Nippon Ichi takes a break from Disgaea to craft a dungeon crawler that does Bard's Tale better than Bard's Tale 4.
Yet, this is a slow burn. Even though I am the perfect target audience, it took me a while to get hooked. The first few forays into the dungeon left me with a certain dissatisfaction. "Is that it?" is what I kept thinking. You roam around, kill monsters easily, try to familiarize with your very small party and while there's a lot of numbers buried under the many menus that are hard to understand in the beginning, I couldn't shake the feeling that it all felt dry, light, weightless...
Then again, this is a Nippon Ichi game so the craziness was just around the corner, and it's actually a blessing that you get introduced to it little by little and very slowly.
So while everything you can expect from the genre is there, what seems unique to me is the concept of covens
. You have 5 party slots, but each slot can host up to three characters for a total of 15 attackers (even though obviously this doesn't happen until late in the game). So basically a coven is the slot, and in that slot you don't simply place one character, instead you place a "pact" which more like a box that holds your characters, or a team within the party. So to recap, you have 5 slots (covens) in which you place a team (pact) with up three active characters. Seems decently easy? Yes, except every pact that you can slot is different. First of all, you loot the pacts like any other item and so there are rare and powerful pacts and simple and dull ones. To try and be more specific, a rare pact is a pact that allows you to slot three attackers and gives you a bonus to attack and maybe a few cool spells, while a shitty pact is a pact that allows you to slot only one character, or maybe two but with an XP penalty and so on. So if it wasn't clear enough at this point, the party building aspect of the game is not that different from building a deck in a card game. Not only you have characters to level up and equip with the best items as you would in any other game of this kind, but you can't just pick your best 5 chars (or more) and go with them, you actually have to decide in which slot to use them and with which buffs and debuffs and spells.
Right, cause spells come with the "pact" not with the character. So if I put a character in the "Spellcaster" pact they will have access to certain spells, while if I put that same character in a "Defender" pact they may have access to completely different spells or none at all. And I haven't even mentioned support slots. That's right, you can bring along some characters in a support slot of specific pacts. This way they will not deal nor take damage but will still gain a portion of the XP (% depending different for different pacts), but at the same time they will enable things for the active characters of that pact that wouldn't be available if you didn't slot a supporter. In some cases for example, the attackers can only use a spell if have brought along a supporter for that pact. Obviously there are requirements, like class, gender, and so on. One "Gossip" pact can only slot females. One "Barricade Pact" only characters with a defensive zodiac sign (!).
Character creation doesn't seem too complex but it's fun. While there are only seven classes, and not too many choices of looks and voices, you can still opt for things like personality trait and sun sign that determine how will the stats grow when you level up. There are plenty of personality and they also have an additional level of interaction, as your characters can become more or less friends with each other over time and that influences how often they combo up for extra damage. So once again, virtually infinite theorycrafting, if that's your thing (and it must be if you bought a Nippon Ichi game). Obviously your characters can be reborn with better stat scaling as per any NIS game. And in case it wasn't obvious by now, you'll have to manage more than 15 chars, up to a potentially infinite number. Somehow creating your little army of puppets named after pop stars or dead philosophers never gets old.
Itemization is usually the most mindmelting part of NIS games, but this time it looks like they took a step back. While there's still a billion things to loot with a billion randomized stats each, they are not forever upgradable or explorable like in Disgaea, so they will still melt your mind but will not drag you down in an infinite black hole of upgrades like in previous titles. I wish the tools to compare and understand what's better than what were a little easier to use, because with 20+ characters it's extremely easy to get lost whenever you get a new legendary item and you have no idea who should use it and who should inherit whatever is being replaced, but after 30 or more hours you get the gist of what's useful and what isn't and learn to juggle the UI to dodge its limitation. Not ideal but it doesn't matter as at this point I have already lost 18000 mental sanity points and was completely addicted.
The exploration itself turned out to be very satisfying for me. The second dungeon killed my enthusiasm cause it's a strange open sky one, but the third is my favourite so far and totally made me a fanboi. Not only you get that feeling of being lost in the deep bowels of a monster infested treasure filled mega structure, but you get to destroy walls left and right looking for secret passages and dark alcoves. There's a sense of satisfaction in finally opening that chest that required a mysterious key when you finally find it. This is what dungeons are all about, and here, after the slow start where you are try to familiarize with too many things at once and while so many options are still gated behind a ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? the mazes ultimately deliver.
The combat is what it should be. 100% turn based (so are the grid movements in the open map), you pick who attacks, who defends, who casts and who uses an item. Then, there are the zany twists. Your covens (remembers? The 5 slots that contain your teams of characters) can be placed in the vanguard or rearguard with obvious differences in aggro generation and range of weapons, then there or formations which provide different bonus and malus depending of which slots are in the vanguard or rearguard, and then there are reinforcements
, which is a currency that start from 100 every time you deploy in a dungeon and can be used for lots of things, like reinforcing your atttack or defence on the fly, or give a unit a specific order, or to stack XP (another super clever risk-vs-reward mechanic which allows you not to gain XP right after a fight and put it in a stack with a multiplier. You can cash it whenever you want but the longer you keep it in the stack the more it grows. Obviously you lose the WHOLE stack if you die or escape from a fight before cashing it in). Reinforcements basically represent your dungeon exhaustion. When they are close to zero you better start considering going back to the surface as you are gonna run out of precious tools soon.
Another cool aspect is localised damage. Your characters can sustain critical hits that mutilate them. When that happens not only you can't use the equip in that part of the body, but you suffer a major drop of your max HP. You can fix that when you go back to town, but in the dungeon that's a "lovely" additional danger you have to pay attention to and that makes every fight more tense.
And then there's the weird spellcasting Rendakor was mentioning a while ago. Basically, while every character in each team/coven/slot/pact can make an attack, only one character per coven can cast a spell and if they do that counts as the only action for that coven. So if I have a coven with three characters, they can all attack, but if I decide to cast a spell with one of them then the other two are not gonna do anything this turn. It feels strange and stupid, but it's just an additional layer of strategy that forces you to make hard decisions. This game is all about this. Nothing is ever simple or clear, everything has advantages and disadvantages. So in many cases casting a spell and forcing two characters to sit idly doesn't seem like a good idea, but there are situations in which only a spell will grant you enough damage to get through a particular enemy, or a spell is the only way to heal another character, and so you are forced to consider stuff like this all the time. In general, you won't be casting spells in every fight as spell points (donum points) are precious, and most fights will simply be resolved with the auto-fight function which is a staple of dungeon crawlers, but spells can be devastatingly powerful, especially the AOE ones, and once again the party/deck building plays a very important role. My most powerful spell-casting pact only allows for one character in it. Which means, I am basically giving up two characters altogether that I can't bring with me in order to give one caster the best arsenal. I am not even sure I am doing things right at this point, but while everything feels overwhelming when you unlock all the functionalities, it also feels cool to study and experiment with. There's definitely a lot of depth, and I am only 30 hours in (fourth dungeon).
With all of this said, I haven't mentioned the story, which takes place in traditional NIS vignettes and entails some fucked up plot involving witches, nuns, some totally out of place sexual harassment, and an annoying child. I actually love to come out of the dungeon only to find a new snippet of the story, but it is all clearly just an excuse to push you deeper and deeper into the maze. Once again though, if you know and like NIS games you would probably enjoy these segments, their style, and the music which is always pretty cool.
I could have kept this as short as a couple of lines but I guess I wanted to manifest my appreciation by lining up all the things that I enjoyed and how I got to discover and understand them. This is a game about venturing down into a dark mysterious well and the whole experience is aptly represented by both the trip of your party through the well itself, and your personal journey through the fog of the overwhelming mechanics. I was expecting a lot from Labyrinth of Refrain, then I found myself a bit disappointed when it all seemed too simple, only to become completely addicted when comfort and familiarity got swallowed into the darkness of unmanageable numbers and infinite decisions. All while trying to survive the dungeon and play "one more turn" to see what lies ahead.
Must buy. (Also available on Steam for PC, and Switch)