By Alexander O. Cuaycong and Anthony L. Cuaycong
MOST GAMERS are familiar with the modern dungeon crawler, with the likes of Diablo III, Torchlight II, and Path of Exile proving to be critical and commercial successes. That’s not to say that every release in the category follows the same formula; such notables as Class of Heroes, The Dark Spire, and The Lost Child are superb takes on turn-based exploration and fighting in elaborate milieus. They’re not for everyone, though; while compelling, they generally rely on the slow burn of an interesting story to keep players hooked, and their often-complicated battle systems can be a doozy to navigate through, especially for newcomers to the genre.
If nothing else, however, Nippon Ichi Software has exhibited remarkable proficiency in making quirky, otherwise-niche offerings hold mass appeal. Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk, originally released on the PlayStation Vita in 2016, is one such example, and it’s thus not surprising to see it now find its way to the PS4, Nintendo Switch, and Personal Computer in all its uniquely captivating glory. Featuring old-school dungeon crawling mechanics combined with a distinct anime art style, it promises to hook in players from either end of the video game spectrum.
Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk follows the story of the witch Dronya and her apprentice Luca, who trek to Refrain with the intent to explore its — what else? — labyrinth upon the request of the town’s current dispensation. As the area of interest is filled with poisonous miasma, she is fortunate to have in her possession the Tractatus de Monstrum, a book inhabited by the soul of the single being who just so happened to have already wandered through and out of it. It is through this tome that players navigate through the narrative and control a myriad of puppet soldiers, each with their distinct look, class, and feel, in an effort to unearth the secrets held by the village depths.
At first glance, Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk’s plot seems fairly standard. As with most other NIS titles, though, it is anything but, and the way it’s unveiled and how its characters are introduced and fleshed out make it stand out from among the genre’s dregs. It tackles dark themes with a boatload of charm and humor, not to mention presented in an art style that can be unsettling early on, but compelling in time. Parenthetically, it benefits from the evident imprints of Tenpei Sato and Takehito Harada, with an audio-visual feel that should be familiar to Disgaea fans.
To be sure, charm isn’t the only thing that gives Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk legs. It makes use of, and presents, the standard sets of stats, skills, and classes, but to effective excess. Moreover, the manner in which parties are laid out in “covens” allows players to manage groups of up to 15 at any given time. And there’s no lack of depth and customization in its mechanics. In fact, there’s an initially frightening and intimidating amount; everything from constitution to positioning to weapon choice to numbers can dictate how effective parties are — imposingly at first, and then crucially moving forward.
Indeed, the seeming complexity of Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk can serve as a barrier to entry. Going into it blind can prove overwhelming even for those who have previously partaken of Japanese role-playing games. Likewise, it requires no small measure of grinding, with the use of atypically large numbers for stat lines and the bevy of choices available all but enjoining players to buff up their characters to acute levels. Simply put, there are just some points in the journey where they’ll think they’ve bitten off more than they can chew.
Thankfully, there’s a silver lining to staying engaged, and Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk manages to reward the patient, and how. It distinguishes itself in its painstaking desire to reinvent a formulaic genre, and despite some of its flaws. And it succeeds for the most part, keeping players engrossed with an original and entertaining interface clothed in unfamiliar but comforting garb. Boasting of a beguiling storyline and true gameplay depth that never outstays its welcome, it’s an easy recommend for all and sundry.
Needless to say, Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk is best played on the PC, where it is graphically and aurally at its finest. Console-wise, the PS4 Pro comes close, running at a steady 60 frames per second and offering outstanding controls. That said, those angling for maximum portability would do well to pick up its Switch version; even undocked and with a busy screen, it suffers from no hiccups and provides no noticeable lags in feedback. In any case, it’s proof positive that, in this day and age of instant gratification, timeless gems driven by equal parts narrative and gameplay can command interest. Arguably the best DRPG on any platform to date, it’s well worth its list price of $49.99 and, most importantly, the 80 or so hours it takes to finish.
Black Clover: Quartet Knights (PS4) — In early 2015, Hungry Joker creator Yuki Tabata launched Black Clover in Japan via Weekly Shonen Jump, a manga periodical that has male teens as its principal demographic. Focusing on orphans Asta and Yuno as they strive to survive and subsequently thrive in the magic-filled Clover Kingdom, the title has been met with extremely positive reception. Its success has led to the production of a one-off video and a television series, with the latter currently on its second season and likewise localized for English audiences.
Considering the richness of the narrative, the expansion of Black Clover’s reach comes as no surprise. It tells of Asta’s intent to become the Wizard King, the second most powerful figure in Clover Kingdom, despite his utter lack of magical powers. Needless to say, the dream is shared by Yuno, whose natural abilities include control of wind magic. Even as they join The Order of the Magic Knights in pursuit of their objective, they find themselves confronting The Eye of the Midnight Sun, a rival organization out to destroy the kingdom.
Creditably, Black Clover: Quartet Knights stays true to its source material. Developed by Ilinx of Gundam Breaker fame, it has Asta and Black Bull Squad captain Yami Sukehiro trying to stop the designs for revenge of noblewoman Karna Freese. The tale is filled with potential, hence the decision to release a manga based on it early this month. It’s at heart a magic fighting game, however, and so the Story, Training, and Challenge Modes serve mostly as a tutorial for players to learn and master the mechanics of where its real value lies.
Indeed, Black Clover: Quartet Knights is set up to be best appreciated as a medium for four-on-four online matches. And, in this regard, it’s designed to give plenty of bang for the buck. Familiar characters from the series possess unique strengths that can be used in support of team victories. Among the multiplayer offerings: Zone Control, which requires taking and keeping control of a specified area in the battle arena; Treasure Hunt, which has protagonists fighting for a key to be used to open a treasure chest; and Crystal Carry, which compels the transport of a spawned crystal to a final location.
In Black Clover: Quartet Knights, choice is critical to success. The right characters support the right strategy for the right team to meet the right objectives. Players can go for ranged magic, up-close combat, healing, or support, and the ideal mix varies depending on the mode at play. Meanwhile, coordination promises to be critical to victory. And, in this regard, the assumption is that of a thriving online community where matchmaking is a breeze.
Unfortunately, this is where Black Clover: Quartet Knights falters. Not enough players seem to be available online at any given time, thus forcing the game to populate the majority of teams with characters controlled by artificial intelligence. Invariably, the required adjustments, in theory conveyed through proper and timely communication, aren’t made, leading to less-than-desirable results. And, with the game already a month old, the problem is more likely to be exacerbated than solved.
The good news is that Black Clover: Quartet Knights proudly exhibits its visual roots. It boasts of a sharp, colorful art style consistent with that of its Weekly Shonen Jump sibling. Ditto with its sound and dialogue tracks, which feature the same vibrant rhythms and voice acting as those of the television series. Animated cutscenes are smoothly rendered, but backgrounds are often static and frame rates can drop depending on the severity of the action on screen.
Taken as a whole, Black Clover: Quartet Knights should please fans of the franchise. It’s a veritable godsend for followers of the manga and anime series, offering a plethora of cosmetic and attribute customization options for familiar characters. Parenthetically, it provides a solid foundation for its multiplayer offerings. On the flipside, it suffers from the lack of online practitioners. And because servers are sparsely populated, forming teams becomes an uneven exercise at best.
Which, in essence, places Black Clover: Quartet Knights in a Catch-22 situation. It has the potential to go beyond its niche, but needs critical mass first to do so — and vice versa. Hopefully, the next console release, which is a matter of when and not if, fares better.
Video Game Review
Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk
PlayStation 4/Nintendo Switch/Microsoft Windows
• Classic NIS charm
• Compelling storyline
• Surprising depth
• Extremely accessible
• Requires intense grinding
• Intimidating game design
• Slow pace