A labyrinthine adventure.
NIS America has, for a while now, been held close to my heart for bringing some of the best and niche JRPGs westward. Any fan of the JRPG genre appreciates the work they do. Not all games are smashing successes, however, and others toe the line of mediocrity. In any case, we wouldn’t have most of these games if it weren’t for the underdog publisher. Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk is one such JRPG developed by Nippon Ichi Software (NIS) in house that has seen its share of critical and fan success since coming ashore mid September.
Labyrinth of Refrain is your traditional dungeon crawler JRPG in the vein of Etrian Odyssey but with a heavier emphasis on the anime aesthetics. In Refrain, you play as a magical book — the Tractatus de Monstrum — employed by the Dusk Witch Dronya ordered to explore the labyrinth buried beneath the town of Refrain. During the frightful nights, citizens are murdered at alarming rates due to the labyrinth. In order to prevent further deaths, the mayor of Refrain hired Dronya to find what’s responsible and bring back anything of value.
Gameplay in Refrain consists of first person dungeon crawling. You’ll spend most of your time deep within the labyrinth of Refrain, searching for clues and a means to venture deeper into its depths, busting through and falling through enormous holes in the floor. You initiate battles by colliding with an enemy on the map, which can be done so strategically in order to gain the upper hand in the scrum. You’ll need to be careful regardless, as venturing too deep into the labyrinth too early in the game will pit you against terribly difficult enemies that are nearly impossible to defeat. That isn’t necessarily a game over, however, as upon defeat, you and your puppets (the creatures Dronya deploys with Tractie that come alive only in the dungeon) will return to your home base — needing minor reparations. Combat warps you to a new screen, wherein you remain in the traditional dungeon crawling first person mode, allowing you to choose your actions and watch them play out. Occasionally, when you score a critical attack, a chibi of your attacker will fly across the screen; otherwise, it’s strictly first person traditional combat.
Your hub of sorts exists outside of the labyrinth (at your caravan), where you can construct better or more dolls, sell or buy items and artifacts, upgrade or learn new witch abilities with mana found in the labyrinth, and repair your injured or defeated team. It’s also here that you can learn more about the game and its story, as well as advance the plot by engaging in various pieces of exposition. Depending on how you are with your games, you’ll either love or hate the pacing of Labyrinth of Refrain. I didn’t find it terribly slow, but the magnitude and number of tutorials buried me a bit. In all, the game was worth slushing through its opening sequences and tutorials, as the gameplay and exploring was both unique and fun.
The sound in Labyrinth of Refrain, much like most NIS America games, is either really hit or miss.The voice acting here is solid, and the actors deliver their lines on point with effective comedic timing. Combat sounds and character quips during gameplay are also good enough. Music, on the other hand, can be pompous and boisterous when unnecessary. Spending the last decade or so with NIS America games has made me really loathe some of the more obnoxious tracks (here’s looking at you Disgaea). With that said, there are more subtle and quiet tracks that create passable atmospheric tunes.
Finally, the visuals in Labyrinth of Refrain are heavily anime influenced, down to the chibi sprites in combat (when they appear). If you’re not into the anime aesthetics, you’re going to hate this game, as it unashamedly boasts its style. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but if it’s not your thing – it’s not your thing. Games like Etrian Odyssey are able to work through it by offering inspiring dungeon settings or more of a “painted” feel to its scenery. Refrain, in contrast, looks like an episode of your favorite show. It works for Refrain, and I’m convinced the game would flop if it tried any other style.
If you’re a fan of JRPG dungeon crawlers and/or anime, you’ll find a whole lot to love buried in the depths of Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk. I’m not usually a fan of first person crawlers, but Labyrinth of Refrain kept me captivated for quite some time. There’s plenty to discover on each floor of the labyrinth, with more areas opening up as you learn more abilities and can traverse various obstacles. Combat was both strategic and engaging, and while I prefer to see my characters, it was still fun (and I’d also get to see my chibi dolls every so often). Like most NIS America games, Labyrinth of Refrain will draw in a niche crowd; however, if you’re an open minded gamer looking for something unique, Labyrinth of Refrain is one of the better JRPG offerings of 2018.