2021-Feb-11: Labyrinth of Refrain: The Best Game I Recommend You Never Play

It's been like 8 months since I wrote about anything. The tail end of 2020 was a drag, as I think it was for us all. I've been plugging away at small game projects but nothing really stood out as "I have to write about this!". Well, nothing did until today.

Last night I finished Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk. I did more than finish, really. I 100%ed the game. The true end, post-game, all the Apprentice Notes, 100%ed every map. I did it all. It was a lot, and it left me feeling very, very conflicted on its qualities as a game. Ultimately in my giant list of beaten games I gave it a 4 out of 5, but it's a 4 with a very, very big asterisk.

Refrain introduces some interesting mechanics that shake up the standard dungeon crawler experience. First it boasts party sizes of up to 40 and while that's technically true, it doesn't feel like it. You create characters from one of 8 classes, and then assemble them into Covens of up to 8 characters. Only three are in the actual battle, the other five are support characters that contribute some of their skills to the Coven and some additional bonuses dictated by their slot. What each slot does is dictated by which Pact you use to form that Coven. It's all very detailed at the surface.

Once in battle a Coven acts as a unit. If you order a Coven to basic attack, all three members of that Coven will attack. You can also order a Coven to use Donum, which is effectively magic. Donum uses the entire Coven to cast a spell; which Donum you have access to is dictated entirely by the Pact you chose, but its power is dictated by the sum (or perhaps average) of the Donum Power stats of the three main members of that Coven.

So while you can have 40 members of a party (5 Covens, 8 members each), it's more like you have five characters built from quarks of a character, and each quark has its own class and stats. However since you can swap Pacts at any time, this means you have pretty massive party flexibility for any given situation. The best approach honestly is to just build at least three of every class so you can tag in and out the right characters for the right Pacts. That's what I did.

The next interesting mechanic is the ability to see enemies in the dungeon. This is fairly rare outside of FOEs in the Etrian series. Once you get a special ability early in Refrain, though, you can see not just dangerous boss-tier enemies but all enemies wandering the dungeon. They appear as floating black orbs with an eye color determining if they're a normal enemy or an FOE-tier enemy. They chase you when they see you, and can be attacked from behind to enter battle with an advantage; though in Refrain you don't get a strike first. Instead, enemies get a chance to be inflicted with a short-lived stun; some enemies are immune to this so back attacking is far less useful than it is in most JRPGs.

Third, the game is packed full of little QoL mechanics you'd expect from an NIS grind game: movement through the dungeon is extremely fast. Returning to town is extremely fast via a town portal skill you get early in the game and can access at any time. Battles can be sped up immensely by holding B, and auto-battle is fairly robust and easy to invoke for fast grind fights. This turns out to be important considering Refrain has an extremely high rate of encounters, even though you can see them on the map. Most of the dungeons are rooms joined by one tile hallways, where enemies like to roam.

Finally, and where things start to go south, is the gore system. In short, every attack has a chance to dismember the target, causing a stat loss that must be healed at camp. The chance starts fairly small but rises based on your character's karma (which is largely random since killing certain foes raises it and it can't be lowered except in base), level difference, and character's luck. So the factors behind it are very difficult to control. A gore hit can destroy a party member's arms, legs, torso, or head. A limb being lost reduces either speed or attack and max HP by 25%, a body shot drops max HP by 50% and likely tanks defense too, a head gore reduces character max HP by 100%; they die and cannot be revived until repaired.

I would be much happier if the gore system simply did not exist. It's there mainly to punish the player for ignoring luck, ignoring karma (which you can't really control much anyway), or having a high level disadvantage. But this is an NIS game with a rebirth system so running around with a low level but god-tier stats is the norm, so I'm confused about that point. How it usually manifests, then, is immediately having to go back to base and spend money to recover from a gore when one "just happens" at random. More vexing is when you get gored by an attack that does almost no damage. Like how did that even happen?

The gore system gets deliberately exploited by several fights where the enemy will spam full party AOEs (which take FOREVER to resolve since you have 15 party members on the field) with high chances to gore. A good example is an encounter mold in the Necropolis that is five extremely fast enemies that typically go first and all spam full party AOEs that do pitiful damage but will more often than not leave someone gored. The unfortunate thing is they chose to use this specific mechanic on the "Metal slime" enemies of the game too.

Outside of these mechanics, the game is largely a bog standard dungeon crawler. You dive into the dungeon, explore, gather experience and loot, and hunt for the next plot progression point. Then rinse and repeat. Your ability to stay in the dungeon is limited by a combination of likelihood of being gored sending you back, your "Reinforcement" score which is a resource you can use to activate map abilities, and your Mana. Mana is a resource you spend in base for upgrades that you gather from combat and nodes in the dungeon. As it increases your drop chance for loot increases too. However if you reach a mana limit, which is calibrated for the dungeon floor you're on, the game summons a super boss that will more than likely destroy you.

The game is absolutely huge too. Its total dungeon footprint is 32x32x56. It's far bigger than any dungeon crawler I've played. For comparison: Double Dungeons, the TG-16 dungeon crawler I typically hold as a standard for "Needlessly huge dungeon", has a total footprint of about 30,000 tiles. Refrain has 57,000. Unlike Double Dungeons though, Refrain remains varied and fresh the whole way through by having nine stratums, different regions on each floor with different foes, different aesthetics even within the same stratum. I didn't get bored of the dungeon due to its size.

So my only complaint so far is the gore system. Why would I say Refrain is polarizing? Mostly the plot and aesthetics.

Without going into too much, the game as a whole seems to be designed to shock, appall, or turn off the player. This isn't unique within the NIS library, but it's done with a certain panache in Refrain. The main plot more or less opens with child abuse, sexual assault, and grisly, brutal murder. Homosexuality is a common plot point in the game: from one side as a plot onus of love and dedication but from the other as a cheap problematic jab. The stories of some of the more evil characters in the game weave through gay panic, ableism, incest, hedonistic sadism, fetishistic materials, trans/queerphobia... it's all over the place.

The enemies too are all over the place. While most of the foes are your basic JRPG fare like slimes, evil vegetables, trolls, and giant monsters, the game sometimes just decides to throw at you a severed bloody head vomiting black tar, or a literal crap monster. Not to mention the demon mini-boss in a tiny bikini that you can negotiate with to not fight, but in the course of the discussion will reveal they're actually a man as if it were a cheap casual joke or someone's fetish. It rings real hollow within its context.

The plot is not fun. That's the point I'm getting at here. And when the plot gets dark, so too does its general game aesthetic. It's not an experience for someone looking for a happy time. It's a shame too because if you get to the point where all of this garbage starts to be explained, the writing is actually really good. Just... eesh?

Like any NIS game, the final boss isn't the end. If you just roll through the game without looking around once in awhile, you'll miss things. The big missable is the six super bosses needed to reach the post-game and the true ending. These are, as you'd expect, a sharp increase in difficulty from the main experience. While I more or less steamrolled the main game, the super bosses and post-game had me scrambling to turn the difficulty down. I wasn't here for a blisteringly hard experience, after all. I was here to see if the plot actually resolves in a way that doesn't suck.

In truth? I wholeheartedly recommend playing the main game on normal and once you down the final boss and get the neutral end, turning it down to easy for the rest.

The normal end of Refrain is bittersweet; spoilers incoming. You stop the awful bad terrible thing that's going to destroy the world, but you lose the protagonist. I found myself shocked I actually cared because she begins the game as a very, very bad person. But as her reasons for doing what she does are revealed, and she learns about herself, she comes around. By the end I was rooting for her. On top of that, the POV character (a possessed book, I kid you not) disappears, having fulfilled its mission and saved the world. Nah, that end didn't sit well with me. So I did the good ending.

Sadly the good end is largely identical with one change: instead of your book-self disappearing, it's sent into the future where it's revealed one of the plot characters sent it back to the past to try to stop the chain of events that destroyed the world. It worked, but Refrain subscribes to the "divergent timelines" model of temporal mechanics. So in the timeline you left from, the world is still in ruins. So now that you saved one timeline, you have to save your own after all, from a much stronger foe.

The post-game is largely material recycle, but that's okay for a dungeon crawler in my opinion. You move through eight dungeon floors, each one themed after a stratum from the main game. Then after that you fight the final boss from the main game, but in very different form. As one would expect from an NIS game, this fight is a marked increase in difficulty from anything else in the game. It left me grinding to rebirth my entire team twice before I felt ready to tackle it.

Honestly it's not just a marked increase in difficulty. I'd call it kind of BS. This boss has a static attack pattern:

That's it. But it starts with a full party instant kill and status spam... in a DPS race. Rubbish. I ended up reloading until I got a slot machine result I could work with; there's nothing else to do. Some people recommend trying to hit the boss with your own status effects, but they're so unreliable in Refrain. Even hard stuns and silences only have a chance of preventing actions. Truthfully the best call is to build a glass cannon DPS team and grind until it can either nuke the boss before turn 8, or tank the AOE. On easy mode it doesn't take that long, presuming you found the one source of 5 "metal slime" type enemies in the game.

The reward for this? Not much. You stop the big bad in the ruined timeline too, but only the witch who created you survived. She's the only person left in the entire world. That's it. That's the true ending. Ugh. That didn't feel worthwhile in the moment. And of course no, you don't get the protagonist back.

So it's not much of a happy ending. There's hope at least. There's some handwavium about the surviving witch being pregnant but wow that raises some questions I'd rather not have answered. The plot has some good points along the way; it was enough to keep me hooked despite the painful gotcha-style gameplay. I was hoping for more payoff though. I don't know how... I guess I was hoping somehow the protagonist from the start would survive.

Refrain, in general... I'd describe it as such: it's the best game I ever played that I turned around and recommended no one else ever play. That sums it up nicely. I enjoyed the mapping, I enjoyed the combat (when I wasn't getting gored). The post-game wasn't worth it. The plot payoff was disappointing. The hard parts were hard because of BS mechanics and not strategic difficulty. The plot is, to overuse a loaded term, problematic as hell. It randomly throws jabs at marginalized groups that don't sit well with me. It sexualizes practically every female cast member in a gross way that only NIS can do (and you can't convince me some of them aren't kids, seriously). It's... a lot.

I'm glad it's over, honestly. I hear there's a sequel coming soon. I don't think I'll be playing it.