Few genres are as satisfying as a good old first-person dungeon crawler. Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk offers a few unique innovations to this tried and true classic gaming formula so let's see what The Dusk Witch and her apprentice have been up to.
Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk follows the story of a witch named Dronya (AKA Baba Yaga) and her young apprentice, Luca. They're on a mission to simply explore a mysterious dungeon beneath the town of Refrain. However, they soon find that their efforts are futile since the dungeon is filled with toxic miasma. Thankfully, they realise that a book in their possession known as the Tractatus de Monstrum is actually alive so they send it down to the depths below in their stead. In essence, you play as this book as you command an army of puppet soldiers to deal with the monstrosities contained within the dungeon. It's your job to explore the dungeon and occasionally report your findings to Dronya which progresses the plot. Although this sounds rather complex for a story premise, you'll become accustomed to this unconventional narrative after playing for only a couple hours.
It may sound like there's only one dungeon within Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk but you'll find yourself exploring a massive network of interconnected dungeons via antechambers that allow you to warp between areas. How to progress isn't always clear but if you ever find yourself dealing with enemies that easily decimate your party then you know it's time to get the heck out of there and try a different route. You'll find yourself exploring a few floors of one environment then a few of another only to further explore the first area later on in the campaign when you're more powerful. This back-and-forth is surprisingly satisfying stuff. Each new floor that you discover rewards you with a trophy if you're playing on PS4 and there are 56 total so you know you're in for one lengthy adventure.
The dungeon crawling gameplay itself is rather standard but there are a few innovations that add layers of excitement to uncovering the dungeon maps. First of all, you can use RF for various skills that can help you with exploration. The coolest skill is Wall Breaker which allows you to tear down any non-solid wall. This lets you find secret areas as well as create temporary shortcuts. You can also use Mud Exit to escape back to the base camp whenever you wish. However, RF is limited so you can't go around bashing down every single wall in sight then warp back home to safety. Anyway, you'll also gain the ability to actually see enemies instead of blindly entering battle, be able to traverse different colours of miasma, view treasures on the map, and stockpile experience points after a battle with a multiplier. There are tons of cool skills and passive abilities to acquire and they add a lot of enjoyment to traversing the dungeons.
Managing your party of puppet soldiers is also a rewarding endeavour. The aspect that you'll find yourself managing most frequently is optimizing everyone's equipment because you'll constantly obtain new weapons and pieces of armour. On top of that, you can even use your base's Alchemy Pot to combine equipment and such. Anyway, you build your party from scratch by combining Soul Vials with Puppet Parts and they can be any one of 6 classes: Aster Knight, Shinobushi, Theatrical Star, Marginal Maze, Peer Fortress, or Mad Raptor. Then, you assign the puppets to Covens and arrange them as you wish complete with Vanguard or Rearguard rows. Being able to set up your party in an effective way to take down an exceptionally powerful boss feels awesome and the amount of depth is spot-on.
As with most Nippon Ichi Software games, the sense of humour in Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk is fantastic. Seeing the way Dronya treats Luca will make you laugh as much as you feel sorry for her. There are a few moments of awkward suggestive themes that can be a little cringey but what do you expect from a Japanese RPG? I think that sort of content is required by law at this point.
Of course, Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk isn't a perfect game so let's take a look at some of its downsides. The first thing that comes to mind is that you'll occasionally make mistakes while traversing dungeons that can have devastating consequences. For example, I fell down a hole once then a regular enemy completely wiped out my party before I had a chance to escape and use a Mud Exit. That's not fair. Next, each individual environment only has a handful of different enemies and considering you'll spend hours within each area, it's hard not to get bored with battling the same types of foes over and over again. Finally, some of the dungeons require guesswork in order to progress. Sometimes, you have to respond a specific way to a character and if you don't, you may end up in an inescapable yet brutal boss battle. Other times, you have to tear down random walls until you figure out how to advance. It can be frustrating stuff.
Even with its flaws, Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk is one of the most enjoyable dungeon crawlers that I've ever played. The somewhat open-ended progression system and rewarding party growth mechanics make for one satisfying adventure.
- + Solid dungeon crawling gameplay with a few innovative mechanics
- + Rewarding party management
- + Great sense of humour
- - Simple mistakes can have overly devastating consequences
- - Areas could use more enemy variety
- - Some dungeons rely on guesswork