Labyrinth of Refrain Coven of Dusk (Switch) Review – Dungeon-Crawling with Class
Platforms: PC, Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PS4
Developer: Nippon Ichi Software
Publisher: NIS America
Release: 21st September 2018
First person dungeon-crawling games may not be the most popular genre but definitely has its audience and fair share of games. Besides classics like Etrian Odyssey, Nippon Ichi Software brought their own big title to the market, which isn´t called Disgaea. Instead, Labyrinth of Refrain Coven of Dusk is their own, unique take on the genre, featuring the same lovely art but paired with much darker themes and their many complicated concepts.
The witch Dronya and her “assistant” Luca come to the town of Refrain, to unravel the mystery of the ancient labyrinth hidden beneath the well. However, no human can actually enter this cursed place, so everything relies on the Tractatus de Monstrum, an ancient book able to control wooden puppets, that happen to be completely unharmed by the miasma.
On the other hand, the tome actually has an own consciousness, controlled by us, the player. Yes, instead of playing one of the main characters, we once again take over the role as an instrument similar to Hundred Knight. Another similarity is the fact Labyrinth of Refrain Coven of Dusk isn´t a game for kids, featuring quite adult themes and scenes, topped off with Dronya´s love of insults. What surprised me the most though is the balance the writing can pertain between trying too hard at being mean and adorable silly. Surely there are scenes that seem out of place and more forced than necessary but overall it´s a quite well-crafted, evil little beast.
Unfortunately, the overall story can´t really live up to its writing since there´s nothing really interesting. The whole mystery around the labyrinth and everything else just progresses way too slowly to ever catch your attention properly. Additionally, the key events don´t catch you off-guard, surprise you or push the plot forward too often. Combined with the still mediocre player perspective of the book, not able to interact or influence anything really, we´re literally just an observer with somewhat awkward interactions. If you don´t expect a compelling, tension-filled story you should still have fun with the little jokes scattered throughout the game.
Luckily, the true core is the first person dungeon-crawling which actually features some rather interesting new ideas. Nippon Ichi Software took great care to properly infuse Labyrinth of Refrain Coven of Dusk with so many terms, options and ideas that everyone will be overwhelmed. Since the well can´t be entered by normal humans, we take control of an army of puppets, naturally, all of them have to be crafted by hand and those options are so extensive it would be almost impossible to list and explain them all. First of all, there are your typical class and appearance selections but then the whole thing quickly evolves into a horde of menus to tweak their individual skill growth, levelling, passive boosts and overall bonuses, needing far more planning than just for the next few hours.
However, instead of doing this a few times to keep your party of four filled with useful members, Labyrinth of Refrain Coven of Dusk´s party consists of 40. Yes, 40 individual puppets. Every field isn´t a unit but a brigade of several ones, granting each other bonuses, advantages and much more. So it´s necessary to keep even that in mind while creating new puppets. Especially because there are tons of classes and different ways to influence anything. All of this is explained rather poorly though, hidden behind a vast amount of obscure names and symbols, requiring you to invest a huge amount of time before being able to do much cool stuff.
Otherwise, it´s a fairly standard dungeon crawler with nothing really new in terms of level design. Everything is divided into grids and you can move one at a time. On the one hand, levels aren´t generated, meaning there were actually some humans behind them, but it still feels so bland. There´s nothing really noteworthy here, you just explore the dungeon and hit a few switches here and there. From time to time a fight will start, which are random, but that´s it.
Instead, Labyrinth of Refrain Coven of Dusk relies more on the difficulty itself to vary the experience. Through Mana it´s possible to either lower or boost the difficulty level, granting higher or lower rewards in exchange. Mana can be earned in battles but is also used to craft and upgrade several other things in Dronya´s cavern, making it always a difficult choice to spend mana for an easier or more rewarding experience. Yet, don´t think it´s a hard game, the standard difficulty is pretty great, making it a feature many can enjoy, no matter how good they are.
Visually Labyrinth of Refrain Coven of Dusk often looks like Nippon Ichi Software’ other famous series Disgaea, probably because the same key staff worked on here. Featuring the same artstyle in many ways, this new world looks absolutely fantastic once again with its bright colours and unique designs. However, it tends to remind you more of Disgaea than this actual new IP, even though the puppets, in particular, have some pretty different core design aspects. Additionally, the soundtrack is still fantastic too and able to differentiate itself far better than the visuals. To top it all off, the Nintendo Switch version runs quite flawlessly without many frame hiccups, while depicting the art in a far higher resolution than the Vita.
At its core, Labyrinth of Refrain Coven of Dusk isn´t a bad DRPG, rocking pretty much everything a fan of Nippon Ichi Software or Disgaea could desire. If only the whole thing would be more accessible with its dozens of quite unnecessarily named systems, even beginners not willing to invest much time could have a great time. So, if you´re in for a steep initial learning curve and a deep game, go ahead, Labyrinth of Refrain Coven of Dusk won´t disappoint.
[A Review Code was provided by NIS America]