Title: Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Developer: Nippon Ichi Software
Publisher: Nippon Ichi Software America
Release Date: September 18th, 2018 (NA)
Review copy provided by Nippon Ichi Software America
This is the newest high-profile RPG by NIS. This was initially a Vita-exclusive and released only in Japan. Then it got a PS4 port later on, and finally got a Switch and PC port this year. Now all but the Vita version got localized. So how did this turn out? Let’s find out!
Introducing Dronya and her little assistant Luca
This is a classic 1st-person dungeon crawler RPG, much in the same way as Etrian Odyssey and The Lost Child (here’s my review of the latter!). Just like those games, you explore a maze in 1st-person. In here, the primary goal is to collect treasures and move on in the story by reaching certain spots in the dungeons.
The game stars the witch Baba Yaga (who may or may not be a witch of an iron forest), but she prefers to be addressed by her alias Madame Dronya. She travels with her tiny assistant named Luca, who I swear is the most adorable character I’ve seen in a long time. We begin with Dronya and Luca arriving in the village of Refrain, and in it lies a mysterious well. In it, lies a huge dungeon maze (surprise!) and this is where the magic happens.
After an initial run of the dungeon, you begin the game proper as a mysterious soul who wanders a strange colorful maze that looks like something out of Persona Q (a spin-off of Etrian Odyssey crossed with Persona). Here you’re guided by a voice, and after a rather linear journey, you end up at a giant book. Here your soul gets trapped in this book, called the Tractatus de Monstrum, catchy!
Creating an Aster Knight character, and showing most of the customization options
Dronya and Luca come across the book (which Luca adorably named Tractie!), and the book becomes a very important object in the game. See, only the book may enter the dungeon in the story (due to the miasma in it being poisonous) and inside it carries puppet soldiers that you create, forming your party.
When forming your party, you can choose from six classes to start, with each having a male and female option. You can then name them, choose one of three appearances for each, and choose their voice out of three choices as well. You also have to pick what nature they have which affects their stats (actually extremely similar to how Pokemon natures work). You also pick a stance to determine their stat growth even more; a Sun stance, more offense-based. Moon, which is more defense-based, and Standard, in the middle. And you pick what passive skill to use.
So your patty is formed and you’re raring to go. In classic DRPG fashion, you explore the dungeon in 1st-person view as mentioned. Similarly, you take a turn taking a step, and enemies do the same. You can collect items from barrels and crates lying around by simply walking over them. Treasure chests are also around for naturally better items.
Beware, for I am the black ball of DOOM!
In the beginning you encounter enemies at random. However, a bit into the game you unlock the ability to have enemies appear physically in the dungeon as black balls. Making contact starts a battle with any random amount of various enemies. Another thing you unlock a bit into the game is the ability to break open walls which hide secret rooms with maybe a treasure chest (commonly requiring a certain key to open), and likely more enemies wandering within it.
Battles are your basic stuff. You pick a move for each character in your party. You can do a basic attack, use a Donum skill which are your basic magic skills (such as healing or elemental attacks), or you can fortify your Coven (what the solders are called), which is simply a defend command to take less damage. Further into the game, you gain the ability to increase a character’s attack and defense via the Resonance system.
When selecting an action for a character during a fight, you can hold down R and choose to enhance your Coven’s attack power with Y, or defense with A (doing this doesn’t end the character’s turn either!). These actions, as well as breaking down walls in the dungeon, use up a small amount of Resonance points which start at 100 when the dungeon begins (requiring a small amount to enter the dungeon). A big thing with this system is also the ability to heal your characters outside of battle with said points. Here you have to go to the Coven organizing screen, and you then hold R and hit A when highlighting a chosen character to heal a lot of their HP.
A normal battle, with your character popping up randomly during attacks
Dungeons need to be explained also. As said you go around collecting items and fighting enemies. However, the dungeon itself is an enemy on its own. There are pitfalls you can fall in which take you down one or more floors. Not only does this damage your group, but the further down you go, the tougher the enemies are, and you’ll be at a huge risk of a quick death in such a scenario. Also, you collect mana which is one of the main currencies in the game. Mana is collected after beating opponents, found on walls (marked on the map), or even in glowing green balls sometimes seen on the floor. You can use a bell item to bring you back to the caravan (your main hub) in an emergancy, but it’ll cost a huge amount of mana.
And another thing, Coven’s are made of parts like actual puppets, and you can lose parts from opponents scoring gore blows. When a Coven loses a part, its max HP lowers as do its stats. When you return to the caravan, you can repair your Coven with puppet parts of a level range (one kind only repairs Covens between level 1-9, the next ones from level 10-19, etc). And these cost money in addition to said parts, which you can buy if need be. Money is earned only through selling stuff you find. However I’m told some items become needed later on in certain quests, so that’s VERY important to keep in mind, or you’ll risk selling an item you’ll end up needing. Try to only sell items that you really believe are useless.
Presentation-wise, the story is fully-voice acted in English and optionally Japanese, and very well to boot. Characters only speak as the usual portraits with changing expressions and occasional lip flaps (it’s random, no idea why). The artwork is well drawn and the characters are very engaging. Luca as said is super adorable. Dronya is not exactly the kindest person, and I’m not very fond of how he treats Luca either. Also there is at least one point somewhat early on where things get extremely uncomfortable in a particular scene involving Dronya and a red-haired woman she meets. It’s hard to say without spoiling it, but thankfully it’s seemingly a one-off and things don’t end badly. But just be ready and you’ll easily know what I mean when you see it. Thankfully it’s only told via speech in a black screen for most of it.
The shop where you can buy and sell items
Graphically it runs at 30fps and looks very crisp. The dungeon looks very nice for what it is and is decently rendered. Things generally look fine enough. Especially for a game that was built for Vita. For comparison The Lost Child looked like it could run on a 3DS. This looks FAR better.
Audio-wise the game as said is fully voice-acted. Characters are well acted and sound very appropriate. All characters in battle have voices and have lines for specific actions. Music sounds good enough but nothing that really caught my ear or anything.
Overall, this is very enjoyable… aside from that one bit. This feels like it has a lot of depth and content in it. Frankly if you love Etrian Odyssey, this is literally NIS’s answer to it (like Sega’s answer was 7th Dragon). There’s even more depth to the mechanics than what I described above. There’s a lot to digest, but once things start to click, you’ll really get into it. I highly recommend this game!
+ Visually it’s pretty good. You have to remember it was a Vita game. The game seems high-res and runs at a smooth 30fps.
+ Artwork and character designs look great. Both the humans and the monsters look great IMO.
+ Fully voiced in English and Japanese, which seems to be the norm for NISA.
+ Music’s decent.
+ Exploring and finding lots of items and equipment is very fun.
+ Covens come in 6 varieties and each have different personalities and there’s a decent amount of customization to them!
+ Has screenshot and video capture support.
– The music while decent isn’t super memorable.
– There are times in dungeons where you’ll fall into a pit and if you’re low enough you’ll get defeated super fast.
– There’s some questionable content, especially the part I mentioned above. However this may be very few in quantity and not exactly a common thing.
– Dronya needs to be nicer to Luca. Just saying.