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Review #003: Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk (Nintendo Switch)

Reviewed by: John Bush

Developed By: Nippon Ichi Software Published By: NIS America Category: Role-Playing Release Date: 9.18.18

I hope you like dungeon crawling, because Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk really doesn’t care about anything else. Sure, it’s got some neat character creation and party management systems, but that’s not what you’ll be spending most of your time doing. But don’t worry, it’s a good time. Mostly.

The Lamb, The Witch, and The Caravan

Madame Dronya, AKA the nefarious Baba Yaga, and her ward/apprentice Luca have made their way to the town of Refrain. Dronya has acquired a magical grimoire known as Tractatus de Monstrum, a book containing a soul. Your soul, to be more specific. Beneath a mysterious gazebo in the center of town lies a legendary labyrinth, said to contain ultimate power. Or untold riches. It’s… unclear exactly what’s down there, but that suits Dronya just fine. She’ll take the power or the money. Using the Tractatus de Monstrum (or Tractie, as Luca has dubbed it), Dronya creates magical puppet warriors called manania to explore the labyrinth without placing herself in danger.

The story and characters are pretty sharply written and entertaining. While the quest for magical power is fairly standard stuff, the off-kilter characters and their interactions are what makes the game’s narrative shine. From Dronya’s exasperation at every little thing to Luca’s over-abundance of spirit and pep, the characters are endearing and lovable, despite themselves. I wish Baa-Baa had stuck around longer, but whatever. Sometimes you gotta kick a sheep down a well.

Crawling. Through a Dungeon.

So, the dungeons. Every level of the dungeon is laid out on a grid, and you explore them with your party from a first-person perspective. Every move you make is a turn, and every turn any enemies on the screen move with you. If you and an enemy occupy the same square, a battle starts. Battles are fairly standard turn-based JRPG stuff. You assign orders to all your units, and then wait as you and your enemies take turns playing out their chosen actions.

Exploring the dungeon has some variety to it as well. There are some puzzles to figure out in the form of finding keys or flipping switches to open doors. Eventually you gain the ability to destroy certain walls with features into pathfinding puzzles as well. Along the way you find treasure chests containing cool loot that can be used by your party, sold for money, or used in alchemy. There are also shiny areas on the ground that pop up randomly and contain loot as well.

Defeating enemies grants you experience to level up your characters as well as a resource called mana. Mana has a number of purposes in the game, but in terms of dungeon crawling it serves only two. First, the more mana you possess, the higher enemies’ item drop rates rise. That’s good. But, if you have too much mana, enemies get a lot tougher. That’s bad. Each dungeon tells you the mana limit you can carry before the difficulty increase kicks in, so you don’t have to guess.

Setting up your party uses a unique system of covens. You have five slots for covens, and different covens can have one to six members depending on the type of coven. Each coven can have up to three active members who actually fight in battle and three support members that provide different benefits including unlocking new abilities for the coven. It’s kind of a complicated system, but once you get the hang of it things go smoother. Support members don’t get full experience points, so keep that in mind too when you’re putting a coven together. The system can be fairly interesting, but it can also be exhausting. If you have five full covens, that’s THIRTY characters you have to keep outfitted. That can get pretty tedious.

The Caravan

Dronya uses her caravan as her home base, and so do you. While in the caravan, you can go to the shop and buy new items, create new puppets to send into the labyrinth, petition Dronya to give you new abilities, help Luca with requests from the townspeople, save, use the alchemy pot. That’s a lot, and we’ll start with the shop. It’s a shop. You can buy and sell loot, like in every RPG ever. Petitioning Dronya with Witch Petition is similar to the shop in that you trade mana collected in the labyrinth for new abilities, ranging from healing after battle to the ability to hide from enemies. She can also change the difficulty of the game.

Luca’s requests are a good way to get rare, useful items. You can get great new equipment or new components for making puppets which come in really handy. Just know that this option is not available right away, so DON’T SELL ANY LOOT YOU GATHER EARLY IN THE GAME. I sold a bunch of potatoes and I STILL haven’t found enough to cover the request. So annoying.

Creating puppets is a neat process, and it can be as complicated as you want to make it. You need a soul and puppet parts to create one; puppet parts can eventually be purchased at the store, so that’s pretty easy, but souls are a little harder. You can find them in chests or trapped in items. For the souls trapped in items you have to use the alchemy pot to break the item down. The alchemy pot is the last thing to unlock, so it takes a while to get there. You can also use the alchemy pot to break items into mana and fuse multiple items together to produce a stronger weapon. Anyway, character creation: you can also pick a name, set a voice, pick a personality trait that affects stats, choose a stat progression path, pick some skills, and even pick a lucky number. Or you can roll the dice and just set it to random. It’s all fine.

So… How’s It All Fit Together?

The game experience is a pretty mixed bag. While the battle system and exploration are solidly designed and can be really fun, there are some balance issues throughout the game, especially in the boss fights. The difficulty curve for bosses is supposed to be a little steeper, but even on normal mode the boss fights are light years harder than the random battles. Plus, leaving the dungeon anywhere but the entrance and exit pretty much wipes out your mana collection from your expedition, which is frustrating. So, every time you need to heal you have to go all the way back to the front entrance, and then make your way all the way through however many levels you made it to continue. There are items and abilities that let you leave the dungeon wherever you want, but they don’t let you start where you left and, like I said, take a steep portion of the mana you’ve collected. It’s better than losing all your mana like total party death, but only barely. You’ve got to REALLY love dungeon crawling to fully enjoy this game.

At Least It’s Pretty

The overall design of the game is a very attractive, colorful anime style. The game is from the developers of the Disgaea series, and it really shows in the character designs. The characters all have a great personality, and their portraits in the visual novel style cutscenes are delightfully varied for many different situations. The actual dungeons are a little outdated-looking by today’s standards, but they’re well-designed and there are a diverse array of locations to explore which I think makes up for it.

The music is fine; there isn’t really any piece of music that sticks out from the game, but it sets a nice atmosphere for exploration, fighting, or whatever you’re doing in the game. The story cutscenes are fully voice-acted, and the performers all give fantastic performances. Luca in particular is the type of character that is prone to having a voice that just gets annoying over time, but the actress portraying her does a great job of being cute but not saccharine.

Labyrinth of Review, Conclusion of Dusk

Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk is a solidly built game. The graphics are attractive, especially the character designs. The gameplay is varied and provides many different activities, but it has some problems the farther into the game you get. Balance issues with boss fights are a problem, and maintaining a party of up to thirty characters can be a chore (the game says you can actually create up to 40 characters, which… yikes). Overall, though, it’s a perfectly adequate dungeon crawling RPG that should keep hardcore RPG nerds occupied for hours on end.

Final Score: 7/10

Buy Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk from the eShop here ($49.99)

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