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Most people may know Nippon Ichi Software (NIS) mainly due to the popular Digaea series, but they have a rather mixed library of other releases. While games like Yomawari show that they can still create great games, their modern RPG output has been rather lacking. Ditching the Vita and instead moving to PS4 (reviewed), Switch and PC for this western release, Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk is not only an incredibly inventive DRPG, but one of NIS’s best games outright.
Many dungeon crawlers feature a story that’s little more than an afterthought, but Labyrinth of Refrain tells a rather interesting tale. Court witch Dronya and her apprentice Luca head to the town of Refrain at the behest of its mayor. The reason for their journey is to investigate the world beneath the town that is accessed via its well. Assisting in their investigation is the Tractatus de Monstrum, or Tractie as it named by Luca, a magical book that ends up being possessed by a stray soul.
Labyrinth of Refrain starts of rather slowly, and for around the first half of the game you’ll mainly just be exploring dungeons with a minimal amount of story to break things up. Things start to ramp up considerably as you progress though, and the story transforms into something far deeper than we expected. The main cast of characters would, for the most part, not be considered good people – Dronya is quick to anger and will seemingly do whatever it takes to achieve her goals. But as you reach the game’s conclusion, her motives and those of the the people that surround her become clearer. The way everything is tied together for the final set of dungeons is excellent and it all leads to a satisfying finale.
It’s not just the story that deviates from the norm, exploration and battles have also received some interesting additions. Gameplay all takes place in first person and dungeons are grid based as with most DRPGs. However, instead of relying on random battles, enemies are a physical presence that you can attempt to avoid. Dungeon crawlers like the Etrian Odyssey series or Mary Skelter both had the strongest enemies roaming floors of their dungeons, and this is just the next step in creating more interesting dungeons. Dead ends and pitfalls become far more meaningful if there’s the possibility of enemies blindsiding you.
One system that ties both dungeon exploration and battles together is reinforcement. Tractie starts with 100 reinforcement, and a certain amount is detracted based on your party setup. You can use reinforcement to power up characters during battle, break certain walls in dungeons and create portals to escape and return to at any point. The most helpful ability though is Mud Exit, which can be used both as an escape from dungeons and a way to quickly return to a point in them. You’ll want to save reinforcement for this ability since it massively speeds up dungeon exploration, but this means that you have less to spend on Tractie’s other skills. This gives you a reason to leave dungeons every now and then to refresh reinforcement and view new story events that may have unlocked.
Before talking about Labyrinth of Refrain’s battle system, we first have to explain how party creation works. Unlike other DRPGs that generally feature 5 party members your brigade is made of 5 covens. Covens can hold up to 3 attackers and 5 supports for a max of 40 brigade members in battle at one time, which can become annoying later on when you need to go though everyone’s equipment. It’s unlikely you’ll have that many until the last dungeons though, since covens that you acquire early on will usually only have slots for a handful of characters.
Instead of human fighters, each brigade member is actually a puppet given life with a soul and the abundant mana within the labyrinths under Refrain. Unlike NIS’s other series Disgaea there are only 6 starting facets (classes) with 2 more that are unlocked as you progress though the story. The focus during character creation is instead on each puppet’s passive abilities and how they work together in pacts. Each facet offers its own unique abilities that can be carried over between soul transfers, a technique similar to the aforementioned Disgaea games that allows you to make puppets more powerful at the cost of resetting their level to 1. Since soul transfers can be used to change a puppet’s facet while also retaining some of their old skills, you can create unique and powerful characters with some powerful enhancements.
During battle you give orders to each pact almost like a traditional DRPG, though puppets will still have their own attack types and will act at different times. A pact will however act as one unit when using donum skills, the magic system in Labyrinth of Refrain. Puppets only have passive skills that they can learn, it is the pacts they’re in that determine what donum they can use in battle. Pacts can also give extra bonuses, so it’s just as important to decide what pact to use as it is to create strong puppets.
Reinforcement can be used during battles to both buff puppets for a turn and allow you to control pact members independently. This is the only way to use items in battle or switch the order of puppets, so balancing your use of reinforcement in and outside of battles is important. Adding on attack types, elemental resistances and follow-up attacks, there’s a lot to keep track of and it can be a little overwhelming to start with. The initial smaller party sizes and weaker enemies do a good job of easing you into the game’s mechanics slowly, but it can sometimes be a little poor at actually explaining them to the player.
Speaking of poor explanations and the game being overwhelming, Labyrinth of Refrain’s story doesn’t actually end once you defeat the final boss. Requiring you to defeat a series of extra bosses, which in turn have their own unique gimmicks and unlock requirements, the unlock requirements for the true ending represent a rather large difficulty spike compared to the rest of the game. It made finishing the game feel much more rewarding, but there should have really been a more gradual increase in difficulty instead of a sudden gauntlet of tough bosses.
Like the last DRPG we reviewed, The Lost Child, Labyrinth of Refrain was ported from the Vita. However, the visuals here are far more pleasing to look at thanks to the game’s great artwork. Sprites are noticeable higher resolution than any that were featured in The Lost Child and look great in HD. As with any good DRPG, monster designs here are phenomenal, offering up many creative and downright creepy designs. Character designs also retain that noticeable Disgaea charm, though it may be a little jarring at first seeing just how different the designs of characters and monsters are.
The soundtrack will also sound familiar to Disgaea fans, being the work of the series’ long-standing composer Tenpei Sato. The majority of the soundtrack is comparable to his usual output, though there are a couple of tracks that really stand out thanks to how different they are. It’s a shame that there aren’t that many songs overall, but what’s there is fantastic. Even after 40 hours, we were still enjoying the game’s catchy main battle theme.
Despite the inconsistent difficulty later on and a story that may take too long to get going for some players, Labyrinth of Refrain is an overall fantastic game. I went into it hoping for a great dungeon crawler and what I got far exceeded my expectations. This was a true return to form for NIS and we can only hope that their future output will be just as good.