"It breaks all of the standards and norms expected from your traditional JRPG, while still staying true to the core values that define the genre."
We all have played the game where you are the destined hero, the one who saves the world from some encroaching darkness or unknown evil. But, sometimes, we don't want to play as the good guy. In Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk, we do not play as the hero. We don't even play as a human being. For possibly the first time in gaming history, we play as a magical book, the Tractatus de Monstrum. Under the command of the Dusk Witch Dronya and her child apprentice Luca, our goal is a simple one: to explore an underground labyrinth that lies deep beneath the mysterious town of Refrain. Our quest is not to protect the world from some unknown evil or to save a damsel in distress, but rather, to satisfy our own personal greed by searching for treasures and magical artifacts.
In this respect, the game truly achieves greatness. It breaks all of the standards and norms expected from your traditional JRPG, while still staying true to the core values that define the genre. I found it refreshing to play a game that includes my favorite characteristics of a dungeon crawler while still being very original in itself.
One of the greatest strengths of the game is its worldbuilding; particularly, its dialogue, story, and characters. The voice acting in this game is truly spectacular and really captures the image portrayed by the characters' designs. This, in itself, is astonishing for me, since I find most localizations to be very lacking in this area. For the most part, the script is also very creative and witty. I especially love how the story often contains elements of a children's tale and puppet show, which is very fitting when considering our dungeon-exploration team is actually a brigade of puppet warriors. It adds a layer of childlike and whimsical wonder to this otherwise dark and sinister tale. But more than this, I appreciate the design of our two main protagonists, Dronya and Luca, who are in almost every respect polar opposites. It's incredibly entertaining to watch the cynical witch perform some wicked atrocity while her innocent and pure-hearted apprentice tries to keep her in check. Without getting into spoiler territory, the story goes to some unexpected places and does not feel like a typical rehash of the generic fantasy tale. There's only two major criticisms I have in terms of the story. The first one involves the large subplot disconnect between events in the labyrinth and events in the town of Refrain. Often times, these subplots do not fully tie up, and it feels like we are experiencing two disjoint narratives rather than one interwoven tale. My second criticism, unfortunately, lands on a much more serious note.
For all of the strengths the story has, it is riddled with uncomfortable moments. Put mildly, some jokes and scenarios are simply taken too far. Even as somebody that appreciates dark-humor, I found some of the material to be tasteless and unnecessary. This is especially prominent in an early cutscene where a nun sexually harasses and tries to rape Dusk Witch Dronya. This scene does not do much in progressing the story, and as a result, feels like an awkward attempt to humorize rape. Worst of all, it actually undermines another instance in the game where sexual violence is used as a serious plot progression device. It blurs the line between what is meant to be humorous and what is meant to be serious, and as a result, creates some unintentionally awkward experiences.
With that being said, if you can stomach these uncomfortable moments, you will be well-rewarded. The game has an incredible loot system that in many respects, reminds me of the one in the Diablo series. Each item has a rarity level associated with it: common, rare, epic, and legendary. In addition to this, players can collect mana throughout their exploration of the labyrinth, which is used to purchase new perks and benefits. Players can also choose to take advantage of two unique systems to satisfy their own greed during dungeon exploration. The first one allows the brigade to store mana to increase the item drop rate. The second allows the brigade to stockpile experience, where this experience is then grown by a specified factor. Of course, the risk is if you die, you lose both of these. But at higher difficulties of the game, I found these risks were absolutely necessary to make significant progress, which adds a layer of risk management to the gameplay. Overall, I greatly appreciate these loot and experience systems, as the game contains a lot of grinding. It still is not enough to entirely prevent combat from feeling tedious and repetitive, but it makes the exploration feel worthwhile. In fact, the dungeon exploration in the game is easily the best part.
Labryinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk adds a whole new dimension to dungeon exploration through the "Wall Breaker" move. Unlike most JRPGs, the "Wall Breaker" move doesn't just work on one or two walls. In many instances, it actually works on an overwhelming majority of the walls found in dungeons. This leads to many hidden areas and alternative routes that can be navigated throughout the game. If you can't find the correct path, then make your own! It's a really simple idea, but a powerful one that makes exploration feel dynamic.
Combat in this game has both its strengths and weaknesses. While I must credit the developers for experimenting with the typical turn-based formula, the combat has too much going on and takes a solid hour or two to fully grasp. Your brigade (party) consists of five covens, each of which can contain up to three attackers and five supporters. This leads to a maximum number of forty party members, fifteen of which you can directly control in combat. The coven themselves are formed by soul pacts, each of which confer different bonuses to its members. Already, I think you can start to see how this makes combat more complex, which is why I both loved and hated this system. This system adds a lot of strategy to which pacts to choose, as well as where to station characters. This is supplemented by the fact that covens can be placed in either vanguard and rearguard positions, which allow for different tactical formations, like the pincer attack, that also grant unique bonuses to the party. All of these changes make turn-based battle truly customizable, but it comes at the expense of a steep learning curve, which for the most part, only makes a huge difference in boss fights.
More than from its complexity, combat suffers the most from its lack of character animations. All of the battle animations involve two-dimensional sprites, some of which do not even appear unless special actions or circumstances occur. Between this and the limited number of special moves allocated to a given coven, combat often feels static and boring. Excluding the uncomfortable cutscenes I mentioned earlier, this is probably the worst part of the game and makes battles feel unnecessarily repetitive and grindy.
The accompanying soundtrack does not do much in the way of improving this repetitive nature of combat. During combat, the background music feels very generic. There is nothing especially wrong with it, but there's not much going for it either, which truly is a shame because the game actually has some really great music in other instances. I especially love the end-of-battle theme, which sounds like the celebratory musical accompaniment you would expect to hear at the end of a puppet show. It's out there, catchy, and even a bit corny, but all the while, very fitting to the general feel of the game. While finding a way to add this type of music to battles would not actually fix the problems with combat, it surely would make it feel a lot more spontaneous and fun.
That being said, I still thoroughly enjoyed this game. Since it is developed with a very specific audience in mind, the game will not be enjoyed by everyone. If you dislike turn-based battles, excessive grinding, and dark humor, then put simply, this is not the game for you. Otherwise, while there may be better JRPGs out there to play, you likely will still have a really fun time with this title!
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.