The dungeon-crawling RPG experience puts more emphasis on the genre’s core mechanics such as battle systems and exploration. Ultimately what carries interest is its depth and unique features which make every forward, backward & side step engaging. Luckily, Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk succeeds in delivering an engaging and entertaining experience. The gameplay is certainly a strong suit, but it’s not the only noteworthy element. The playful cast of characters all move the story forward in a comedic and often dark manner thanks to the dialogue. And it comes as no surprise since it’s developed by Nippon Ichi Software, incorporating very similar vibes found in their popular tactical RPG franchise, Disgaea. There’s many hours of pure RPG fun here.
No time is wasted in introducing 2 of our 3 main characters as well as the town of Refrain. The Lady Witch “Madam Dronya” and her little girl apprentice by her side, Luca, finally make it to Refrain where reports of an underground well, known as The Well of Khelaza, contains miasma essence also known as “mana” is the main attraction and objective for the team. Unlike the ordinary townsfolk, Dronya is able to gather and synthesize mana by taking advantage of her witch powers. Dronya and Luca station their caravan and it isn’t long before you dive right into the well and start exploring all of its secrets. The Caravan serves as your base and provides access points to the well and other gameplay features. The initial opening is set up to make players cozy. As you move continue to make progress and advance the story, more options and features become available.
Coven of Dusk is constantly throwing you new information. Hours go by, more areas get explored, new secrets get discovered and another tutorial appears. At first, players will realize their limitations and figure out what to do next, but many new features are only unlocked for each story beat by selecting Witch Report while back at the Caravan, where you report back to Dronya about your findings. Who are you? You are the third main character, being a mysterious tome known as the Tractatus de Monstrum. This magical book has recorded the findings of the only survivor from Refrain’s well a.k.a. the Labyrinth. It can be seen that players may take the backseat of the story, but reasons are given for why you are “Tractie”.
Being able to select Witch Report can only be done if you’ve completed the tasks you were given. It’s actually here where the story advances and is the cinematic break in between crawling through dungeons. Illustrations and charming voice overs give life to characters and their interactions in either audio options, English or Japanese. I found myself attached to both Dronya and Luca specifically in English and the other characters do a fine job as well. When the exploring and battling is most of the draw, Coven of Dusk provides somewhat lengthy story bits. Dialogue can be fast-forwarded or scenes can be skipped altogether. I rather like that they’re not exactly brief given whatever story is needing to be told should be. Pressing Y will repeat the voice line as many times as you’d like. Neat touch.
The art holds up well in HD despite originally being a PlayStation Vita game that released in 2016. At times certain textures can look low resolution or even flat since there’s no advanced lighting techniques or numerous mapping and yet it still looks pretty nice thanks to the art style which pops with color. The character designs themselves are strong. For the game’s visual style, many of the character/enemy designs use their base illustration with additional effects. Some even have additional frames on certain parts of them. They all animate fluidly, though, and they’re never just static images.
Character illustrations of party members and their archetype are in fact up to the player. The main cast are given most of their airtime outside of dungeons. It’s safest for the Tractatus de Monstrum to explore the labyrinth and in doing so you, as Tractie, get to take a custom party with you. Through collected soul vials and puppet parts, a new Puppet Soldier can be crafted to be an addition to your active party. There’s a time, in due time, where you can have 100 different Puppet Soldiers in your party. Right off the bat you can choose between 6 different facets and each have 3 different appearances for both male and female versions. Not only possessing unique skills, players are able to give them a personality that affects how they behave in the long run. Players can name them, choose their voice, their offensive/defensive strategies, the rate of leveling stats and even their lucky number (hmm).
All 6 facets — Aster Knight, Shinobushi, Theatrical Star, Marginal Maze, Peer Fortress, and Mad Raptor — can all benefit from one another due to their exclusive skills. Upon leveling and your Puppet Soldiers receive bumps to their stats, new skills can be learned as well. For instance, an Aster Knight is proficient with lances and have a skill called Stubbornness where one time during battle upon death can be revived instantly with 1 HP and the right healing spell will keep them around for the battle. Shinobushi’s, swift single/dual blade users, can use Underhanded Strike to gain +75 Critical Strike on stunned enemies; Peer Fortresses are heavy, defensive types who have a skill called Heavy Smasher that provides a 25% extra chance to stun enemies.
There are various damage types both physical and elemental. Slash, Blunt and Pierce will be effective or ineffective against specific enemies and a Facet’s weapon type will determine this, whether it’s a Sword, Lance, Lamp, Hammer, Scythe, Crossbow, Bell, Katar, or Shield. No character is tied to one weapon type, however. They are just more proficient at specific weapons over others. In fact, each character can equip a weapon for each hand as long as one of them isn’t two-handed. Every character can equip onto 6 slots: Right Hand, Left Hand, Head, Body, Shoes, and Relic. Even when you’ve equipped yourself optimally and are ready to continue pushing forward, players can improve their strategy by using specific party members with another. Every character has a Rapport where they acknowledge one another to varying degrees. Successfully pairing attacks can create additional combos and effects on all enemies. The more one Puppet Soldier is fond of another, they stronger your entire party becomes.
Puppet Soldiers require being in a Coven Pact, though. Think of these as this game’s version of “jobs”, just different. For instance, Healer Pact provides the Donum skill “Instant Aid” which will heal any party member. Placing any Puppet Soldier in a Healer Pact will not only grant them that skill, but also reduce the cost for Donum by 50%. Donum is Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk’s version of MP (mana power) to use during battle. Additionally, different Pacts can be obtained throughout the game. Gradually, up to 5 Pacts can be present at a time and each can contain 8 Puppet Soldiers, both as attackers and supporters leaving 40 Puppet Soldiers readied to battle at a time. So one option is to group all of your best weapon users in the Attack Pact if you’d like.
Just as each character has their own DP, Reinforcement Points (RP) is essentially Tractatus de Monstrum’s magic use per trip to the labyrinths. Used both in and out of battles, RP always defaults at 100 and governs many different features. Players can spend RP to heal or revive party members outside of battle, or strengthen their offense/defense to different levels inside of battle. At the cost of 1 RP each battle, players can stack their experience points with a bonus multiplier. The catch is they don’t earn any experience points until they cash it in after any battle. This can be a good way to grind and earn extra EXP, but if the party falls or they return to base without cashing them in, all points are lost. Reinforcement Points can also be spent to give special orders such as defending against an attack, change weapons, use items and even replace the current Puppet Soldier with another from a list.
Battles are fast-paced and feel balanced. As it should, the deeper you go the harder it gets. Coven of Dusk manages to create an addicting game loop that is rightfully balanced. The game pushes you just enough to get better and become familiar with all the mechanics and can provide an extremely difficult situation by taking the wrong steps. The Well of Khelaza is rich with mana sources which can be obtained by stepping into them or tapping on walls. Every level within a labyrinth has a total number of mana that can be obtained before things prove extremely dangerous. Part of the balance for each level is that they all have their own enemy types and difficulty. You may get accustomed to handling certain enemies, but with mana comes both good and bad.
The general idea of dispatching your crew to a labyrinth is to gain as much treasure, experience and mana as you can and return to base. Players can grind as much as they’d like, but completing Dronya’s tasks will open up more opportunities to explore new areas and new labyrinths that have their own themes quite different from each other. Players will traverse the same areas to get to another, but eventually have the opportunity to dispatch their crew to deeper and new areas without having to get their from the beginning. You may see something on your map that looks suspicious or an area that you can’t reach only to learn a new feature that will help you uncover more. You’ll never know what the enemy will be during battle, but they are all represented by floating shadowy eyeballs within the labyrinths themselves. Backtracking plays a bit of a role here, but a lot of is it is also optional. You may need to make a note of a wall that needs breaking that held a fancy treasure chest that you didn’t have a key for. Most standard chests are already unlocked.
Navigation and enemy behavior is determined by each step you make. Moving on a tile-based system, each move is considered 1 turn. You move 1 space, so do enemies. Even remaining in the same spot and bumping into a wall counts as a turn. Players can make a surprise attack by moving onto an enemy unnoticed. You’ll see a lot of the same enemy types per level, but they do change up at different sections on the same level.
There are many treasures and loot to find, traps to avoid, enemies that appear, gaps to hop over and walls to break. Seeing how far you can go and how much you can collect before returning to base is very addicting. You see, mana plays a huge role in both how labyrinths keep you in check and to learn new skills/earn more drops. Essentially, the more mana you collect the higher the percentage of item drops including more rare/epic/legendary drops the higher it is. The caveat here is mana attracts danger, too. Possession of more mana means higher enemy count and difficulty. You don’t want to spend all of your RP healing yourself and destroying walls without any left to create an exit or get back to safety. Once you reach or surpass the threshold that particular part of the labyrinth caps at, it’s impending doom with deadlier enemies in sight (larger eyeballs with spikes) and displayed on your map accordingly. You want to bring back as much mana to Dronya as you can. Usually, completing story-related tasks opens up new skills in the Witch Petition, which you can spend mana on and is practically essential.
With the correct amount of mana, new enhancements may be purchased from Dronya. Players can spend to make their game easier or harder, for basics. Gameplay enhancements include learning new moves that couldn’t be performed before such as locating treasure, destroying walls, regain a certain percentage of health back after every battle and more. Mana plays a key role in becoming stronger and learning new abilities that streamline your playthrough in a meaningful way. Silver can also be spent or earned at the Market. Usually loot you don’t need can be sold for a good profit. Eventually a feature will open up where you can take on sidequests from other characters with a quick goofy story to go along with it. Delivering items will earn you specific rewards tied to that quest.
The voice acting is done well, but the music also deserves praise. There’s varied battle themes depending on difficulty and exploration music fits the environments. Specific tunes play during character scenes to highlight if the dark comedic undertone found within the game. The game runs very smooth in both handheld mode and docked. There is one thing that’s irritating. This doesn’t happen all of the time, but often enough. At the end of a spoken line, there’s seems to be an abrupt and noticeable cut off instead of a smooth fading out. Full lines are spoken and no words are missing — it just kind of ends too quickly.