Have you ever stayed with a relative that scared you? Maybe an Aunt or an Uncle? I had a friend whose Grandfather had a glass eye and when he misbehaved the eye came out and he was told that it was always watching. He still has nightmares about that eye to this day, and who can blame him? Not much of us can say that our Aunt is a bitch – ahem I mean a witch. That is what Madame Dronya will have you believe in Labyrinth of Refrain: Covenant of Dusk. She is a witch with a sharp temper, you know the ones, the ones that hate children and hit out with words like “brat”. Then again, sometimes I don’t blame her having to listen to that child’s high pitch voice.
Labyrinth of Refrain is a dungeon delving RPG from NIS America of Disgaea fame and its influence is felt throughout. These days dungeon delving games are a bit of a niche. They can be a pretty unrelenting slog and grind through repetitive hallways while taking on monotonous enemies. Labyrinth of Refrain does try its best to add a new flavour to the genre with its in-depth RPG mechanics. Unfortunately, it suffers from the same gripes that I had with other dungeon delving games. The patchy textures, the repetitive environments and enemies and the need to grind to delve deeper and take on the later stages. What appeals to me is the lovely storybook style to the story combined with some likeable characters and the Eastern European flair to the music which adds an abundance of charm to the beautifully crafted settings.
In the game, you play as a book. Yes, a book. To be more specific you play as the Tractatus Du Monstrum, a magical book that can summon forth a band of puppet soldiers. Dronya uses these puppets to explore the depths of the labyrinth as no human can traverse this place without threat of death due to the substance known as miasma. Well I mean, Dronya can cause she’s a witch but she’d rather have you do her bidding for her. I told you she was a bitch. Dronya would like to unlock the secrets of this labyrinth and it’s up to you to do her bidding.
In the labyrinth you will move around in true dungeon crawling fashion, running into random turn-based battles, finding treasures and erm, headbutting walls to collect mana. You know all the usual dungeon delving activities. You will have to make many trips back and forward into the dungeons, completing tasks and grinding your puppets to face later stages. I found that I hit a wall quite often and had to retreat to base so that I didn’t lose my items or damage my puppets further. This is where you will really find the pinch of the grind.
At the caravan base (yes Dronya is a travelling caravan witch, what did you expect?) there is a multitude of things that you can do to prepare yourself for another delve into the labyrinth. You can create more puppets if you have souls and you can repair parts to your existing puppets if somehow a foul beast managed to pull one of its arms or legs off. Puppets come in a few different classes and you can create them how you see fit. Once you’ve created your wooden soldiers you must place them in a soul pact and then you can place them into a coven to fight the enemy in turn-based style combat.
It’s all a little convoluted, different soul pacts give the characters you place them in different abilities, you have the choice of placing certain pacts into vanguard which is front line offence or rearguard which is a supporting pact, there are donum abilities which can be offensive or defensive abilities that use up DP and there are many other variables that can affect the offence or defence of your characters. Did I also mention you can have up to forty puppet soldiers? It’s quite dizzying and I find the tutorial does very little to ease you into the mechanics of the combat and other systems, rather it throws information at you and hopes it sticks. On the other hand, players who love exploring in-depth RPG mechanics will love what they have to play with here if they can get over the monotony of the gameplay.
The story does have a charm to it, even if I am being hard on Dronya. I found that I didn’t want to skip through the dialogue even though some scenes can be quite lengthy. I will say one thing though, and that is there is a scene that involves a nun making unconsented sexual advances on Dronya to the verge of rape and to me that is a completely unnecessary situation that has been moulded into what is otherwise a compelling narrative. I don’t really know what they were thinking if I’m honest.
It is hard to recommend a dungeon delving game to anyone who isn’t familiar with the genre. Fans of the Disgaea series may enjoy the familiarity that comes with this game with the art style of music and (mostly) compelling story. What I find difficult to get over is the repetition, not just through gameplay but through environments. You will see a lot of the same mucky walls and the same lot of enemies time and time again which only switch up hours into the game. Yes, there is a lot of mechanics that can be explored in terms of improving your characters and there is plenty of strategies involved here, but it can feel convoluted and overwhelming, which is strange as the levels are basic and monotonous. What saves this game slightly is the story which I genuinely felt interested in, even though Dronya reminded me of the time my scary aunt would shout at me, eat my sweets and tell my mum that it was me that drew on her walls with crayons.
*Code kindly provided by the publisher for review*