Thanks to NIS America for sending us this digital copy to review.
Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk is a very interesting game. Never before have I played a game that I loved the story as much as I did here while simultaneously disliking a big portion of it. My split emotions go perfectly with the game’s split content. The biggest part of your playtime will be spent exploring a series of dungeons with a team of puppets in classic dungeon crawling fashion. The rest of your time will be spent sitting through voice-acted visual novel (VN) segments. It’s this combination that leads to the very long, and perhaps satisfying, experience that Coven of Dusk has to offer.
I have in the past played a few different dungeon crawlers; I’m by far no expert in them, but Coven of Dusk is by far the best one I have played. There were a lot of things introduced over the course of the game that I find very interesting, such as being able to break walls and that not everything was laid out vertically, that really made the gameplay stand out and above other similar games. Combat was also a bit more unique than some others I’ve played. When it starts you have your somewhat standard role-playing game (RPG) combat system where you enter commands and watch the combat play out afterwards, but each unit of yours could be made up of up to three individual units. Each spot in your party is a coven which grants different skills and abilities to the units (puppets) you place into them. This allows a bit more flexibility with the puppets since nobody was a set mage or healer. Instead, you have units with stats that allow them to cast more of the skills that the coven pocesses which lets you the opportunity to move them around between offense and support based off of your needs.
Your other main part of play is the VN segments. After reaching a certain point in the dungeons or completing a specific objective a new bit of story would unlock. When you leave the dungeon and return to your cart (your hub for this game) you could then select to play the next VN segment that unlocked. These bits of story are very well-made and excellently translated and dubbed. It is through this mode mainly that the story is given to you and the length of these could change from being really long to rather short. Depending on some of the conditions to unlock these you could even get a few to unlock all at once, but some could take a good while to unlock the next portion of story; sometimes five minutes after returning to the dungeon again. It’s this bit that would really frustrate me while playing. Sometimes I was in the mode to go and explore a dungeon and had to constantly leave so I could watch the next piece of story so I could advance while others I wanted to see the next part of the story and it took me three play sessions to unlock it. One other thing the game did with the story was have a few smaller story interactions happen while out in the dungeon, though sadly none of these were voiced like the main VN segments are.
It felt like to me while playing through this the developers really set out to try and make something unique here. There was not very many things I encountered that felt all too similar to other games including the classes for your puppet soldiers. Each of the classes have their own style to them with some specialized in attacking using lamps, other shields, and even others foe attacking the enemies multiple times. When creating them, you could also change some attributes such as how they’d level-up their skills and give them some unique abilities. I gave one of my puppets an ability that with a single digit percent chance would attack ten times in a row. I had it trigger once on a low health, very dodge prone boss. It made me feel great, but I’m honestly not sure if it was the best ability to choose. That is one problem I had with the game. There was just so much unique stuff it was hard to know what you should really do. I enjoyed that they tried to do their own thing, but sometimes it could be confusing to remember what all each class was supposed to specialize in and what all the unique stats did. On the plus side, I’m normally terrible at these types of games so maybe everything seeming a bit foreign helped to balance the scales out. There was also the kind addition of an easy mode, but you had to reach a certain point in the story to be able to change it to easy.
The story starts off a bit weird. You arrive in a city called Refrain, get introduced to Madam Dronya and little Luca, and go through a little tutorial quest. That ends with you losing and then your soul winds up in some weird dimension. While there, you enter in your information for a sort of custom character setup. I say sort of because once you leave that area, you appear at the beginning of the game as a book that was previously used to explore a dungeon. Somehow, your soul is now inside that book and you discover that those characters you meet earlier are not the ones you play as; you play as the book that is in charge of guiding the puppets on their journey through the varied dungeons you must transverse. Upon your arrival though, you are at the beginning of the game again, but you experience events that you didn’t get to see the first time, but you wind up in the same dungeon you failed at last time. This time however, Dronya has a solution to what got you last time and you are able to continue progressing. Progressing here unlocks the VN story segments and through these you get introduced to the different residents of Refrain and a load of different story threads that, truthfully, won’t make much sense until you complete the game. As you progress through the story you start to follow two main story threads: one being a lesbian love story and the other is figuring out what is going on on the surface and down in the dungeons. Obviously, I found the second of these more engaging with my beliefs, but I also just found the love story to not be that good of one. Now, I don’t want to go into too many more details because I don’t want to spoil anything because this game does, if you disregard that whole terribly done love story, have a great story. It can get dark, emotional, happy, and shows some of the best growth of a character that I’ve seen in a long time. The excellent voice acting only helps to amplify this. The end of the story, which felt a bit abrupt, almost had me at tears. There was a lot of curveballs thrown throughout the story and bits of information not given to you, but when it all came out, my mind was blown.
As I’ve mentioned before, the game comes mostly voice acted and in full English. There are even some accents present which help to give the game the feel that it was made in English and not a Japanese game that was translated. My only real complaint with the voices is that the selection of voices for your puppets is a bit small. It also sounds like they reused some of the same voice actors multiple times for these different voices. It’s not the biggest issue, but I would prefer them to sound more different from each other then they wound up being. Aside from that, the background music was all pretty good and the sound effects from combat all had some decent weight to them. When you land a critical hit, you know you just landed a critical hit. The art all looks good, but the art used for the VN segments certainly are of a higher quality than that of the dungeons. A lot of the enemies have a lot going on in their designs and I had a bit of a hard time telling what all I was looking at. Some of the dungeons also seem to have some funky graphical things going on, but the further I progressed, the more I realized a lot of the weird bits were a part of some stylistic choices. For example, the second dungeon you go into has a muted sky with some not very great looking objects in it. As I progressed there, I discovered this area was supposed to be based off of a fairy tale storybook. Controls are okay, but I wished some things would have required less button presses than they did. I also never had the game crash on me.
Morally, there is a lot going on in this game. The biggest put off for myself is that a lot of the plot revolves around a lesbian love story. With that said there is an occasion where the lesbian nun does admit that her feelings aren’t right. Now, that doesn’t really make up for the love story, but it did make me feel a bit better about the game. There are also things you find out about characters’ pasts that have a lot of moral problems and might be really off putting such as rape, possible necrophilia, and murder, though none of those is treated as good. Rape is a somewhat common theme with one of the main characters getting raped a few times and having been attempted to be raped a fair number of times. One thing I did find interesting was that due to one of the things going on in the story, you see a few instances of a character making some bad decisions and suffering dire consequences, but you see those scenes repeat where better decisions were made and having better outcomes. The setting is a magical world where other dimensions exist with a wide manor of magical abilities, most seem to be either original or based off of some fairy tale magic, but a few are very dark and there is magic dealing with souls and bringing back the dead. Purgatory is a place that exists in this world.
There is quite a bit of sexual content with a lot of dialogue discussing things such as rape, pedophilia, and BDSM. There is a decent number of scantily clad women and women looking beings, most of which are enemies. There is one topless looking female, but they are referred to as a male even though they look like a female and have breasts without nipples. All forms of cursing are present including one instance of derogatory terms towards lesbians. Interestingly, even though they do use the Lord’s name in vain, when they mention God regularly, they capitalize the G. There are gross bits with some of the items required for your magical crafting being things such as feces. There is a decent bit of violence present. Main gameplay is exploring dungeons and fighting creatures, but this is done in a typical dungeon-crawling style. It is during the story that most of the violence happens. There is quite a few people that die during the story and there are some options that allow you to do violent things such as destroying a village to unlock a shortcut or feed some people to some giants so you can get some feces from them.
While there was a lot wrong with this game I did find it to be an enjoyable experience if you can stomach all of the moral issues. It is certainly the best dungeon-crawler that I have played and it does have some very high production value. I’m quite looking forward to the kind of sequel they are planning to release and hope that it will have less moral problems with its key story elements.
-Paul Barnard (Betuor)