Labyrinth of Refrain begins with a witch, going by the name of Madam Dronya, and her apprentice Luca parking their caravan at the town of Refrain. The first thing this duo does is break into an area that houses a mysterious well, much to Luca’s dismay. Madam Dronya then drops a book into the well, to which puppet soldiers then burst forth to do her bidding, exploring a sprawling labyrinth underneath the town.
As the story progresses, you will begin to uncover why Madam Dronya has come to this town, and meet some rather shady characters along the way. There are also monsters referred to as ‘unclean ones’ who patrol the streets at night, forcing the residents to stay indoors at nighttime.
The story, though interesting, has some major drawbacks weighing it down. For one, the story feels completely disjointed to the gameplay. Having you control and fight with puppet soldiers when you have control, and all the story beats being told through visual novel-style storytelling, it creates separation that makes you feel as if you are playing a different game in a way. The main characters don’t join you on your journey exploring the labyrinth, each puppet soldier can be created and destroyed at your whim, meaning that they have no consequence to the story at all, and feels like your failures have zero stakes.
Another problem is the games portrayal of sexual assault. Early on, the game has a nun sexually assault Madam Donya against her will, forcing herself upon the witch in a rather awkward moment that is passed off as a joke. This moment does get rather explicit, with hands sliding up dresses among other inappropriate and vivid visuals being presented. Not only that, after that point the fact that it is a joke to be laughed at is hammered home with continued innuendo whenever the pair share the screen. This is a moment that I found extremely uncomfortable, and quickly shattered my enjoyment and intrigue in the story, nay, the game as a whole.
That moment was the first time I found myself wishing the translation team had taken some liberties with that particular moment and character dynamic. I’ve always been a believer in games being brought over from Japan uncensored, but this one element has had me questioning whether translation teams taking some liberties where appropriate can be a good thing. The game wouldn’t have been ruined by this character interaction being tweaked at all, and as the game is told in a visual novel style it would have been a lot easier to write around that moment as it isn’t shown in an obvious way on-screen.
When you break it down, Labyrinth of Refrain is your basic dungeon crawling RPG with a few twists. You venture forth into a dungeon, face off against enemies in turn based combat, and slowly push the story along.
Adventuring through the labyrinth is done in first person, with you taking a step at a time. With each step, time moves forward as you do, so your movement will trigger all enemies within the dungeon to move as well. This sets up instances where you will forgo a move to allow time to move whilst you stand still, waiting for enemies to pass you or setting up an opportunity to engage in a surprise attack.
To engage an enemy, you just walk into them in the labyrinth. How to engage the enemy dictates how the battle will begin. If the enemy is approached from the front or is alert to your presence, then you will enter a standard battle. Manage to approach them from the side or back, then you open your enemies up for a surprise attack. Surprise attacks have a chance to allow you to get a free turn against your aggressors. Beware though that the enemies can also engage you from behind, allowing them to have a surprise attack against you.
The turn based combat is pretty basic, with you essentially choosing to attack, block, or use magic abilities that consume DP (the games substitute for MP). Each enemy has its own set of strengths and weaknesses, so you can get favourable attacks based on elemental or weapon advantages. There really is little here that is different to any of your stock standard RPGs.
The one thing that is a little different is the ability to gore enemies, or be gored yourself. A critical attack that gores an opponent does high damage, and weakens a monsters attacks against you. If you yourself are gored, then your characters maximum health drops, as well as weakens your attacks. This is a novel system at first, but as you progress it just serves to be a source of constant frustration, as it can easily cut a dungeon exploration short, having you needing to back out of a dungeon and make repairs.
Each character you use is a puppet with a soul attached to it. When you attach a soul to a puppet, you can choose your puppets name, class, look and magical ability. From there you can choose what coven for the puppet to join and be on your way. There are ways further in the game that allows you to assign multiple puppets to single coven, which takes up a single character spot in battles. This adds some interesting elements to organising your party when delving into a dungeon, but it isn’t enough to distinguish itself from other games of this type.
There are some special moves you can do when exploring dungeons, such as breaking down walls, which adds new dynamics to how you explore the labyrinth at hand. Unfortunately this seems to make the game less fun, as it forces you to explore areas you may have already been, and using these abilities consumes a meter that when used up restricts what you can do. This can force you to cut an exploration short, which will have you retracing your steps later which is just flat out annoying.
To sum up the gameplay, I would say that it has some nice elements to it, and shows that it is a solid dungeon crawler. Unfortunately, the elements it adds to differentiate itself, though novel at first, end up being a constant source of annoyance and frustration.
Labyrinth of Refrain has a well voiced cast of characters. with only a few accents here and there that are off-putting. For the most part, the voice over work is of a high quality, and it helps to create a feeling that this is a well-polished product. Music is also good here, and although it never stands out, it does tend to help add the right emotional responses to what you are doing. Battle music creates tension, story beats have a more minimalist score that doesn’t overpower the dialogue, and exploring dungeons has music that adds to the feeling of exploration.
Battle sounds are your typical JRPG affair, with sword slashes, hammer whacks and magic spells all having a rather generic feel to them. This isn’t a bad thing necessarily, as the sounds are what you expect, but it also won’t surprise you in any meaningful ways. It is all kind of just there.
Visuals & Performance
Visually, Labyrinth of Refrain is quite striking. Each character has an anime-style look to them, and the art style overall is beautiful. The visual novel storytelling allows for the look of the game to scream quality. The enemy designs are equally impressive, and the environments within the labyrinths are decent.
The only real drawback to the visuals is the way the enemies ‘breathe’ in a weird way. What I mean by this is that the static image of the enemies sort of expand and contract, but they don’t have an animation for this. It is just the picture moving and contorting in a way that is just creepy to look at.
On top of that, the environments, though they look good, end up getting repetitive rather quickly. Each time the environments change it is visually striking, but after your 20th time delving into that particular area you get rather bored of the same old environments. This helps to make every hallway look the same, and creates a situation where you will find yourself getting lost often.
As for the performance, there is no negatives here to report. I didn’t encounter any game breaking bugs or performance issues of any kind.
At a hair off of full price, Labyrinth of Refrain could be a hard sell for some. Yes, there is a lot of game here, and will take you hours upon hours to complete, but with how detached the story is to the gameplay it can make it hard to keep your attention. Mix in some questionable story elements and this could be a game that is a hard pass for many.
If you base the game just on its gameplay elements, then it does nothing too different to distinguish itself from other dungeon crawling RPGs out there. Because of this, it makes it hard to recommend at the high asking price.
Beautiful art style
High quality voice over
Reduces sexual assault to a punchline
Story and gameplay feel detached
Dungeon crawling can become tedious