It seems that NIS America has learned their lesson from Ys VIII with their latest release, Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk. On top of being a great port, Labyrinth of Refrain offers up plenty of fun for a dungeon crawler, including a cool party system, easy-to-learn combat, and a number of interesting dungeon-crawling mechanics to shake up the experience. However, the game is not without fault, especially when it comes to its sense of direction and dungeon design.
Cool party system. Labyrinth of Refrain has an excellent party system to it, one of the best I have seen in a dungeon crawler. The exploration in the game is actually done by puppets, which can be created, repaired, and destroyed at the player’s discretion. When creating a puppet, there are a number of options to choose from. This includes the basics (such as class, appearance, name, and starting skills) as well as some other, more customizable traits (such as nickname, attitude, lucky number, and even flavor text). I quite liked how in-depth the creation system was and was happy to see that level of customization extended to the actual party configuration. In order to be used, puppets need to be assigned to a coven, which is basically a smaller group in the overall party. These covens decide both available spells and party size. As one gets later into the game, covens can be found that include higher-level spells and allow several puppets to be assigned to a single unit, which in turn allows parties of massive sizes. By the time I was six hours into the game, I was managing a party of nine members, all with custom builds and item loadouts. The amount of customization the game allows in that regard really lends itself well to the overall experience.
Easy to learn, hard to master combat. Despite the complexity behind the game’s party system, the combat is actually rather easy to pick up. The commands available are pretty much self-explanatory. There’s attack, use spell, fortify, escape, and formation, all commands I was able to get the hang of pretty quickly. However, the combat is not any less satisfying due to this simplicity. In fact, the combat falls into the whole “easy to learn, hard to master” category. This is because the customization of the party system plays a huge role in how the combat plays out. Factors like coven layout, vanguard or rearguard status, and spell availability can all have a massive impact on how battles turn out. For example, you probably would want to avoid assigning a healer or support puppet to a fighter coven, as they would lose access to the spells that make them useful. As such, the combat can be quite in-depth at times, but nothing is stopping the player from just assigning every puppet to an offensive coven. In fact, if the player wants to keep the combat as simple as possible, he/she can do just that and can also apply a difficulty option that makes all enemies weaker (at the expense of less rewards earned from exploration). There is even a reverse to that option, which makes all enemies tougher, but with more rewards available. As such, the combat can be as complex and difficult as the player likes.
Interesting dungeon-crawling mechanics. It is quite normal for dungeon crawlers to have gimmicks such as holes that can be fallen through, tiles that can be jumped to, and doors that require switches to be opened. Labyrinth of Refrain has all of this and more. In fact, there is one mechanic in particular that really shakes up the gameplay: the ability to break walls. This adds a whole new level to the gameplay, as now there are secret rooms, hallways, and entirely new areas that can be reached just by breaking a wall in a previously-explored area. I quite enjoyed breaking a wall or two to discover a hidden chest, it made the exploration far more interesting.
Bland dungeon design. For a dungeon crawler, Labyrinth of Refrain has some pretty barebones dungeon design. There is so little variety in the assets used in each dungeon that discovering a new area or going to a new floor is almost always a letdown. For the most part, it is more of the same — same textures, same models, and even similar layouts. In fact, it seemed as if the only real difference between each floor were the enemies contained within. For a game that does so well elsewhere, it is an absolute shame that the dungeon design could not match that quality.
Lack of direction. While the wall-breaking mechanic is neat and all, it certainly does not help that the game provides little instruction on what to do at any given moment. Usually, the only instruction given to the player is “to continue exploring the labyrinth”, which would normally be fine for a dungeon crawler like this, but the game actually has a story to it with objectives that need to be completed. At one point during my playthrough, I had managed to get stuck for almost an entire hour because I did not realize that I had accidentally explored past a story objective. In fact, I had somehow managed to complete the requirements for the next two story objectives before I realized I missed something. The game at least provides some sense of direction by placing exclamation marks on the map for events, but not all of these are story-related and there are even some that do not appear to add anything at all to the game. I found one such point that just stated something a sign could have, without triggering any sort of event. The game could really do with some more pointers on what needs to be done, so as to prevent players unknowingly going down the wrong path.
Stuttering issues. Labyrinth of Refrain may be an excellent PC port, but it is not perfect. One of the technical issues I ran into was some minor stuttering issues during combat and dialogue sequences. These stutters would freeze the game for a second and then loop the background music back to the start. They did not occur often, but it is a technical issue regardless and should be noted.
For a dungeon crawler, Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk has a really nice party and combat system. Combined with the interesting exploration mechanics and you have a pretty solid game. However, the actual dungeon design is rather subpar and the fact that the game provides little sense of direction certainly does not help either. Even so, I enjoyed my time with the game and do recommend it.
You can buy Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk on Steam here.
I was provided a free review copy of the game in order to write this review. Read more about how I do my game reviews here.