Review: Labyrinth of Refrain – Coven of Dusk

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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.

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