Note: PS4 review code provided by NIS America.
When it comes to Nippon Ichi Software/Studios, one of my all time favorite game companies, there are two “NIS Originals” as I like to call them, that held a special place in my heart.
- Makai Kingdom: Chronicles of the Sacred Tome
I said “held” because, SPOILER ALERT, this next NIS Original I am about to review just joined this illustrious list of mine. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to explain to the best of my abilities as we take a look at Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk.
WARNING: The game features humor and events not suitable for everyone. While the violence is not graphic due to the Visual Novel style cutscenes, the descriptions do not hold back.
Platforms: PS4, PC (Steam), Nintendo Switch
Developer and Publisher: NIS, NIS America/Europe
Genres: Comedy, Dark, Dungeon Crawler, Fantasy, JRPG/RPG, Supernatural.
Themes: Witches, Yuri
Length: 50-60 hours (Main Story), 10-20 extra hours (True End Route)
Difficulty: Medium-Hard (Depends on players’ understanding of the in-game mechanics)
G-Rating: Great (Depends on whether the reader likes Dungeon Crawlers)
This is the story of a faraway world, where faint traces of magic still linger. A world called Tanis. The mysterious town of Refrain resides there.
Deep beneath that isolated and forsaken town lies an unexplored underground labyrinth. Nobody knows who built it, or when it was built.
Some say it holds treasures that could control the world, treasures that could make one immortal, and a slumbering demon king whose awakening could end the world. But no one knows for certain.
What is known is that the labyrinth is filled with cursed miasma, a substance that brings death to any human it touches.
One day, a witch arrived at Refrain with the intention of exploring this labyrinth.
Her name was Dusk Witch Dronya.
She had in her possession a legendary book, said to have been written by the only man to explore the labyrinth and survive. The Tractatus de Monstrum…
Let us start off by going over the story and some of the cast of characters. There are three kinds of NIS story narratives. The first one is the super rare lighthearted cutesy romp. The second is the more common comedy that gradually becomes more serious yet still pertains some of its humor later on. The this is a story with a dark narrative from the get-go that uses a lot of dark humor. Labyrinth of Refrain falls under the third narrative style. It has a similarly dark sense of humor and progressively serious tone found in the first Witch and The Hundred Knight. Most of the jokes in the game are at the expense of the misery of the citizens of Refrain. Some of it, depending on readers’ sensibility, can come off as offensive. Same goes for several events that unfold as the story progresses. The above warning is there for good reason.
The meat of the story has players learning about the denizens of Refrain, the secrets of the labyrinth and everything within and of course the main duo Dronya and Luca. Luca is a very kind and chipper soul who always tries to have a positive outlook on life…yes. Then we have Dronya herself who is best described by taking an accurate description she made of herself in the game: “I’m not a monster, but I won’t deny I’m bad. I am a witch after all”. She is one of those protagonists players need to be patient with before understanding her. She is like Velvet Crowe (Tales of Berseria) in a way, bad and really grumpy but not evil. Again, like her description. As the story progresses clues are thrown on what is going on. However, it is one of those “Just when you think you have all the answers, I change the questions” stories. The rest of the cast are also an interesting lot with one personal favorite who I will get to later.
Simply put the story told in this game is one of the best I have ever experienced. All of its highs and lows, the character development, the reveals (My GOD the reveals!) and Dronya becoming not only my current #1 NIS babe (Salome #2 and Rozalin #3) but also one of the best female protagonists the company has ever created alongside Lillet Blan and Metallia/Metallica to name a few.
Hint: There is so much to this story that even the trophies/achievements have a story to tell. It is recommended to wait till near the final boss event of the main story dungeon before reading the descriptions. It will kind of make sense then rather than checking them out right away.
Let us go over the animation next. As Robert Allen described in his own review of the game the game has a fairy tale feel to it…a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. Disney version this is not. From the way the town of Refrain looks to the worlds visited in the labyrinth it screams dark fairy tale setting. The character designs and soundtrack are vintage NIS. It is difficult to describe in any other way than their original titles having a recognizable art style and musical compositions. Whether this is good or bad depends on players’ personal tastes. Personally I have always liked their style and LoR is no different. What does stand out are the monster designs from big fat trolls to the more horrifying creatures the deeper players go. There are some bosses late in the game that are quite terrifying. Another small but very cool addition is that this is one of the few dungeon crawler RPGs I noticed where the enemies actually do more than just stand idly like a drawing. They breathe and and sometimes have some kind of motion. Again this sounds minor but from all the first-person turn-based RPGs I have seen, very few of them have enemies doing something on screen. It often felt like fighting pictures like in the Earthbound series.
Now on to the gameplay, the usual make and break for readers. As much as I praise the story and presentation for some it may not be enough incentive to pick this game it so let us get to it. The gameplay can be best described as “An NIS Tactical RPG (Such as Disgaea) meets Etrian Odyssey” or something along those lines. While I have not played an Etrian Odyssey game (The only dungeon crawler RPG I played before LoR was Sakura Dungeon) I have a solid idea on the foundation. So first up is the Caravan/Base where players gradually unlock its features such as puppet/soldier creation, synthesizing and requesting (buying) upgrades for the Tractatus de Monstrum, aka Tractie to make dungeon exploration less tedious. Believe me when I say that most of the upgrades are quite handy.
Next up is dungeon exploration, which can be best described as “fun but weird”. See, the basics are all there from poison traps to hidden pathways but then the weirdness comes into play. Though most trap doors/pitfalls are obviously dangerous (Some of them being bottomless pits) there are a select few pits that are required to fall through to find secrets. The same goes for one poison trap in the first dungeon and a few later on. Another weird part is that while the “Witch Report” is where players view story events sometimes it is not a required to continue, though obviously there will come a point where players must watch them to unlock more features and progress. The rest is what one would expect from a dungeon crawler:
- Exploring dungeons from a first-person view.
- Entering battles by bumping into enemy icons shaped like black spheres with a red symbol (The big purple spheres are obviously stronger enemies).
- Interacting with denizens of the labyrinth. Some can be negotiated with while others just want to fight.
- Lots of roadblocks to destroy and switches to press to unlock doors.
Exploring each floor as thoroughly as possible is encouraged, especially to find key items and locations of important treasure chests. Just watch out for those big purple spheres (except ones that cannot be avoided).
Next up is combat. It is standard turn based JRPG fare where character turns are determined by speed. All allies and enemies have their strengths and weaknesses. The stand out mechanics include body parts. Some strikes from either side are strong enough to hurt more than a Critical Hit. These are the Critical Gore. Blows strong enough to tear a puppet soldier’s limbs off giving them disadvantages during battle such as a lower health bar and no the inability to use resurrecting items on the puppet. Of course enemies are also susceptible to Critical Gores.
Parties are formed by placing puppets in up to five Covens. There are many kinds of Covens with different abilities, skills, magic and character slots for Attackers and Support puppets. Certain Covens can have a max of three Attacker slots, meaning up to fifteen Attackers can participate in battle, not counting the Support puppets that can be switched in. The drawback is when an enemy attacks a Coven, all Attackers can be hit unless one or all block or dodge the attack. This is important to keep in mind during boss battles, several of which can be quite challenging if not prepared. Some requiring grinding for levels.
There are other options to help create a powerful puppet army besides the aforementioned Synthesis. There is also sacrificing and transferring a puppet’s soul, determining their gender and personality (though the extra puppets later on are an exception), their weapon of choice and more. There are many available options to customize and power up puppets which will come in extra handy for the hidden Post-Game True End route.
I will keep talks about yuri to a minimum. Marietta here is best side-character. Now if that were all to the yuri in the game then it would be a neat addition. However…let us just say there is more to it than that…Much, much more. Keep in mind the tone of the story that I talked about earlier though.
Overall Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk is a really good game…so long as players are able to put up with its fun but occasionally weird gameplay and its engrossing story that is not for everyone. The cast are an interesting bunch, the presentation is quite pleasing and the customization options are a bit complex but not TOO daunting. Approach this title with an open mind and the reward at the end may be more than worthwhile. As I said in the introduction this game became one of my favorite NIS Originals of all time. The game is available at retail and digital stores for the Playstation 4, Nintendo Switch and PC via Steam.