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Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk (Switch) artwork

Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk (Switch) review

"Challenging, complicated, and dark"

A witch and her young assistant arrive at the mysterious town of Refrain in order to explore the labyrinth beneath it. To keep their true purpose a secret, they pretend to be wandering entertainers, only there to put on puppet shows for children. And so we see the plot of their puppet show: the heroes are two brothers enslaved to a troll and are brutally tortured and dismembered each time they try to escape. The end. Huh, that's certainly different. Is this sequence there for the dark humor? Is it a subtle hint to the game's own plot? Or maybe it's to let you know that futility and dismemberment are in your own future if you search through this labyrinth? Probably all three.

Admittedly, I'm getting ahead of myself there. Labyrinth of Refrain is a first person dungeon crawler from the creators of Disgaea. Essentially, that means you are traveling around a grid-like labyrinth (ie, it's all tile-based; there's no analog movement here), searching for treasure, enemies to kill, keys, and bosses or events to progress the game forward. Enemies show up on the map as giant eyeballs with either red (easy) or purple (hard) irises, meaning you don't know what you're facing until you run into them. Combat is a typical turn-based RPG style, and treasure is typical equipment, restorative items, loot to sell or trade in, or key items. And being as it's by the folks at NIS, expect anime-style art, weird humor, and lots and lots of stats and layers upon layers of game mechanics.

No really, lots of game mechanics. You have covens, reinforcement points, witch pacts, brigade formations, power source, karma, mana, resonance, soul transfers, and on and on and on... Seriously, it would take way too long to explain all of them, and frankly, you probably wouldn't understand it anyway because experiencing is better than just reading. The good news is, NIS takes the time to slowly get you used to these systems rather than throwing them all at you at once, thus preventing you from being overwhelmed. It's still a lot to keep track of, but honestly you can probably ignore some of the stats and mechanics and still be fine. But if you want to dig deeper into how the game works in order to truly break it open, the option is completely available to you.

The most important mechanic is that you don't control characters per se. The witch Dronya and her assistant Luca may be the stars of the story, but they stay behind while you take the role of a soul-infused book leading an army of puppets into the dungeon. But you don't control these puppets directly, instead you control specific "covens" that can be made up of 1-8 puppets. It seems confusing at first, but perfectly natural once you get started, and you'll soon collect a slew of witch pacts that are needed to set up these covens. It's a different approach, and works reasonably well. Unfortunately, the fact that magic is tied to these pacts rather than character progression means it isn't always fruitful to experiment with them, and I went through the game without delving into the system as much as the game probably wanted me to.

As for the rest of the mechanics that you can't ignore, I would say overall they work well, although some not so much. The karma system is probably the most annoying. You gain karma for doing evil stuff, which includes killing "good" enemies. But you don't know if there are good enemies until you initiate combat. So now you have to escape if you want to keep your karma low. But even if you escape, the enemy group is still there, and now it wants to chase you. Or maybe it's blocking the only door in the room. So you have no choice but to either kill it or warp out of the dungeon. But meanwhile, the karma system rarely comes into play, but in certain areas you need low karma or you'll die. So when that happens (and it did for me), you MUST warp out of the dungeon, either to escape the enemy or wash your karma clean after killing it. There's no tactics, no weighing of options, it's just plain tedious.

But that's just one mechanic, and it only causes problems a few times. But on the flip side, there's the Reinforcement Point system. You start with 100 points each time you enter the labyrinth, but a certain amount gets deducted based on the covens you use... but that amount also decreases the more you use the coven. These reinforcement points can be used while exploring, most notably to break down walls (to find extra loot or create shortcuts) as well as the ability to create warp points. But they are also useful for battle, allowing you to spend a few points to increase one party member's strength or spend more points to up your defense. So it's a cool system, with tensions between advancing to a new covens vs sticking with your familiar, between making exploration easier vs making battles easier. And since you can get all these points back by going back to the camp, there's the tension of pushing forward vs playing it safe.

Playing it safe may be a necessity too, even though there's plenty more mechanics to push that "risk vs reward" idea. The dungeon crawling can be a challenge to survive the more you stay. You might think that it's all about grinding down your resources like a typical RPG, but it's more about the fear of what might happen to you. You can autorecover health (if you don't bank experience, another mechanic!), so it's not like that's a worry. But it's easy for characters to die, especially ones recently soul transferred (another mechanic!), but money or reviving items are rare in the early and midgame. So you have to go back to revive them for free. Also, characters can be dismembered with gore shots, leading to a permanent reduction in health and other stats unless fixed back at your base and so, again, need to move on. And most importantly, there are VERY weird challenge spikes, as some of the enemies randomly roaming about are about as hard as you might expect from a boss. So you have to run from them, try to fight one set for a huge EXP boost, or risk death. And death hurts a lot, and can result in the permanent loss of rare or even unique items.

You might think this would be frustrating, but honestly it's the best part of the dungeon crawling. These issues - the dismemberment, the huge enemy difficulty spikes - provide a sense of nervousness and dread as you move forward, making the Labyrinth feel imposing. And isn't that what it should be? The numerous risk vs reward mechanics in the game give you some options, and the challenge means taking those risks feels so rewarding when they succeed. And then, as you move through each region and get new equipment and level up, you'll be surprised to see those crazy killers just aren't too tough after all. If I was just going through the motions of mapping out dungeons, I would probably getting bored a few hours in. But the fact that there's a reasonable sense of danger in some areas (and only some, so it's not too frustrating) helped to preserve the uncertainty and fear of the unknown that SHOULD be present in a game such as this. The fact that the dungeons are much more varied and (for lack of a better word) weird just helped to continue that sense of unknown, and thus made me want to push even further ahead.

Even though the bulk of the game is dungeon crawling, I was also pleasantly surprised by the emphasis on the story. It starts out as something of a dark comedy before turning deadly, grimly serious, both at the personal and grand scale. There's a dark, practically vicious tone to everything that may not be expected given the somewhat cutesy presentation. More importantly, there's an aura of mystery surrounding the entire tale, with hints of what is going on slowly trickling out before the truth is revealed. And despite the cruelty and despair surrounding the plot, there's a ray of light that never disappears, providing at least a glimmer of optimism in the sea of cynicism. Sure, it's hopelessly convoluted, but that's par for the course when it comes to Japanese RPGs. Really, my only complaint, story wise, is that the actual dungeon crawling isn't as well integrated as I would have thought. The grand purpose of it is part of the story, but the details of what's happening are mostly irrelevant. This gets quite noticeable when the game tells you to report your progress to Dronya, but then get a cutscene that has nothing to do with anything you just did. Admittedly, this could have been handled much better, but what was actually presented turned out ok. Just be warned that the game itself includes quite a bit of juvenile humor to mask some of its deadly serious themes, so it may not be for everyone.

I can't claim to be an expert on the whole dungeon crawling genre, but this one seems to be a solid example, and perhaps the best of its kind on the system. There's variety in the locations you visit, plenty of customization and progression, a reasonably engaging story, and most importantly a fulfilling risk vs reward approach to practically everything. Likewise, there's enough content here to justify the 50 or so hours needed to reach the normal ending, and you can double that amount easily if desiring full completion. Sure, maybe you'll get tortured along the way, but the end of your journey will likely be better than those two brothers in the play.


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Featured community review by mariner (April 17, 2019)

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