Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk is a dungeon-crawler RPG developed and published by NIS America for the PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and Windows PC on 18th September 2018. The game was announced in July 2015 as Project Refrain and released as a PlayStation Vita exclusive in Japan in June 2016 under the title Coven and Labyrinth of Refrain before making the jump to other systems two years later when it was also released worldwide.
The game takes place in the titular town of Refrain. The Dusk Witch Dronya and her apprentice Luca have been hired to explore the labyrinth beneath the well in the center of town. The labyrinth is also engulfed in a miasma that is deadly to humans, but Dronya has the Tractatus de Monstrum, a book that houses the soul of the player, to record everything beneath the well. ‘Tractie’, as Luca calls it, is carried through the dungeon by puppets animated also by Luca. The dungeon elements are frequently broken up with story scenes that show the lives of the citizens of refrain, and the events that brought the duo into town.
Exploration of the labyrinth takes place in a first-person view. There are no random encounters, instead enemies in the field are represented as floating eye-like sphere. The player can ambush the enemy for a surprise attack in combat, but should the player be spotted first, the enemy will follow them until either combat initiated or the player manages to distance themselves from the enemy. To hinder progress there are walls in the players way and trapped tiles on the floor, both of which can be bypassed with skills earned as the story progresses. Progress through the labyrinth in broken up by story sections for which the player will have to leave the dungeon. Fortunately players can acquire a skill allowing them to place entrance/exit points in the field for for quick trips back to town.
The party that the player takes into the labyrinth consists of up to five coven pacts. Various pacts can be acquired in the game, each allowing up to three attackers and five support characters to be slotted into them. Each character slot gives various buffs and debuffs to the stats of characters in that pact, as well as affecting the rate at which they gain experience. Spells are tied to pacts as well, so it is essential to pick the right ones. If this sounds confusing, it is, and careful attention needs to be paid to each part of a pact to see if it is actually worth using. Labyrinth of Refrain was developed by the same team as the Disgaea series, so min/maxing stats comes with the territory. Both games have areas designed to give large amounts of experience, but the former also has special pacts that will give support characters much more XP than those in the combat role.
Combat takes place in a first person view as well. Commands are issued to each coven, but commands can be given to individuals in a coven should the player choose to do so. Commanding a coven to attack will allow each member in that group to attack individually, but selecting magic will take the effort of the whole group. Damage comes in a variety of types and elements, and enemies will have resistances to some. Each class (of which there are six to begin with) have proficiency with different weapons, and each weapon usually deals a certain type of damage. There are exceptions, and care needs to be taken to balance damage so that the player can take down any enemies they encounter.
Creating characters is as number-heavy as picking the right coven. Souls are required to create new puppets, and each soul has a clarity rating. A higher clarity gives a puppet more base stats meaning they gain power faster, much like how Disgaea handles reincarnation. After picking a class and name, the player can choose a personality which skews the puppets stats (like in Pokemon), a stat-growth type to skew level gains, and a stance to skew total stats further. Some way through the game the player acquires the ability to transfer the souls of their puppets to new bodies, reincarnating them with a greater soul clarity and the ability to customise the puppet over again.
Equipment can be enhanced through alchemy by fusing old pieces of gear into a new one. This requires spending mana, a resource acquired by defeating monsters or found in the labyrinth. Each piece of gear can be fused a single time, but can have up to ten pieces of gear in the fusion. This is a great way to use up old gear once the player has plenty of money, but becomes part of the grind late game.
The graphics of Labyrinth of Refrain are nothing flashy, but the characters and story are told through gorgeous 2D sprites. Labyrinth exploration takes place in 3D, and though players can visibly tell where trap tiles and treasures are on the floor, one can see how the title began life on the PlayStation Vita. This might not be so apparent on the Switch, but as this review was based on the PlayStation 4 version, it becomes that much more apparent that it was designed for a system with lower specs.
The ambient music of Labyrinth of Refrain sounds like it was taken straight from the Disgaea series. They are not the same tunes, but they would not feel out of place in one of the latter games. Each puppet attacking in combat gives a short cry, but this can get old fast when there are fifteen plus attacks coming from the players side in any given turn. There is an option to speed up combat, but this just means the voices come slightly faster.
Labyrinth of Refrain tries to take gameplay of Disgaea and shoehorn it into a dungeon-crawling RPG, albeit not quite successfully. At times the game can be simple enough to put every battle on auto, then the next the party is getting wiped out due to area of effect spells hitting weak back-row mages. It is always obvious where how to progress through the game thanks to convenient markers on the map telling the player where story objectives are, but it is highly annoying having to leave the dungeon frequently for story progression. Fans of games developed by Nippon Ichi Software will be comfortable with the mechanics here, but dungeon-crawlers and those new to either may find many of the systems confusing.
Title: Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk
Genre: Japanese Role-playing
Developer: Nippon Ichi Software
Publisher: Nippon Ichi Software
Platform Reviewed: PlayStation 4
Release Date: 23 June 2016 (PS Vita, Japan)