Nippon Ichi’s latest release Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk is a first-person dungeon crawler where you play Tractie – that is, the Tractatus de Monstrum – a mysterious book with a soul trapped inside, able to communicate by filling out its pages. Tractie is under the control of a witch named Baba Yaga, or Dronya as she goes by in the village of Refrain. The titular labyrinth is a no-go area for humans, so Dronya decides that Tractie is going to explore on her behalf, and throws it down the well that serves as the entrance to the labyrinth.
You’ll need to report back into Dronya after fulfilling a set requirement in order to progress the game. Early on this is a bit frustrating, as it means you have to abandon your position in the labyrinth to get back, but eventually you’ll learn a skill called Mud Exit which creates a one-use portal to teleport back to, making exploration much easier.
Skills themselves are learned via Witch’s Petition in Dronya’s caravan. These are skills which will aid Tractie in the exploration of the caravan and you use the mana you’ve collected to buy them. These range from the Mud Exit mentioned earlier, to useful EXP stockpiling which gives boosts to earned EXP, difficulty changes, and much more as the game progresses. It’s up to you to spend your mana wisely and decide which skills will benefit you on your quest through the labyrinth. Some skills seem a lot more useful than others, so there’s an element of forward planning. There’s nothing worse than spending all your mana on something which turns out to have no effect on your gameplay, forcing you to farm for more of the skill currency.
Using skills requires Reinforcement Points (RF). You’ll start each journey into the labyrinth with a set amount, making venturing through the labyrinth a somewhat tactical operation. While you can break down walls, doing so will drain RF which you may need later, so it's important to conserve what you can, lest you fancy a trip back to the caravan to recover.
While exploring the labyrinth, enemies will appear. Battling the enemies in Tractie’s place (because how can a book fight?) are puppet soldiers. You can craft the puppet soldiers across six classes; you’ll need a soul and puppet parts to do so. There’s a degree of customisation when creating puppets which makes it fun to play around with. Across the six classes you can create a male or female puppet, each of which has a number of different skins. You’ll then be able to assign various attributes such as voice, nature, and skill selection, among others. While some of these attributes are fairly self-explanatory, others would benefit from more explanation as to how each will affect the puppet in battle.
Once you’ve created your puppets, you assign them to a coven using pacts. Initially you can only have one puppet per coven, but as you progress through the game and collect different pacts, you’ll be able to assign more puppets to each, meaning you can take more soldiers into battle. Soldiers can then be placed in the rearguard or vanguard of the coven, so the tactical options are vast. Each class and coven have their own strengths and weaknesses, so there’s a lot to play around with until you find a combination that suits the moment.
The labyrinth is split into areas connected by antechambers, with each sector having a distinct theme and feel. There’s only a few types of enemies in each area, and this causes things to feel quite repetitive quite quickly. It’s easy to notice a gap in ability between your puppets and the enemy, and it does leave battles feeling like a chore at times as you easily overpower your opponent. Luckily you can have characters automatically attack during the turn-based battle-system with standard attacks by pressing triangle rather than assigning each coven with an action, which does speed things up when things start feeling this way.
The labyrinth map fills out as you explore, and it's really satisfying to see areas mapped out fully. This becomes addictive, but can also lead to wandering parts of the map you really shouldn't be in yet.
It's often unclear how you need to progress the game, which leads to some moments of sheer frustration. Labyrinth of Refrain suffers from poor signposting to a point that it's just sometimes not fun. By the sheer fact that no enemy is particularly taxing the rest of the time, if you come across a foe that wipes you out then you shouldn't be where you are – we learned this the hard way repeatedly.
Labyrinth excursions are broken up with a vaguely interesting storyline. None of the characters in Labyrinth of Refrain are particularly likeable; Dronya herself lives up to her witch name, and another rhyming word besides. Her assistant, Luca, is thoroughly annoying, and sometimes it feels like she deserves the mistreatment Dronya throws her way. The host of supporting cast members fare no better, which is a real let down as it's hard to stay invested in a story where you just don't like anyone or care about their well-being.
In typical JRPG fashion, there's a moment early on in the game with some extremely questionable subject matter between Dronya and an oversexed nun. Whilst somewhat expected of the genre, it leaves a sour taste and sets up the tone for the rest of the game.
Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk is an altogether fun but often repetitive dungeon crawler let down by its weak cast and uninteresting storyline. Moments spent in the labyrinth dungeons, though initially confusing, are bright spots in an otherwise uninspiring game, giving the opportunity for exploration and presenting an intriguing battle system which allows for plenty of customisation and experimentation.