Dark humor, hunderds of puppets and unrelenting gameplay. Just how I like dungeon crawlers!
There are itches that are meant to be scratched. The biggest one for me lately has been Dungeon Role Playing Games, or dungeon crawlers. They see you traversing the world from a first-person point of view and battling with enemies when you come across them. While that style of gameplay can very easily reel me in, the games themselves have to be made well. Even the brightest games in the genre (the Etrian Odyssey games, in my book) have their specific quirks that you need to learn to fully embrace. As a result, not every DRPG has landed as well as I would have wanted it to. So when Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk came into the picture, I was both excited and a tiny bit worried. Some hours into the experience, however, the title continued to engross me. So much so that it might be one of my favorite experiences this year.
To give some context about the game, it’s actually made by the Disgaea team, which becomes quite clear as you take the story apart. The signature way of writing over the top personalities is present, and instantly put me in a good mood. The big difference between this and the developers’ more well-established series is that the humor is a lot darker. The witch Dronya and her ever-growing band of characters think a lot more sadistically than you would expect from Nippon Ichi characters. Do I mind this at all? Not really. The story isn't the main focus here. You might get a cutscene now and again, generally after successfully making progress. This fits the way the game was built, but people more familiar with this team's previous work might be taken aback a little.
In either case, I wouldn't get too attached to Dronya as you will only see her in the cutscenes. After all, she is an evil overlord that sends creations down to various dangerous dungeons. The dungeons are filled to the brim with miasma, a terrible substance that is deadly to any normal living being. A magic book, known as Tractatus du Monstrum, creates the puppets that Dronya needs to find out what is down below. The dungeons aren't your standard affair, though. They don't focus on going to the deepest abyss, but instead revolve around finding special passageways that open up more dungeons and locations to uncover. All of these roads and paths all connected to each other, and finding the next ecosystem is crucial to making any sort of progress. That is what the main objective is all about: just going that tiny bit further than before and seeing what kind of enemies you will be dealing with next.
In this dungeon-crawling adventure, you will roam about the world in a grid-based manner, and try to engage with anything that moves. The character you control is actually the aforementioned magic book, which carries five squads of characters that do your bidding. These squads can be customized and tailored to your liking before entering a dungeon. With six character classes to choose from and various combinations possible, it is a joy to experiment and create your ideal team of minions. At any time, you can take them apart or change the entire way you approach a dungeon. When that starts to click, the hours just seem to fly by and I found myself enthralled just trying out the various options.
The battle system uses different terminology, but outside of that, it is your standard turn-based gameplay. A combination of basic and magic attacks help you to overcome the maddening trials that await you in battle. Despite providing a real challenge, the things that the five squads can do feel easier to get the hang of. The abilities that are available to you depend on who you bring along, not so how much you raise or level them up. Labyrinth of Refrain rewards intelligent planning in this and many other areas. Leveling up your characters becomes far more important for actual survival as it decides the amount of hits they can take. In addition, you need to ensure that your stout defenders can take attacks to form a wall for everybody else. You assign roles for your battles, which is something that I found myself tinkering around with the most.
There are two more mechanics every player should be mindful of. First off, there is a quest to collect Mana as you continue to make moves. Mana is important for the evil deeds that Dronya wants to perform and the drops while exploring, so having it is quite vital. There is, however, a balancing system in place that stops you from taking things too far. If you continue to farm as much Mana as humanly possible, high-level enemies quickly come out of the woodwork. They will be way stronger what you can actually handle, which will quickly result in you having to make new dolls. The situation gets easier as you get stronger, but in the early going, it is better to avoid staying for long altogether.
Reinforcement Points are the other system present for checks and balances. As enemy placement is decided beforehand, it might be easy to use an ability and avoid them altogether. You could also blast a few walls, and just move on to a different dungeon entirely. To stop using these options with reckless abandon, these sorts of evasive maneuvers are tied to RP. Every time you enter the dungeon, you get a limited amount to spend on your run. RP can be used in and out of battle to help you or allow you to escape when it starts to look rough. Using them all in your opening moments may leave you in a bad place when things go awry.
Outside of the story not being the thing I expected, the only other complaint I have is enemy variety. Once you enter a dungeon, it doesn't take long to see most of the enemies on offer. Now don't get me wrong. I am not saying that Labyrinth of Refrain lacks visual variety. In fact, the visuals are really sharp on Nintendo Switch and stand out with the use of color. The designs of the Disgaea team were always strong, and this game is no exception. Even the music provides the right amount of atmosphere that complements what the game is all about.
Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk is the dungeon crawler I've been waiting for. The way you build up characters and use them in battle is so incredibly well put together. Everything you do to prepare feels important, and readies you for what comes next. Naturally there are a few things to be said about the story's setup and the not-so-massive enemy count, but this can be forgiven in the grand scheme of things. The game knows what it wants to be, and I gladly spent well close to 100 hours seeing it all through. If you are looking for a game that will keep you going, Labyrinth of Refrain has your back.