The classic dungeon-crawling RPG has been around for a long time. From the Ultima games right through to the Wizardry series, we’ve been treated to a genre that’s remained very niche, but still incredibly compelling when in the hands of the right developer. So when Nippon Ichi - the Japanese studio most commonly known for tactics-style games such as Disgaea - revealed it was working on a modern reimaging, we were intrigued to see what it could come up with.
The result - Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk - is a strange little curio that manages to doff its cap to the games that paved the way (including the brilliant Etrian Odyssey series) while sprinkling in a little of that quintessential Nippon Ichi magic that has made Disgaea such an enduring franchise. Designer and composer team Takehito Harada and Tenpei Sato bring with them a soundtrack and art style that’ll have you saying, “Dood!” out of sheer familiarity. But make no mistake, this is no sickly-sweet adventure. It’s a very adult approach to storytelling, with swearing, sexual themes and one incredibly uncomfortable scene only a few hours in. One for the kids, this is not.
The opening cutscenes of Labyrinth of Refrain might lead you to think you’re playing as Dronya, a foul-mouthed and cantankerous witch travelling to the town of Refrain. With her ward Luca in tow, the mean magic user has been tasked with entering the maze-like tunnels beneath the city and ridding them of the monsters that emerge from below. Said dungeon is full of a green substance called miasma that just happens to be deadly to humans, so Dronya can’t head down and deal with it herself. Boasting the Tractatus de Monstrum - a fabled book written by the only man to survive a trip to the labyrinth - Dronya sends the tome down with a series of magically-powered marionettes to do the work for her.
The only problem is that said book has its own soul and you soon realise you’re actually seeing this strange and fantastical story from the POV of this dusty volume. It’s certainly an odd narrative angle to take, but it does provide a neat way to both explore the dungeons below and watch Dronya and Luca’s unfolding adventure in Refrain. The game does get a little too self-indulgent when it comes to the length of its cutscenes; you can skip them, but considering most of the black humoured dialogue is delivered with just the right amount of scene-chewing enthusiasm, it feels like a crime to brush past it.
Story aside, the real meat here is the dungeon crawling, and it makes for Labyrinth of Refrain’s most enjoyable moments. You build a team to tackle the labyrinth by taking a wooden puppet and infusing it with a soul. You can choose from 12 character types divided into six different classes (known as Facets). These puppets can be damaged in battle too, so when you do return to the safety of Dronya’s caravan you can repair them, transfer a soul to a new body or completely destroy your wooden minion.
You can then assign your puppets to a team, or 'Coven' as it's known in the game’s parlance. You can have up to three of these in one Brigade (your overall team) and it enables you to build and customise the composition of each Coven. A pair of Theatrical Stars is perfect for supporting the dual-blade attacks of an Aster Knight or the tank-like defences of the Peer Fortresses. It takes a little while to really appreciate the nuances between each character and how well one Coven works with another but once cracked, you can really get stuck into its turn-based battles with confidence. And while the dungeons aren't procedurally generated, battles are random, so your periodic trips into the labyrinth are almost always different every time.
The game runs relatively smooth on Nintendo Switch and looks noticeably crisper than it did on PS Vita. Art assets are captivating for the most part, but there are some noticeable jaggy edges when exploring the dungeon in docked mode. The design of the dungeon is meant to be a throwback to the simple presentation of Wizardry and the like, but it can be a little too crude compared to the quality of its sprites and cutscenes. We find playing in handheld mode offers a far smoother experience.
The first-person dungeon-crawling RPG genre has produced its fair share of obtuse and needlessly difficult titles over the years, but Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk remedies this by offering an easy-to-master battle system, silly characters and the ability to modify the difficulty of its dungeons. While its cutscenes are a little too self-indulgent in length, the voiceover work is surprisingly decent and although some story moments take the occasional questionable turn, Nippon Ichi has conjured an intriguing world to inhabit. The design of the dungeons can be a little repetitive, but Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk is still a great way for newcomers to try out this age-old genre.