Labyrinth of Refrain is a JRPG developed by NIS. It is my favorite game of 2021 coming close with Sequel Blight. Its genre is DRPG more precisely, close to Wizardry type DRPG. You explore several floors of a dungeon, moving on the map like a grid. You can encounter treasures, monsters, and horrible bosses. The fighting is a regular turn-based JRPG. It is the first time I played a game of this genre but I was entranced.
Labyrinth story is significant and main contributor to my enjoyment. Revealed in typical VNesque fashion (a block of text and pictures of a character moving around). You follow a witch and her apprentice arriving in the town of Refrain where there is a mysterious well. This well leads down to the Labyrinth of Refrain full of toxic miasma that kills humans. That’s why they send animated puppets (your team) and an animated book (actually you) to explore the underground. Whenever you advance enough in the dungeon, you are prompted to come back to see the witches get a bit of story. This makes the pacing between dungeons, reading the story, and preparing your team agreeable. You might be put off by interrupting your dungeoning for story reasons, but it is worth it.
Disguised in cute arts and banter between the main characters lies a twisted story with adult themes. It touches upon child abuse, homophobia, exploitation, and murder/dismemberment. As you get through the dungeons, you realize that you are not only here to explore mysteries, that your companions are not who you think they are, and each Refrain inhabitant hides something. During your progression, you will hit several bad endings, that are actually part of the story and are your normal progression. It’s impossible to go further without spoiling you, but it had the right balance between dark themes, magic, fun/cute moments. One of the plot point of the game is a relationship between two important female character, and despite the game not being about it, it’s a nice touch. Its pacing was never too long or too short and the story didn’t leave me with anything unexplored, although I would like to redo it a second time, to see if I missed any juicy foreshadowing. If you like exploring LORE and making connections, there is a lot to unpack during the game, from mysterious messages in the dungeons to your success/achievement containing a couple of cryptic sentences that make more sense at the end of the game (Game does not contain missable achievement as long as you don’t overwrite your save before final battle).
I enjoyed a lot the looks and feel of the game. It is not very demanding, as exploring the dungeon is not a detailed 3D environment, and combat is animated pictures, but if you compare it to other titles amongst the genre, it’s really high production value.
All the character designs are made by NIS artist Takehito Harada, which I enjoy a lot. He has a very distinctive simple style, yet very effective and full of life. Every main character is voiced in Japanese and English. Both versions are good, but I enjoy it most in Japanese. The main characters have a cool design, and the whole atmosphere is similar to NIS previous title “Witch and the hundred Knight” that I discovered later. Alongside all those characters, Harada also designed portraits for all your party. You can create characters for 8 different classes, and each have 4 designs for EACH gender(1 you have to unlock during the game) giving a big variety to your team (Actually 2 classes have only 1 gender available but come on, that’s a lot of art to shit out and it still looks good). Monsters and enemies art range from super gross to dangerously sexy and most of them are animated. On some levels, you will be fighting some trap incubus, another level is a worm that lives in troll feces that bites your head off. Despite the range, everything is consistent and you never feel out of the game. The game manages to pull the feel “cute team against horrible monsters” and I really love it.
The UI looks really good and is not just stock boxes with a different color (Looking at you Compile Hearts). Every button and icon fits and makes you forget you play an excel sheet game.
Composed by Tenpei Sato, who worked on several NIS games, the soundtrack is really good and entertaining. Lots of tracks have a high number of instruments and melodies in them. It goes from cool battle themes to magical tracks with a bit of a “happy circus vibe” that fits well with the craziness of the game and the world. However, you might hear the first 15 sec of the same 3 tracks over and over due to menuing which could get on your nerves.
UX is the biggest problem of the game. You have a very big amount of information to digest and many manipulations to do, but often you can’t bulk these operations or see all information you need on one screen. Equipment, Alchemy, and resetting your puppets are really intense in menuing and can put off people susceptible to carpal tunnel.
The 3D environment (the dungeons) is a bit simple compared to any non DRPG game, but they are doing their job. Background CG ranges from ok to beautiful and never gets the attention away to cool monsters.
I surprisingly really enjoyed the gameplay of Refrain. The main activity is exploring the dungeon, and there is something very rewarding and hypnotic to reveal every nook and crannies on the map. The tension is always there as if you don’t farm like a pig, any enemy group can be a challenge. Where Refrain shine, is that you have a resource to use on the field (Reinforcement Points), to hide from monsters, reinforce your troops, break walls, or teleport. Depending on your Coven you bring to the dungeon, you will consume a certain amount of points. You can find some points on the field, but you have to be careful in your usage of it. You can use this return to come back to the dungeon to a particular point, speeding up exploration a lot. Breaking walls in the dungeon is fun and changes how you explore stuff. They are marked on the map so you know where to use them most of the time and the rest is an educated guess. Some dungeons have small riddles (find a key, or give an item to some character) but nothing very complicated. There is a lot of treasure to find, some side characters and stories and even optional bosses! One cool feature is that you can use the Reinforcement Points to not cash in your XP but stock them, giving you more if you win a large number of battles. However this contains some risk as if you lose a battle or escape, you lose all the accumulated XP. I get the feeling that it also increases the chance that a monster gets buffed by an adjective, but I didn’t see another source than my own guts backing that up. Another resource that you accumulate besides XP and money is Mana. Having a lot of Mana increase the item drop rate for this excursion. But having too much Mana also increases the chance of a strong boss monster assaulting you, adding another risk-reward mechanic to exploration. Mana can be used outside of the dungeon to buy abilities for your character, create some objects, unlock facets for your puppets, or just money.
The battle system is simple at the surface but there is a lot of tiny mechanics to take advantage of. Your team is composed of puppets that you will send to fight the enemies. They are organized in teams called Coven, which can contain up to 4 active puppets and 5 inactive (supporting the others). You can have 5 covens on the fields, meaning you could potentially field up to 40 active puppets. However, all the covens give different bonuses, different skills, and can field specific puppets. A good part of the game is figuring out what suits you and finding a cool combination.
You can do a lot of action during the fight, but your success will be driven by how much you prepare. Alongside coven composition, you can train your puppet up to 99 levels. Once they reach that level, you can reset them to 1 and pick the same or another class. This will give them better stats in the long run but also access to a limited number of their previous skills. I don’t think you need to use this feature to beat the base game, but training your puppets in the last dungeon is only a couple of hours long.
On top of this, you can equip your puppets with a large number of items, that you can mix with the alchemy system. You can fuse up to 8 items together to get a stronger one. Stats are affected by what you put in it, so if you mix your spear with a hammer with High Attack and crossbow that inflicts poison, you have good chances to have a spear that inflicts poison and with a big attack. However, this is not exact science. More than leveling this mechanic is primordial to get through the game, and whenever a boss roughed me up, I could simply do a bit of Alchemy and teach them to not get in my way!
During the battle, you can attack, defend, invoke diverse magicks. You have to use your reinforcement points to give individual orders to your facets, reinforce them or make them use items. Normal weapons will inflict different types of damages (Pierce/Blunt/Slash) from which enemies and you are more or less susceptible. You also have elemental attacks on some weapons and magick. Finally, you have an affliction that can make you skip your turn, poison you, or prevent you to use spells. Unlike many RPG thoses are always useful and some bosses are really susceptible to one.
You can crit a lot, and some crit named Gore Crit that dismembers your opponents! It deals crazy damage to the enemy as well as sometimes prevents them to perform certain actions. However, your facets can be dismembered as well, with a decapitation meaning that you have to get back to your base to resuscitate them.
Finally, your coven can be set in a different configuration, puppets in the front will be targeted more often. Some weapons are only effective in the front, some are only effective in the rear some are effective everywhere. Some configuration of Coven being in the front or rear is called a Formation and gives you a huge bonus to a particular playstyle.
Bosses can be harsh, but they often have a gimmick that you can play around and telegraph some of their attacks so you know when to defend/interrupt them or grit your teeth. An optional boss stalled me for a while and I dropped the game a few month and then finished it in one go when I picked it up again.
Last thoughts on the gameplay
I really enjoyed the gameplay and was really surprised to like it, as I don’t enjoy normally RPG with tons of menuing. But the relative hard difficulty makes you want to crack each battle as a puzzle. Some bosses are difficult and you will need to gear or prepare your team just for them. To get to the true end, you need to beat 6 optional bosses, and that sometimes includes finding items to beat them, although it shouldn’t be difficult if you explored everything as I did. What I was really surprised when stuck against a boss, or beat a difficult one, is that other people would be at the same boss using very different tactics than mine. Sometimes you can do really goofy stuff. I beat the true last boss of the game, by using a coven that reflects magic damage. After a while, the boss kills your puppet by launching attacks that deal insane damage and the usual tactic is to kill it fast or make him not being able to take his turns. What I made him do is basically committing suicide as he would wreck my team with his attacks but I would reflect it to him. It was very fun to do, and I’m pretty sure a lot of other bosses can have weird tactics like this. The game does not require too much farming, to beat the true last boss in normal difficulty and I reset my team only once, and bringing them back to 99 could be done in a couple of hours. This and the fact that people seemed to have beaten the game with different tactics and team composition makes me think the gameplay is rich and fun.
I really enjoyed my time with Labyrinth of Refrain. I discovered a new kind of RPG that I like (I booted up Etrian Odyssey when I was very young, but I had 200 other games to try on my R4 at the time). Since then I beat Mary Skelter 2 and started Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey (will write a review about MS2 in the short future). Labyrinth of Refrain has a follow-up called Labyrinth of Galeria that is not yet localized, to my dismay. I’ve been forced to find a copy of Witche and the Hundred Knight to get a fix on Refrain ambiance, but it’s not the same since the gameplay is very far from DRPG.