"Labyrinth of Refrain looks like it will offer a deep experience if you're looking for a dungeon crawler with an NIS aesthetic."
Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk has been (somewhat) a long time in coming to our shores: The Japanese version hit the PS Vita in June 2016, and would come to PlayStation 4 in September 2017. This fall, North America and Europe will get the game on PS4, Nintendo Switch, and on Steam.
The title alone sets up the premise of the game, introducing the mysterious labyrinth underneath the town of Refrain. During my time with the game, I played through part of the opening chapter, instantly being introduced to the witch Dronya. She arrives in Refrain with her young companion Luca. It's quickly apparent after an interaction with a seemingly homeless wanderer that Dronya isn't exactly... charitable. Or friendly. Luca, meanwhile, is excitable and happy that the wandering fellow left behind his sheep, as Dronya takes it upon herself to claim the animal as her property, and puts it in Luca's care. Entering Refrain, the witch makes it clear that she aims to enter the labyrinth, despite its depths being lethal to humans. After picking the lock on the entrance — much to Luca's disapproval — the three companions enter. In case it wasn't clear yet that Dronya is an unlikeable sort, she tires of Bah-Bah (c'mon, you knew the kid would give the sheep a silly name) and its noisy nature... and kicks it over the edge of the hole that leads into the labyrinth. As the kid cries, lamenting her short life as a pet owner, the witch casually notes that she doesn't hear a thud. So I presume at some point Bah-Bah will re-emerge as a horrible mutant goat boss.
Anyway, given the inhospitable atmosphere down below, Dronya knows neither she nor Luca can enter the labyrinth for whatever it is she's after inside. Luckily, Luca carries a book known as the Tracatus de Monstrum, which, surprisingly, is the player "character." This book lets you command a brigade of puppet soldiers in battle, which will come in various roles, with some classes adept at physical power, some that exclusively support and buff the party, and more. Combining roles and learning what works best in a situation will be vital to exploring the depths of the labyrinth. While at your home base, you're able to create new puppet soldiers, assign them roles, upgrade their gear, craft items, help out townspeople, and even make use of "Witch Petitions" to get assistance from the ever-lovable Dronya.
Exploring the labyrinth takes place in an old-school first-person view, as you move in "blocks" through each maze-like floor. Interestingly, NISA was also showing The Lost Child at their 2018 press event, which has similar gameplay. But while The Lost Child is set in a twisted alternate-reality Japan, Labyrinth of Refrain's environments are pure fantasy. The first area I explored was fairly simple: Moss-covered — or perhaps slime-covered? — block walls framed the landscape, dotted by metal gates that I could sometimes open, and weathered signs from previous adventurers who attempted to brave the labyrinth.
Along the way are random battles, also presented in first-person with your puppet party along the bottom of the screen. Each of the five "blocks" represents a coven, or group of soldiers. In my demo, each coven only had a single puppet in it, but looking at the Japanese version, it seems each can have up to three characters. Battles play out by giving assignments to each coven at once, and executing their command. Player and enemy turns then commence in succession, so make your choices count! Again, I was playing the very beginning, so I didn't have many battle commands at my disposal besides attacking, defending, and using items. Certainly, this will grow in complexity as the game progresses, but the battle system and UI feels polished enough and easy to understand.
Reaching the first boss battle in the labyrinth — that horrific dragon worm thing you see in the screenshots — I was presented with my first challenge. As in, an enemy that didn't die in a single round. Upon my victory, I learned the boss was clutching a paper that warned me to not go any further into the labyrinth. Obviously, I'm not gonna take heed at what this ugly thing is telling me, so I step through the door and plummet to a floor below, drenched in miasma that quickly kills me.
...Or, maybe not, as I was transported to a pink-tinted dream-like world. Instead of stone floors, I was walking across giant metallic pink cubes with intricate engravings. Here, I learned there's more to exploring than I realized, as the game introduced me to switches, and gaps that you can leap across. Making my way through this area put me face-to-face with a huge, floating book: the Tracatus de Monstrum. A voice told me to jump into it, and before I know it, I'm back in town. Not sure what was to happen next, I went on my way.
All told, Labyrinth of Refrain looks like it will offer a deep experience if you're looking for a dungeon crawler with an NIS aesthetic. Famitsu scored the Japanese release favorably, with a 32/40, and our own Ronald Buie was fond of Tenpai Sato's work on the soundtrack
, stating that he felt it was one of Sato's better works.
Come back this Fall to find out the answers to your burning questions: What's at the bottom of the labyrinth? What classes will prove the most useful in battle? What actually became of Bah-Bah? And will Dronya eventually reveal a bitter secret that explains her bitter disposition? Look for Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk this fall on PS4, Switch, and PC.