Platform: PC/Steam Deck
Time to Finish: 61 hours
Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk is a first person Dungeon Crawler RPG in a similar vain to Wizardry or Entrian Odyssey. If you’re unfamiliar with this style of game, typically, you lead a party of adventures, usually your own creation, through a series of dungeons fighting monsters, challenging bosses,finding items, and discovering secrets.These dungeons are typically you discovered one grid square at a time. If you’re playing a really old one you’ll have to pull out some graph paper and make your own map.
The first time I encountered this style of game was when I played Etrian Odyssey IV on the 3DS. It was probably one of my favorite games for that system and I put many, many hours in to it. Ever since, I’ve kept my eye out for games of this style. I’ve put some time into a few, mainly Stranger of Sword City and StarCrawlers, but nothing has really captured me in the way that Etrian Odyssey IV did. Until I played Labyrinth of Refrain and I think that’s because this is the perfect type of game for a handheld system. Yep, I’m talking about the Steam Deck again…Seriously though, for a game like this playing stilling at my desk and playing it on my PC feels like overkill. It’s much better suited for playing on the couch downstairs.
The story follows Dusk Witch Madame Dronya and her 10 year old assistant Luca as they arrive in the town of Refrain. Dronya has heard of a magic well here and the labyrinth beneath it that houses powerful magic artifacts. Dronya has come to explore the Labyrinth and find it’s secrets as well as collect valuable items to appease the towns Mayor. As the player, you lead a brigade of adventures down the well and map out the Labyrinth.
Things I Liked:
Typically, in these types of games, your party is either never mentioned or if they are addressed in the story it’s as a collective and not the individual members. To explain this out of the way, in Labyrinth of Refrain, you are a magic book. I don’t think I’ve ever played a game where I was a book before!
You see, the labyrinth under the city of Refrain is filled with a sort of miasma that would kill a human if they went down there. So to solve this, you, the Tractatus de Monstrum, are thrown down the well along with a party of puppets infused with human souls. You use your abilities as a magical book to lead the party through the dungeons.
I like this for two reasons. One, because it solves the whole, how are you leading a party of 10+ people around who are never addressed by any of the characters. Two, because it separates you as the player from the story in a way that I haven’t seen before.
The Tractatus de Monstrum is a character mentioned by other characters but what you’re doing in the labyrinth isn’t necessarily part of the main story. You’re kind of a side character doing the dirty work while the story takes place around or without you. I found this to be a really interesting perspective to play from.
If you glanced quickly at the store page you might get the impression that this game has your typical JRPG setup. It’s colorful and has a bit of goofy music in the trailer. However, this is not a happy game.
From the start Madame Dronya and Luca’s relationship is toxic at best and down right abusive at worst.You get the impression that Dronya doesn’t really want Luca around and all Luca want’s to do is make Dronya happy. Dronya herself is selfish and power hungry using anyone or anything to get what she wants and just mean spirited in general. Often times making Luca miserable because she can. At the start of the game she kicks a lamb that Luca has found down the Well…
There’s also a subtly and implied horror throughout that I like here. There is a ton of disturbing things happening that are never outright shown.
For example your puppet soldiers will sometimes get hit for a super critical hit called a Gore hit. They make a really awful sound when this happens because they lose a limb. You don’t see them lose a limb but the sound helps emphasize how horrifying that is. Couple that with the fact that there’s a human soul in that puppet solider and all you can really do is fix them up and send them back in to those situations where it’s bound to happen again and again.
There’s something very addicting about mapping out a dungeon square by square. As long as the map draws itself that is…I found myself in the classic “just one more floor before bed” situation multiple times. There was always another undiscovered section to find, a short cut to unlock, or a chest to got back to once I found a key
There is a lot of backtracking to be done. I didn’t find it a chore to do as there was always a reason to do it or a reward for going back. At a certain point you unlock an ability to destroy some walls in the labyrinth which makes traversal easier and opens up a lot more areas. As the story progresses you unlock abilities that make back tracking even less of a hassle.
The story is told like a visual novel with 2D characters standing around not moving in scenes while text scawls along the bottom. Everything is fully voice acted and voice acted well for that matter. There are some times where you’re asked to make a decision but these are few and far between and I’m not sure they have any bearing on how the story unfolds.
This style of story telling works for me and my preference for listening to a story rather than watching it. There’s a lot that’s done with just sound a dialogue to make the story come to life just like an audio drama.
Things That Could Have Been Better:
The Battle System
With the option to have a ton of characters fighting in your party with multiple classes and styles I didn’t thing the combat system would be the weakest part of this game.
In 90% of battles you won’t even have to use skills other than the occasional heal. The only time I really had to use more than healing spells were boss fights. Most fights I just pressed the button to have the party use basic attacks and we won in a round or two.
Gore hits are super critical attacks that cause your puppet solders to lose limbs. Their health is permanently decreased until you repair them back at the base. If they lose the arm they attack with they won’t be able to use their main handed weapon unless you change their dominant hand in the character menu. If they lose their head they are insta-killed.
On top of that, puppet parts are expensive and I found myself running out of money most of the time just repairing puppets. It was also annoying to just get back in to a dungeon and the first fight one of my puppets are gored and their total health is halved.
I wouldn’t mind this system as much except Goring an enemy doesn’t really do anything other than more damage. Sure you Gored a boss for 35k damage but they barely felt it and then Gore you back an now your tank has less total health than your glass canon DPS. It’s a bit frustrating for sure.
The Final Boss
If you look at the Steam reviews you’ll see all sorts of mentions about how the game is easy except for the final boss. I didn’t find this game that easy on the normal difficulty there were definitely a few bosses I needed to level up for or take on a few times before I beat them. But the final boss amps up the difficulty a ton.
There is an item you can get that makes it a bit easier, as in your party will get wiped in five turns instead of two. My problem was I was finding it difficult to cast the spell that makes the boss easier before it either KO’d or silenced my spell casters.
At this point, I was 60 hours in and just wanted to see the end of the story. So I put the difficulty down to easy and still lost half my party before finishing…
Clocking in at just over 60 hours this is by far the longest game I’ve played in years. The last one being 59 hours in Tales of Berseria in 2020. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Labyrinth of Refrain. The story was intriguing and the labyrinth was fun to explore.
I didn’t like the combat all that much but maybe that’s because I didn’t take the time to really dig in to the various systems too much. There is a whole lot that you can optimize and create to make your party stronger but I didn’t feel like you really needed these systems until the final boss so there wasn’t much of a reason to learn them.
Every boss battle and every new floor meant more story for me and that’s really what drove me to finish the game.