Where Nintendo systems are concerned though, fans of this style of RPG will likely first think of the superb Etrian Odyssey series. Given Atlus’s finest is yet to make its way to the system, it’s inevitable that fans will be looking for something to bridge the gap. Enter, Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk, developed and published by NIS, in-house, originally a 2016 Vita release, recently ported to PS4 and Switch.
The Switch, then, finally has an answer to the currently missing Etrian Odyssey, though the comparison is surface-level only, as the shared elements are mainly restricted to genre staples. Labyrinth of Refrain has its own personality.
Evil Enigmatic Space
I already dig the Nippon Ichi brand of humour and artwork but Switch owners previously unfamiliar with NIS’s work may have cut their teeth on near-launch title, SRPG Disgaea 5. The opportunity of being the only game of its kind in the launch period of Nintendo’s latest hardware, without competition, meant the latest entry in their flagship SRPG franchise gained some well-deserved extra attention, and sales to boot. Though a far more low-key release, Labyrinth of Refrain then, is perhaps a chance to show their versatility to a new audience… or maybe the Vita audience has simply migrated over. If you’re lost at this point, by the way, you may want to turn around and keep walking.
Still here? Good.
From the off you’re introduced to protagonist, the commanding, condescending great witch, who goes by the pseudonym Dronya, the young apprentice, Luca and a drunken shepherd’s abandoned-goat-turned-party-mascot, Bah-Bah. Until Dronya chucks Bah-Bah down the well. Now, while I note Dronya’s protagonist status, and she is indeed much of the focus, you play as a living book, the Tractatus de Monstrum, playfully shortened to Tractie. I was immediately drawn into the design of the town setting and character banter but got the impression the story was going to be limited to the usual DRPG make-your-own plot style. It’s the usual half-game, half-spreadsheet but this time with light-hearted Disgaea-esque humour. That is, until the subject matter gets dark. Basically, don’t let your kids play this. The more mature themes are refreshing in a setting you’d expect to be utterly trope-ridden or to have a throw-away story. It’s still got tropes though. And ecchi – take it or leave it, I’m not your dad.
Initially the writing, localisation and voice acting do their respective jobs competently and, combined, make for a generally well-paced, relaxing playthrough with high-energy moments braking up the stat-crunching and exploring. However, there’s so much more to unearth. I won’t ruin these elements for readers but even where the opening hours of the game feel empty, plot and lore is gradually filled out through various methods, the best of which come from your character’s own book pages. Having said that, it’s nothing you’ve never come across in more mature anime/manga (and we’re not exactly talking Berserk levels of dark here) but, to the writers’ credit, it’s not the type of tone that I’ve seen delivered in a DRPG before.
The humour, sound and artwork aren’t the only elements Labyrinth has in common with Disgaea. They also share the penchant for massive stat numbers. Think the polar opposite of the Mario & Luigi RPGs and you get the idea. It’s pointless and glorious.
The team’s caravan is located within the town of Refrain and acts as the game’s central hub – essentially a home base where you’ll prepare for Tractie’s next venture into Refrain’s labyrinth, in search of rare mana-infused treasure. Facilities are initially limited as a means of gradually introducing you to the different aspects of party, item and skill management as you progress through the early stages of the story. It didn’t take me long to get to grips with the party structure but building an army of anime puppets is pure bliss.
There’s plenty of customisation in the creation of the mana-fuelled puppets with a class-system and class-specific levelling progression choices. The fun artwork extends the portrait choices for your party members with some interesting designs on display. Your creations are put into a Coven and Covens into a Brigade. Once you’ve built up the numbers, there’s a lot to mix-and-match, meaning you’re given a shedload of room for creativity in building your party, largely due to the sheer volume of characters available to utilise in battle. Experimenting and combining Coven types to deduce the most effective tactics is a joy during the menu-driven turn-based battles. It’s not as difficult as it sounds and you don’t necessarily need to delve too deep if you don’t feel inclined. Beyond boss battles the difficulty never particularly spikes providing you dedicate enough grind-time, though your party members can suffer from damaged body parts (which require repair in the hub area) and there are factors such as incorrect weapon choices for the front or rear line to consider. While we’re on the topic, I’ll offer a quick tip: keep an eye on the amount of mana you’ve collected or you might attract some unwanted attention. There, you’ve been warned.
The puppets aren’t the only ones to gain new abilities as Tractie’s no slouch in this regard gaining some interesting perks to utilise within the dungeon which can add a different angle for example, stealth. Though I wouldn’t say it does quite enough to mix up the DRPG formula. The game takes the familiar approach of first-person, grid-based crawling but dungeon designs feel similarly decorated with everything you’d expect to see with interaction limited to the genre norms; an area slightly lacking when stacked up to the likes of Persona Q and Mary Skelter in some respects. Indeed, some of the other games in the genre often spice up dungeon interactions with greater gimmicks, more interesting puzzles, enemy movement patterns or, where lacking those elements, visual flair. This is probably my only gripe as there’s very little new in this regard, though it does manage the usual tricks competently.
There are a few ideas in there though; Reinforcement Points can be spent to give buffs, assist with exploration, or assisting with the grind. They’re versatile and become another fun aspect of your resources to manage.
This could have been a blow for a recommendation, but I’m pleased to say that what Labyrinth lacks in new dungeon exploring ideas, it more than makes up for its excellent spin on party-building and battle mechanics. That and the exclusively wacky enemy designs, especially where bosses are concerned – these always managed to bring a grin to my face with the creativity and insanity limitless. The artists clearly had a blast and it makes the build-up the next major encounter all the more special.
Combat is frantic for a turn-based game, throwing a lot of information down the side of the screen quickly and it can be overwhelming to keep abreast of the weaknesses and status effects. Having said that, you’ll spend more time in preparation for battles than in battles themselves – whether this is your preference or not will likely matter.
The Book with a Human Spine
I appreciate the developers including the option to toggle minor controls such as whether down on the d-pad backsteps or turns you in the opposite direction. Little touches like this are important for games where hours of grinding and repetition are built into the experience. You have your preferred way and it’s nice to be able to carry that over. Alright, so it’s not exactly button-mapping but, you know, small victories. Even better still there’s the option to immediately discard common items which must be a boon for inventory management. I say ‘must be’ because I didn’t use it. By accident. I forgot it was there…
Now, I won’t pretend I’ve delved deeply in the end-game yet but a quick bit of research and plenty of clues suggest there’s enough of it, which is something I’m really looking forward to. There’s a lot of content here though, given the price tag, arguably necessary. The amount of systems you need to balance will require a sizeable amount of time, so be prepared for the long haul.
Graphics & Presentation: 3.7
Overall Score: 3.8/5.0
I’ve perhaps had more fun with other Japanese DRPGs in recent years, and it’s certainly not for everyone, but Labyrinth’s minor quirks shouldn’t dissuade you from the delving into the heart of the wacky and occasionally thought-provoking journey the game has to offer. The Switch needed this and ultimately, I won’t refrain from recommending the game (it’s alright, I face-palmed myself for that). Just know, it’s complicated.
Formats: Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), PC, PS4, PS Vita
Price: £44.99 (UK Nintendo eShop)
Publisher: NIS America
Developer: Nippon Ichi Software
Age Rating: PEGI 16
Release Date: 21/09/2018 (UK Nintendo eShop)
Review copy provided by publisher