, but my best guess is it affects their rapport with other puppets. How much it does that, I’ve no idea. So, picking all of these attributes right at the beginning of the game, or even after multiple hours into the game, is confusing and unclear. I don’t really know how much it is affecting my game, but I’m assuming staying the course with mostly Standard choices are fine. Though, at least the option for Stat Growth seems pretty straightforward with obvious descriptions for those in the pulldown menus.
You initially have six classes to choose from, called facets, which are the Aster Knight, Shinobushi ninjas, Peer Fortress tanks, Theatrical Stars, Mad Raptors with crossbows, and Marginal Mazes that are better and more efficient with magic. Each has a gender option. Later on, you can choose a Gothic Coppelia who uses a hammer, and a Demon Reaper who uses a scythe as a weapon. The real fun is mixing up the different types to create powerful covens that work well together.
There are also Vanguard and Rearguard sections of your covens. You can change these out freely during the gameplay, but keep in mind the Vanguard is where the brunt of the attacks will take place, so pick some high HP characters there with good shields.
I can’t really say which facet I enjoyed more. I think it may vary from person to person, but the Theatrical Star worked well for me at the onset because I fell down to level 4 in the first dungeon and found a Refrain Bell, which right away made her my most powerful attacker. Also, she attacks all the enemies in a group as long as they are not staggered above and below each other. The other one that worked well was the Shinobushi, but only because right after I made her, I got a 273 attack power weapon and it made her the best way to attack big enemies.
I have to say, all of the characters will have different attack strengths against the enemies based on the type of enemy and it doesn’t necessarily work the same even for the same facet. For instance, I had two Peerless Fortress tanks, both with the same Stance, Stat Growth, Nature, and Skill Selection. One couldn’t make a dent in a rock monster, while the other could kill the monster in just a few hits along with my Theatrical Star. All I could guess is that it was the Coven Pact making the difference because their weapons and outfit were nearly the same.
Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk has one of the most complex battle systems I’ve ever seen, perhaps even *the* most complex I’ve ever played and it offers a lot of features that I honestly was not expecting. Almost every single aspect of your character can be fine-tuned and there are endless ways to strategize your coven party to suit your preference for fighting. It’s daunting, and frankly confusing at first because many of the character attributes are not entirely explained and the game has to teach you what is going on several times, but the game is so deep with options and battle systems in play along with coordinating systems that it becomes really enjoyable as you switch around all the characters in your coven. The story is mostly interesting, even if the characters really aren’t, and it is surprising at times with the occasional curveball out of nowhere.
Ultimately, the dungeon crawling is where it is at and it’s a lot of fun as you explore and uncover the unknown, although the enemies eventually do get a bit stale until you are confronted with a boss. Bosses are not to be underestimated, and neither are any sub-bosses. You’ll live for the secrets and battle strategies as you wander through. It’s a game fairly well told and very carefully designed. If you are looking to experience a dungeon crawler with an assortment of battle systems and interconnecting levels, this is a wonderful game to play. I give this a strong Save rating for those that are looking for a good turn-based game where everything is shrouded in mystery until you step on that fateful tile, ready to fight whatever comes your way and make it back alive.