By William Haderlie / October 23rd, 2018
|Title||Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk|
|Developer||Nippon Ichi Software, Inc.|
|Release Date||September 18th, 2018|
|Genre||Dungeon Crawler RPG|
|Platform||PlayStation 4 Pro|
|Age Rating||ESRB M for Mature|
I was very excited to learn that many members of the Disgaea team would be making a Dungeon Crawler. SRPGs and Dungeon Crawler RPGs are two of my favorite genres. And Disgaea in particular has superseded the Final Fantasy Tactics series as my favorite SRPG series of all time (although I still believe that the first FFT game is the best of the whole genre). That being said, there is always the slight apprehension that comes from someone you really enjoy deciding to branch out into completely new territory. While both sub-genre of RPGs do have elements that they share, there are more differences than there are similarities. At it’s best, Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk has shown that there are even more elements that they innovated on from the SRPG sub-genre that can make a dungeon crawler even more interesting. So even if it does not always succeed, this has proven to be a valuable excursion into a new genre for NIS.
The story is mostly conveyed in the manner of a Visual Novel, with a few important story events instead given the shadow puppet treatment. This lends itself to the overall fairy tale aesthetic that the story is trying to lend itself to. But you would be greatly mistaken if you take that to mean that it is lighthearted or childish. Much like the very old fairy tales, they are generally morality plays and as such can have severe consequences. Even more so than all the normal fairy tales you might have read, this story gets even more dark by design. So if you were expecting the lighthearted comedy of Disgaea, you will be greatly disappointed. There are some mildly comedic moments, but for the most part the story is extremely brutal. In fact, if this was a straight up Visual Novel without the long periods of dungeon crawling between story sequences, I likely would have just stopped playing. This game gives the previous Visual Novel I reviewed, Trample on Schatten!! (link is potentially NSFW and 18+), a run for it’s money on how dark you can go. So just be warned, there are sequences of heavily implied rape, and several scenes of torture in this game, as well as just a lot of death and sadness. So overall it is not for the faint of heart and if that doesn’t appeal to you, you might want to skip the story sequences entirely.
The story is ostensibly about a witch named Dronya, and her apprentice Luca, who travel to a town named Refrain. Refrain has a well in its center that seems to lead down into a mysterious labyrinth. Unfortunately humans, even witches, cannot survive the miasma down in the Labyrinth of Refrain. Therefore Madam Dronya uses a sentient book (or grimoire) named the Tractatus de Monstrum, or Tractie. She gifts an array of donum, or magical dolls, to the book for it to control as brigades in its army. Tractie is dropped down the well and ordered by Dronya to search out the labyrinth. It will be quite a while until you start getting answers as to why Dronya and Luca are so interested in this place. Some famous mythological beings enter the picture, such as the Baba Yaga, but mostly you will just be getting to know the townspeople of Refrain and slowly picking up on the backstory of Dronya (and way down the line, Luca). Unfortunately, Luca is one of the few actually compelling people in the story. For the most part, they just introduce you to someone and let you think they are decent people long enough to stab you in the back with their horrible side down the road. You certainly learn to feel sorry for Madam Dronya, especially when you see what Baba Yaga does to her, but that still doesn’t make her a very pleasant protagonist.
The story is not all bad, there were even a few moments towards the end of the main story that I actually got teared up a bit. And Dronya certainly ends up much more pleasant at the very end (although this is only around 95% completion of the primary story). But the most pleasant surprise for me was how the writers dealt with the yuri (girl love) themes in this game. It’s a well worn trope at this point for Japanese games to get slightly ecchi and slightly yuri when it comes to stories involving predominantly female characters. That being said, they never actually go beyond implied desire or relationships between the girls. The only exception to this is typically the explicitly yuri Adult Visual novels that are released. This is obviously mirrored in Japanese society in general, where LGBT relationships are known but still not widely accepted. Surprisingly, this game actually bucks that trend. Not only are there many yuri scenes in this game, but they are boldly saying that the three older women are lesbian and have real relationships. Marietta isn’t just teasing Dronya, she genuinely wants to sleep with her. This was refreshing, especially among all the darkness in the story. Granted, their relationships don’t end up very well, but it is a step in the right direction to me.
One innovation that the Etrian Odyssey series of games made on Dungeon Crawlers is the ability to see large enemies (F.O.E.’s) move around the map next to you. An aspect of that innovation is that those enemies move when you move, but they move in set patterns. Because the F.O.E.’s are significantly more powerful than surrounding enemies, you use this visual pattern to avoid confronting them until you are ready. Labyrinth of Refrain takes that idea and adds onto it the ability to see average enemies as well as the super powerful ones. They all look like a sphere, with an iris showing what direction they are facing. The average monsters look like you see above, and they will move in random directions but be blocked by doors or voids. The stronger versions have a purple iris and can typically travel over voids but not through doors. Because of this new style, you will basically always know before you are going to enter combat, and you will want to initiate it by moving into a monster zone before it sees you. If you surprise a monster you can give them startle status which will typically give you a round of combat without them being able to attack back. The debuff called Stench will make the monsters invisible to you, so that is something you will want to cure ASAP.
On your mini-map display you will only be able to see monsters in your local area, which even applies to the large enemies. You cannot see any monsters at all on the large map, but you will still want to pull it up frequently. One of the earliest abilities that you gain from Petitioning Dronya is the ability to destroy walls. While most of your exploration will involve moving around the area and opening up doors, there are many sections (the red lines you see above) which can only be found by knocking out a wall. Those red lines are only after I had knocked out the walls, before that point they just looked the regular off white. So it can take a bit of exploration, or some subtle clues, to figure out where you need to bulldoze in order to progress. Most of the time finding the secrets will just reward you with a few new treasure chests to open. However, some maps (like the one above) will not yield up the exit without being able to find the secrets behind the walls.
As with most Dungeon Crawlers, you attack in the first person the same way that you wander around the labyrinth. For this game you will only see your characters on the screen by their portraits at the bottom and occasionally when they Resonate with another party member (when they attack right after another Coven member which they have good Rapport with). The combat system is simple on the surface but quite complex underneath. There is no good way to fully convey it in a review without writing a strategy guide, but I will do my best. Your Coven is split up into (up to) 5 different Brigades. You earn Brigades as loot from combat, or from treasure chests, or special circumstances such as Witch Petition. Brigades will give you a formation of (up to) 3 Active Members and (up to) 5 passive members. It should be noted that you will not be able to earn Brigades with a full 8 members until near the end of the game and mostly in the Post Game. Spells are not learned by the Donum in your Coven, only passive Skills. Spells are attached to the Brigade itself. Many Brigades will require a certain class type in each slot, or often even a certain gender (among various other requirements too numerous to list here), but otherwise you will just have to determine which classes best fit that Brigade. For example, if it has an array of spells, you will want to equip it with Donum who have a high DMP (Donum Magical Power) stat. Passive members of your Brigade will give various stat boosts to the Active members, as well as adding DP to use on spells.
In addition to the formations within the Brigades themselves, you also have Formations for your entire Coven. This involves arranging your brigades in a particular sequence of Vanguard and Rearguard alignment. Some weapon types will only work on the Vanguard (Swords, Hammers, Scythes, Katar), some will only work on the Rearguard (Bells, Crossbows), and some can work on either (Lamps, Lances). The advantage of changing the meta-Formation is that you can give overall % boosts to Action Speed or Donum Power or Avoidance, while also protecting your squishiest characters by putting them on the back row. You can change Formation during combat, but generally there is not much need to. It is best to set your Formation in the menu so that you can take advantage of the weapon types you have equipped. Additionally you can spend Reinforcement points to either give individual orders within a Brigade’s Active members (which is also the only way to use Items in combat), and you can also use Reinforcement points to give offensive or defensive buffs to individual Brigades. This is something you will want to save for emergencies, because Reinforcement points can be quite limited.
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