Games I play: Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk

Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk is a game by Nippon Ichi Software in one of my favorite genres. A genre that’s notoriously niche and hard to search for online. It’s a “turn-based first-person party-based dungeon crawler”—try saying that three times fast. Also known as a D(ungeon)RPG or blobber on account of moving all your units as one big blob.

You take on the role as the book Tractatus de Monstrum, Tractie for short, and explore the labyrinth beneath the town of Refrain at the orders of Madame Dronya and her adorable assistant Luca. In classic NIS fashion you create your own party of characters—puppets in this case. With a staggering amount of gameplay systems and customization, the game invites you to spend time grinding and navigating menus, rewarding you with plenty of power if you do.

The story is a surprisingly strong one about love and revenge, something that’s quite uncommon in a DRPG. Though it really earns it’s Mature/16+ rating by being quite shocking at times. It caught me off-guard at first, but actually added some weight to the storytelling. The story’s served to you in portions. Explore enough of the dungeon, report to the witch, trigger a cutscene, and repeat. It’s a fun gameplay loop with good pacing, always keeping you interested.

In contrast to roguelikes, the dungeon maps are not randomly generated but meticulously designed. They’re fun to explore and hide tons of secrets—from useful loot to secret bosses and grinding spots. The first run through a floor will be quite challenging but you always unlock shortcuts for easy access later. Many people will recognize the concept from Dark Souls, which makes sense as they likely took that from classic Dungeon Crawlers to begin with.

Labyrinth of Refrain’s big innovation to the exploration formula is allowing the player to break many of the walls to create their own shortcuts, dodge enemies, or find hidden rooms. This action costs Reinforcement, an important currency that is both required to pay for your party composition and for useful actions in the dungeon. Resource management quickly becomes a key mechanic and you can really paint yourself into a corner if you use it all up without thinking.

It’d be much too long to cover all the RPG mechanics here, but some are worth mentioning. Much like Nippon Ichi’s Disgaea games, your characters can be restarted at level 1 (known as “Soul Transfer” in this game) while retaining both stats and skills. With enough grinding you can create an unstoppable force of super puppets, something that’s pretty much required for the post-game content. There’s also Witch Petition that unlock new gameplay systems by spending mana brought back from the labyrinth and Alchemy where you can both break down items for resources and synthesize equipment.

Things I liked:

  • Extremely deep RPG mechanics
  • Rewards exploration and experimentation
  • Well-designed dungeon layouts
  • Innovative dungeon actions and resource management
  • A story that’s actually interesting and surprising
  • Quality artwork and varied dungeon styles
  • Excellent music by Tenpei Sato

Things I didn’t like:

  • Extremely deep RPG mechanics can also feel overwhelming
  • Some systems aren’t explained very well and there’s no in-game reference of all the systems after the initial tutorials
  • Overly sexualized character art, in an often creepy way

All in all, Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk is one of the best DRPGs available for current platforms. It’s mechanically rich and offers a really well-balanced dungeon crawl to sink your teeth into. Its mature story and very, shall we say, “anime” art style might put some people off, but at the heart of it lies an amazing game worth playing.