Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk Review
I can only speak for myself, but one of the best ways for a game can leave a good impression is to surprise me. It doesn't have to be too much - just some little touches that communicate that the development team had a clear vision for the game they were making and didn't compromise on it. Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk is one of those titles, and is undoubtedly one of the best RPGs that I've played this year.
If you're interested in Coven (as I'll be referring to the title from here on out), chances are you've already had some experience with the Dungeon RPG - DRPG - sub-genre. Perhaps an Etrian Odyssey or two, or something like Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey. Maybe an Experience Inc title such as Operation Abyss, Demon Gaze, or Stranger of Sword City. Tile-based, first-person dungeon crawlers aren't exactly a common genre these days, but they release frequently enough that you should have a general idea what you're getting into with Coven. Maze-like dungeons, traps, puzzles, and lots and lots of enemy encounters with a heavy emphasis on party curation. In a lot of ways, Coven feels like the logical next step to a lot of core DRPG tenets.
Coven is chock full of dungeons, and as any DRPG should, they're all well-designed and distinctly unique. Whether you're shrinking down to the size of an ant to explore a garden and do battle against jumbo-sized plants and animals in Phenom, ducking in-between caves to avoid deadly, disgusting Trolls in Melm, or exploring the absolutely massive trio of towers in Umbra - no two dungeons feel the same, and generally each dungeon has its own gimmick that it relies on to set it apart from the rest.
Each dungeon has its fair share of secrets and reasons to return to it later in the story, too. Flipping things on its head, players quickly gain the ability to break down certain walls by using a resource called "reinforcement", adding yet another wrinkle to the games' dungeon designs. Some dungeon's breakable walls are obvious, and you'll be able to see the path beyond them. Others might require you to look at what else you've managed to record on your map and deduce which walls might contain secrets or a path to the next objective.
Reinforcement itself ties into Coven's, quite frankly, insane party customization system. When creating your party of "puppet" soldiers, not only do you have to contend with deciding a party members class, gender, name, stat growth curve, and whether it's going to trend towards an offensive or defensive stance - among other factors - but you're forced to consider what pact you want to apply to each of your brigade's 5 slots, and which characters will be slotted into each pact to form a "Coven".
Covens themselves can have up to 8 slots for party members in them, and with 5 slots for Covens, there's a chance that players can reach a full 40 characters in a party. Alongside all of the factors that go into creating each and every character in your brigade, you also have to consider which pact you want to use for each Coven carefully, too. Covens have different Donum (think skills and magic) tied to them, and different "pacts" offer different bonuses for both attackers and support members of each coven alike. These range from stat multipliers, to flat bonuses, to the chance for characters to heal a percentage of HP after a certain action and more. The amount of customization means that your brigade's makeup will probably look different to mine, and if you're someone that loves to tinker you'll definitely appreciate everything the game allows you to tweak.
The way that Reinforcement ties into the Coven system is relatively simple - different pacts applied have different "costs" to apply them to your party, which is subtracted from a pool of 100 "Reinforcement" whenever you head out into a dungeon. This is important for a few reasons - Reinforcement is used to stockpile experience points, which is by and far the most efficient form of leveling characters. It can be used during battles to buff your character's offense or defense. In the dungeon proper, you expend Reinforcement whenever you use one of Tractie's skills, including knocking down walls or putting on a Fog Veil. Since certain dungeons require you to break down walls to progress or use Fog Veils to avoid red miasma's poison damage, it goes without saying that you'll want to be juggling your available Reinforcement and your equipped pacts at any given time
This becomes especially important the further into the game you get! As you battle using a specific pact it will eventually level up, reducing the cost of the pact each time, but keeping track of your Reinforcement never truly becomes compulsory - it'll always be the number one thing you'll be worrying about in a dungeon, as nine times out of ten it will determine how long you can stay inside one before retiring back to your base.
Because of Coven's large number of party members, it's important to mention that you normally decide on actions for each Coven as a group. Normally, characters do not act on their own unless - again - you expend Reinforcement to do so for one turn. Outside of that, the battle system is relatively standard as far as DRPGs go. It goes without saying that the majority of the system's depth comes from how you set your party and less how you use them in battle.
Punctuating it all is the Resonance and Echo systems. Depending on the "Rapport", or relationships, between your parties soldiers, they might "Resonate" and deal a little extra damage with an attack. If your parties Rapport is high, these Resonances can chain, increasing in power with the size of the chain. Resonating and using Donum also builds up the Power Source Meter in the upper left portion of the battle window. The higher the Power Source is, the higher the chance that Donum Attacks may Echo - essentially, Resonance but with powerful Donum attacks. Except you might want to be careful with firing off a bunch of Donum when, say, a boss is charging an attack. Echo can affect both your party or the enemy, so your 4x Echo chain might just turn your opponents attack into a 5x boosted OHKO monster!
There are several other systems in place when it comes to setting up your battle team: Mana, recharging Reinforcement, Formations, and the like. Coven is not a DRPG for folks new to the genre. You can decrease the difficulty at any time, and normal enemy encounters aren't ever overwhelmingly difficult, but just the basics of party curation might prove a little hectic for those that haven't even learned to juggle 5 characters in, say, Etrian Odyssey. What it is, is wholly unique and immensely satisfying to tinker with.
Part of the game's appeal is undoubtedly these mechanics. The game isn't afraid to test you on your knowledge in boss fights, especially if you intend to attempt and tackle the game's post-game and True Ending, which itself is not only gated behind 6 hidden "super" bosses but some rather cryptic hints to even find some of these bosses, let alone beat them. Coven is a DRPG for hardcore DRPG fans, full stop, and if you're already a fan then you can feel confident by this point in the review in picking it up as it will be well worth your time.
That being said - It's all well and good that Coven's dungeons are interesting to explore, and its party creation system is deep - but the other portion of the game's unique characteristics is its narrative hook. DRPG stories usually tend to be threadbare, with just enough information for you to go on to not get lost while exploring a labyrinth. They're backdrops to the greater adventure that the players are crafting on their own with their parties.
To a certain extent Coven is the same, but from the very beginning, it becomes clear that story has a much larger role in Coven than its other DRPG contemporaries. Players take the role of "Tractie", or the "Tractatus de Monstrum", a tome written by the supposed sole person to explore the labyrinth waiting underneath the town of Refrain and return alive. While the player is out exploring the labyrinth, Madam Dronya - a witch - and her apprentice Luca set up shop and direct you through your travels.
While the story starts off slow, eventually the characters open up around the halfway point of the game as their various backstories get revealed. It's by no means the best story I've seen in an RPG, but if nothing else the emotional payoff at the game's conclusion feels earned. Some very nice twists are foreshadowed from the beginning, and the bits of lore both scattered throughout the game's dungeons and within the Tractatus de Monstrum itself give the world a sense of presence, even if your actual interactions with the world outside of the town of Refrain are tertiary at best. Separated from the narrative thread tying these dungeons together, I always found it interesting discovering bits of lore that established what had happened to each of them, leading to their decay.
Something particularly worth mentioning about the story and its subject matter is that it is certainly not for the faint of heart or anyone that gets uncomfortable with either extreme violence, psychological abuse, sexual assault, and a few other examples that I've undoubtedly forgotten about. Enemy artwork is varied, but almost always fantastic. While it's not always necessarily beautiful, Coven's artwork might just have the most memorable character portraits in a DRPG that I've seen. Certain bosses particularly will live on in my nightmares for sure.
There's so much more to talk about here, including some concepts and mechanics that I might've skimmed over. However - this review has already gone on for a number of paragraphs at this point and rambled on far enough. It's always a nice surprise when a game you review truly grips you like this one has for me.
Whether it's the little details, the amount of trust it has in the player to make their own choices - even the wrong ones - as well as the respect to let players deduce its secrets on their own, Coven undoubtedly has become one of my favorite DRPGs of all time. Cryptic requirements for the true ending, some user interfaces quibbles, and other minor nitpicks aside - Coven might not be a perfect game, but for anyone starving for a hardcore DRPG experience with substance behind it won't find themselves disappointed with its journey.