Every so often, along comes a game that captures our attention and lead us down a rabbit hole of unexpected wonder. The last time we felt that way was after finding Eternal Poison (Poison Pink in its original Japanese release), a punishingly hard turn-based strategy RPG with many interlocked replayable stories, each told from a different character's perspective, each going into increasingly dark places that added depth to the wider context and narrative. Eternal Poison was the sort of game that someone going in blind could easily find frustrating and the story confusing. It didn't outwardly encourage you to figure out the many different endings, or explain why the ending you first got seemed to be missing something. You had to find the missing part yourself, and whether you did or not hinged very strongly on how intrigued you were by the character-driven narrative.
We actually found Labyrinth of Refrain by total accident, happening to see it on the day it came out on the PSN Store. Labyrinth of Refrain was made and released by Nippon Ichi Software, perhaps most well known for its Disgaea series. Seth and I are both long-time Disgaea fans—to absolutely no one's surprise, Disgaea is a punishingly grindy turn-based strategy RPG with deliberately over-dramatic and overly complex storylines set in interlocking visions of hell. It's over-the-top, colourful, campy and has a weird sense of humour. The big gimmick with Disgaea games, compared to other strategy RPGs in its genre, is that not only are the many classes of your different units fully customisable, everything (characters, weapons, armour, jewelry, consumable items) can be leveled up to some insane string of 9s, i.e. level 999, 9,999. So when NIS unexpectedly releases a Wizardry-style dungeon crawler in the art style of Disgaea, we were all about trying it.
Labyrinth of Refrain's basic premise is that you play Dronya the Dusk Witch, who with her child apprentice Luca, are invited to the town of Refrain to explore the town's magical well, which appears to be a portal to other dimensions. You do this by sending a magical journal, the Tractus de Monstrum, along with a party of magic puppets, through each portal and exploring the connected dungeon realm. The journal records everything that happens during the journey and is sentient, containing the soul of you the main character. You create the puppets by inserting souls you discover into them, reanimating and repurposing the dead.
I'll start by saying LoR very clearly is NIS's attempt to be as different as possible from pretty much anything else. Most of these dungeon crawler games have very basic plots. The classes your party members can be are often recognisably D&D-like, spells and attacks run along the same five elements, slash/blunt damage and status attacks. They're not terribly interesting mechanics-wise, even when the game's premise is otherwise fascinating (our favourite staple, the Shin Megami Tensei series, comes to mind).
LoR immediately throws you under the bus at the first fight—and that fight was the tutorial! Apart from slash/blunt/pierce physical damage, the magic damage is split into Flame, Mud and Fog (fire, earth and air?). Status attacks have out-sized roles in this game, and are divided between Confuse, Startle, Stench, Poison and Abyss. Each weapon and attack basically has one or a combination of these damage types. It's not clear what most of these attacks do upfront. To be quite honest, even after Platinuming this game I'm not 100% sure what some of the damage types really do. Then there's your party members' classes, none of them with normal names. Six classes are available at the start of the game: Aster Knight (frontline/long-range dragoon), Peer Fortress (dual-katar wielding tank), Shinobushi (dual-sword wielding fighter), Mad Raptor (a crossbow ranged DPS), Marginal Maze (frontline/long-range lamp-using mage) and Theatrical Star (long-range bell-using 1001 Nights-style mage). Two additional classes are unlockable as the game progresses, Gothic Coppelia (hammer-wielding gothic lolita tank) and Demon Reaper (homicidal scythe-dancing girls).
I'll be the first to say that I appreciate any game that loves its exotic weapons. Scythes? Gothic Lolitas? Dual-katar and dual-swords? All for that. Just like the Disgaea games, you can reincarnate each party member to improve and increase their stat growth. Max level in LoR is 99. Reincarnation is very important to increase your party's longevity. In fact, it's impossible to access and do the post-game content without reincarnation. Apart from this, your party is divided into brigades called Pacts. Each party comprises one to four Pacts. Each Pact can hold between one to eight members, usually one to three active members and varying numbers of support members. Different types of Pacts are found through exploration. These may differ in what bonuses they grant to each member and confers different attacks/spells to use. In theory, you can make and deploy up to 40 puppets concurrently, but I stopped at 29.
Refrain starts off as your typical, kooky, Transylvania-esque town, complete with freakish inhabitants. There's the perpetually drunk shepherd, the blacksmith who is clearly a cross between Igor and Frankenstein and lusty one-eyed nun. At dusk, the townsfolk lock their doors and bar their windows against the undead who roam the night. Every morning, a Town Crier announces the names of people who died overnight, captured by the undead. Witches are persecuted by the superstitious locals, so Dronya and Luca mask their operations by pretending to be a troupe of travelling puppeteers. Throughout the game, the cutscenes segue into some of their puppet shows that all seem to tell a variation of two brothers enslaved by a terrible monster who try to escape. Their escapes always fail, their punishment always ending with one brother losing a leg and the other blinded. Dronya noticeably has wooden leg, so it's clear this story has something to do with her past.
The big conceit about Refrain is that it is really Purgatory. Its townsfolk are really the souls of sinners doomed to live forevermore. Those ghastly undead that roam the night? Being killed by them is explained as a mercy, the only way to escape the lives they aren't even aware they're living. An overarching theme in LoR that affects its characters personally is one's capacity to continue with the hand you're dealt, no matter how terrible or awful that hand is. Refrain's inhabitants, by simply being human, develop relationships with each other that they weren't able to when they were 'alive'. This balances their personalities and stops them from repeating the sins they can't remember they committed. There's even a whole dungeon based on the town when it goes to hell (literally), and the townsfolk you meet die off one by one. As each person dies, the personality of the companion they supported decays. You learn what sins they did to land them there, so that not even the most seemingly banal side character lacks a story to tell. All the stories are interconnected. Every person matters and comes into play.
Dronya herself personifies the "keep going" attitude. As you learn about her past, it's clear why she disdains others who simply give up when life sends them lemons—this is no shrinking violet. The main story's twists and turns start out necessarily slow (remember: the mechanics of this game are clear as mud, so the learning curve takes time), but doesn't stop once it heats up halfway through. It is very dark, very unforgiving, and it's clear the development team were fully allowed to experiment and take everything to their natural conclusion. It's what makes this game great. There are consequences for people's actions, but just like real life, following the good way doesn't necessarily mean you'll be rewarded.
I'm the sort of person who believes in a one-pass play through—seriously, multiple replays of the same game to see different endings drive me nuts. LoR mocks those types of games openly. You will die in weird and really distressing ways, and each time, you will see the credits and ask your spouse what the hell just happened. That is part of the main story. Remember "keep going"? If you die and see the credits, open your Clear Data save. Keep going.
I wouldn't recommend this game for the young 'uns, by the way. The story has strongly mature themes, even without any graphically depicting actual sex or gore. The sense of humour is cheeky and black. While the first dungeon starts off as your typical slime-and-stone-corridor affair, the second dungeon puts you in a kind of Lilliput. When you first arrive, the resident gnomes pretty much announce that the "Kaiju are coming!" It soon becomes apparent you're not even the first kaiju to turn up, since among the cutesy snail-drawn cannoneers and hot air balloon bombing units you fight are previous kaiju encased in iron maidens prodded on by attendant gnome handlers. Switches, the bane of all dungeon crawlers, are essentially stone blocks with a gnome chained to them. You open doors by pushing in the stone blocks, in the process leaving behind a tell-tale splat of blood where the gnome was.
Just when you think you've got this, you wind up in a dungeon that is basically a bordello decorated with cat girls in shadowed relief, some in cages, there's an NPC all chained up who will reward you in loving caresses, distressingly plucked fowl carrying whips and succubi as viewed from the tail end peering evilly back at you. To put it lightly, monster designs range from the disturbingly lovely to proof that the dev team were in fact given all the freedom to do what they want. Meat statues? Scorpion-tailed squirrel "neck biters"? A gigantic head of a lovely maiden in watercolour spewing out a slimy slug-like creature from her mouth? If they could think it up, it's in there.
The art is good though, even when it's distressing. Backgrounds are pretty but not mind-blowing. Wizardry-style dungeon crawlers don't generally have the best background art (it is a giant tunnel, after all), but the different worlds in LoR are varied and the change of scenery is attractive enough to be noticeable yet not distracting. The reason I'm mentioning this is because those same backgrounds will consume at least 60 hours of your time, and then repeat (albeit on different maps) if you're into the 20+ hour post-game content to see the true ending. If you will forgive this pun, tunnel vision is the least of your worries.
How hard is this game? Punishing but fair. You'll know why your party wiped each time. Your gear is upgradeable by mashing it with other gear (preferably of the same type) and reincarnating so you get higher soul clarity (the multiplier for how much your stats grow per level) is worth it. Use every tool at your disposal and don't be afraid to experiment with different Pacts until you find a play style that fits. Status effects, as I said earlier, are a major game changer and everyone including the penultimate optional boss is susceptible to them. Equip those attacks as much as possible.
I would recommend this game to people who like great, gloomy stories, character-driven narratives. If you don't mind that the world isn't saved every time, like fantasy settings in general and believe characters should grow rather than be rewarded, this is worth the try. The voice acting in English and Japanese for Dronya is great, but I couldn't tolerate the English voices for either Luca or Neldo. English voice is good to try in scenes with Marietta in it, whose French trollop accent adds something the Japanese voice acting lacks. If you are prepared to sink the time and see the true ending, brace yourself for some hard grinding. That said, the main game does a noteworthy job of scaling difficulty in tandem with the story, so you won't feel like you need to run around the parking lot to level up between fights. Nor will you feel like you've lost out even if you just complete the main story—it's a tale well told and ends satisfactorily.
For me, personally, I hope NIS makes more of this series. If this is what happens when the devs are set free, I'm happy to see what they do next.