Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk is my first foray into the “dungeon crawler” RPG style. Everything you look up about this game references another title, Etrian Odyssey, which looks pretty cool and all, but I’ll tell you here and now that I’ve never played it. I’m willing to bet if you’re reading this review, you’re either familiar with it yourself, or of another title from Coven of Dusk’s developer, Nippon Ichi Software. Personally, I’m a fan of the latter – particularly the Yomawari series – so I at least understood a little bit about what I was getting into in regards to Coven of Dusk’s pedigree.
I didn’t even realize this genre was a thing. A first-person perspective hallway stroller, interspersed with Dragon Quest style battles, with an alarming number of character stats to keep track of. On environment alone, my first thought wasn’t “Etrian Odyssey” – it was Hell Night, for the PlayStation 1… which I’m ready to admit is kind of embarrassing, as a game reviewer. If this concept of first-person labyrinth exploration is an alien concept to you as well, then you’re in for a particularly strange dip into JRPG waters. However, if you’re already familiar with the genre, then it won’t take a seasoned expert to tell you that Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk is a deeply detailed, wholly engrossing hot mess of a video game – one that encompasses all the good, and all the bad of JRPGs in general.
If you enjoy menus, numbers, micromanagement, character stats, and item optimization, this game is a blast. If you don’t, be prepared to put some real effort in for the long haul; Coven of Dusk throws no punches in regards to party and battle mechanics. It has one of the steepest learning curves I’ve encountered in a roleplaying game. The sheer amount party functions gameplay, options, and choices in regards to changing up exploration and combat make it feel daunting, initially. Without any primer on how this sort of game generally plays out, it’s a bit much to take in, albeit nothing that is so laden in its own complexities that the game itself is lost. If you go into Coven of Dusk understanding that there’s a lot to learn, then the many, many tutorial pills you’re fed from time to time are easier to swallow.
The core basics of how you handle your expedition are explained throughout the course of the game’s first twenty hours or so. I was still getting prompts about specific mechanics well into the third and fourth dungeon areas. Just when you think you’ve got the swing of something, a new primer on it pops up, typically after a major in-game event. These tutorial prompts usually detail mechanics that are introduced ahead of time anyway, free for the player to explore on their own, often without much explanation as to what they do when they are initially introduced. Often, I wondered why certain information was being relayed after having already unlocked the functions it details – especially with more complex mechanics, like the magic system.
It’s as if the game can’t decide whether or not it wants to hold your hand; as if the developers knew there were players just like myself who had no clue what they were getting into, who really needed these points drilled in. If that wasn’t so true for my own experience, I’d probably complain about how strangely the game teaches you about it’s mechanics. That said, for such a steep learning curve, the developers made it so each tutorial at least came in bite-sized pieces. Whoever wrote them out certainly has a knack for getting to the point, which matters when there’s so much ground to cover
Much of what is learned, however, does come through simply diving right in, and it all starts with creating your own adventuring party. Coven of Dusk has three main characters – Dronya, Luca, and the player avatar known as the Tractatus de Monstrum… an evil, sentient, book of sorts But it isn’t this strange trio or the inhabitants of the game’s setting, Refrain, that make up your group of dungeon-crawlers. Instead, for story purposes, the player takes on the role of the Tractatus de Monstrum and a group of “puppet soldiers” – customizable units meant to explore the dark, miasma-filled underbelly of the town of Refrain, in which humans cannot step.
The lengths to which you can customize your party members really helps endear those puppet soldiers to the player, especially considering they’re literal stand-ins for characterless units. The party members you craft via the Puppet Workshop are the figures that will actually do the exploring for the story’s main “protagonist”, Dronya. Each puppet can be named, given flavor text and personality, and have their stats configured for specific growth patterns. It’s actually pretty good from a general “roleplaying” perspective; where the story focuses on established characters and their lives aboveground, you’ve got your team of puppets who do all the real work down in the dungeon. Searching for treasure, fighting ancient evils, and uncovering the mystery of Refrain’s seedy underbelly all falls on the shoulders of characters the player makes themselves. Ultimately, these are the characters you spend far more time with, and with so many configurable elements they begin to feel like the true stars of the show – which makes losing battles that much harder to handle
As “puppet soldiers”, each unit has five body parts that can be broken if enough damage is incurred. The more limbs they lose, the less overall HP they’re able to recover. Whenever an enemy lands a critical “gore” strike, it absolutely affects the rest of your journey; there are ways of fixing your puppets, but it requires resources or money, which can be bought above ground or rarely found in the labyrinth. It sounds frustrating, and it is, but it’s not so prevalent or often to where it becomes too much of a roadblock. It’s the sort of gameplay element meant to keep you on your toes, and can certainly sneak up on you in ways that are often more challenging than annoying. If you choose to continue exploring without patching up your puppets, you run the risk of encountering important scenes – including boss fights and difficult battle scenarios. If you don’t take care of your party, it will absolutely make or break your progress. The few white hairs this game gave me were only of my own design; saving often will help alleviate some of the horrific losses brought on by your own gambles.
It is these sort of mechanics that make NIS the experts at keeping you engaged, even during the game’s most plodding points. Your puppets are complex beasts, and each aspect of their journey is never without purpose. At the same time, as far as party management (and punishment for lack thereof) goes, everything feels meticulously crafted to assure your experience in the dungeon is always a little bit exciting – and considering how often you’re treading over familiar ground, this makes it easy to appreciate these complexities. What could be an obnoxious amount of micromanagement actually fills out your adventure appropriately, due in part to the open-ended nature of dungeon crawling, but also the pace at which the story rolls out.
Coven of Dusk is told through a series of “Witch Reports” – short vignettes that detail the witch Baba Yaga – AKA Lady Dronya – and her work in the mysterious town of Refrain. The scenes in which we watch her story unfold are entertaining enough, even when the storytelling itself gets a little “anime” for my taste. The tone is set pretty early on: Coven of Dusk is definitely light-hearted, despite its dank dungeons and broadly occult themes. It works… if you have the stomach for the kind of narrative found in comedic anime. Personally, the game’s humor just isn’t for me, and I don’t think it’s necessarily a matter of taste. Coven of Dusk is simultaneously chock full of personality and so very cliche. It’s a disparity that doesn’t necessarily take away from the game’s fun, but it’s not going to be for everyone.
It’s not that Coven of Dusk’s humor is totally unfunny, it’s just a little tired. When it’s cracking casual or innocent jokes, it’s actually refreshing from the standpoint of someone so used to playing more serious titles. But so many of it’s “funny” moments are in that weirdly specific vein of “wacky otaku humor” that can get a little grating. It’s the kind of comedy that speaks to a certain audience – specifically, the kind that spends time arguing with people online about the differences in Eastern/Western sensibilities. This game was not written for the current cultural landscape in mind, which is forgivable in the context of where it’s from and when it was made.
What can be faulted, however, is the kind of gags and setups here are so silly that it takes away from the more subtle humor that’s woven in. I’m not asking otaku culture/humor to catch up with the times, especially from a game that was initially launched in Japan in 2016, but it’s fair to say it’s the sort of hamfisted comedy is a little old hat, and a little too much… Playing Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk taught me that I am not nearly as inoculated to anime-style humor as I used to be, but if you are, maybe you’ll enjoy the story more than I did.
Maybe this over-the-top absurdism would be funnier two years ago when the game initially came out. Nowadays, it’s not even a matter of cleaning things up for the sake of political correctness, or appealing to people’s sensitivities; it’s so on-the-nose with certain themes that it really just tries too hard. Not even in the “too edgy” sense, but in a “what’s really funny about this anymore?” way. This sort of comedy treads very familiar ground; so long as you understand just where that ground is, you can set your expectations accordingly.
Are you cool with nonconsensual sexual encounters being played for laughs? Does the idea of the main character beating her child slave tickle your absurdist funny bone? Far be it from me to tell you what’s funny or not, I’m just here to say that that’s the sort of stuff we’re dealing with. I bring these up not because I’m totally humorless myself, but because these scenes kind of just suck. If you’re gonna do offensive comedy, it has to be done well. I’m of the opinion that what’s “funny” here is just awkward and unnecessary in a game with an otherwise compelling cast and story.
That is really the only tragedy with Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk’s narrative. The characters aren’t necessarily loveable – they’re often straight up despicable and obnoxious – but it’s that dedication to those not-so-loveable traits that turns things around and makes the story good. It’s kind of nice to not be the hero for a change, which Dronya is the furthest thing from. The cast stands out from your typical RPG because of just how awful the relationships and interactions are. In a way, this is thanks to its very specific presentation, but just because that style is tired doesn’t mean the personalities within are. For every gripe I have about its humor, Coven of Dusk at least provides the sort of train-wreck characters that are worthy of your attention.
It isn’t every character of course – there are some forgettable faces in the mix – but someone like Dronya is so deeply unlikeable in her actions and attitude that you can’t call her a poorly written character. She beats kids, abuses her supernatural powers, and has zero filters. She’s a witch – she’s supposed to be evil – and that anti-hero grossness makes her story more compelling than a lot of JRPG characters. Couple that with some genuinely fun gameplay, and you have a pretty simple formula for keeping my attention, regardless of other flaws in the presentation.
Every scene is voice acted, and that acting is on par with some of the best you’ll find in any previous NIS title. The lively performances hold nothing back, and every actor seems to be in on whatever jokes are being thrown the players way. Everyone is aware of how tongue-and-cheek this whole ordeal is. This, along with an artistic aesthetic reminiscent of Disgaea, helps Coven of Dusk radiate with the kind of polish expected of its developers. As for the actual dungeons you’re crawling through, the environment looks like some pure Playstation 2 era trash, and I love it. There’s no need for anything more than square hallways and blocky models. Saying the dungeons look good wouldn’t be accurate, but each level you unlock at least looks different enough, to the point where finding a new area instantly put a smile on my face. Even at it’s ugliest, the game bleeds personality. I never knew what would be coming next; the first foray outside of the game’s initial “Campanula” area is the kind of pleasant surprise indicative of Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk’s overall variety.
Exploring requires doing the same stuff over and over again, which sounds horrible until you realize just how many ways the game allows you to explore. You uncover the map tile by tile, with procedurally generated items popping up each time you change floors, and enemies appearing from time to time. Being able to break through walls, travel through portals, seek out keys, and finagle your way through boss battles keeps the monotony at a minimum. You will spend an enormous amount of time exploring, retracing your steps, and grinding out levels.
However, the longer you spend in a dungeon, the greater your reward grows. The game’s Mana system allows players to collect magical energy that greatly increases their chance of finding rare items. The more Mana you accumulate through battle and dungeon foraging, the more likely you’re to stumble on to better weapons and more. That Mana is also used to unlock further dungeon functions – the ability to set home warp points or the ability to instantly heal after battle are all paid for by seeking out more Mana. Every time you go into the dungeon, even if you fail to progress the story, you’re at least rewarded with something to better your party in the long haul. This becomes addictively rewarding, and if you’re the sort that loves a good grind, you’ll find yourself sidetracked quite a bit.
The Witch Petition system through which you unlock these party functions is also used to influence the game’s overall difficulty. If you’re like me, and this was your first DRPG, setting the difficulty a little lower by paying a small bit of Mana might not be a bad idea. If you’re a total masochist, which I’m assuming the sort of people who like this game are, you can crank up the heat and request Dronya set the dungeons to “hard mode”. I tried both settings for the sake of the review and instantly went back to my old save both times. It makes a difference.
What matters though, is that even on its default difficulty, Coven of Dusk provides enough variety, surprises, and difficulty spikes to stay consistent. With so much control over just how you play the game, that consistency is an important element that extends beyond its difficulty settings. This is a game that goes above and beyond in regards to appeasing player tastes, while also having such depth to its core gameplay mechanics that even the most “generic” play style will provide a unique experience every time you dive back into Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk’s dungeons.
Just remember: this game is long as hell. You might want to switch things up from time to time during those long stretches of spelunking. Understanding that this game is an incredible time sink is important. Investing that much time into the world and characters is a pretty big undertaking, and one I could say – despite all my gripes about its humor – I’m willing to follow through on. In terms of it’s pacing, and it’s world-building, and the light approach to its occultish themes, the whole package winds up turning into the sort of game that’s great for picking up and putting down over the course of a few days. Or weeks. Or months, probably.
As a newbie to dungeon crawlers but a fan of old school JRPGs, Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk scratches so many itches I didn’t realize I had. At the same time, there’s no way in hell this game is for everyone, even those who consider themselves fans of traditional roleplaying fare. Still, on the virtue of sheer ridiculousness, it’s one of the most unique adventure titles available on the Nintendo Switch. If you’re into games that go off the deep end in just about every way then look no further than Dronya’s adventure with her puppet pals. If you’re looking to get lost somewhere deep, dark, and more than a little weird this Halloween season, I absolutely recommend spending some time in the town of Refrain – it’s got more than enough tricks and treats for even the most indulgent RPG fan.