It’s always interesting to see companies branch out from what they normally do. Granted, NIS has been branching out for the past few years to a point where the only real current staple series they have is: Disgaea and for being known for having some needlessly complex systems. some games. Unfortunately, this review isn’t about the marriage of these two things as Disgaeain some ways can be considered complex on its own. Instead, this is about NIS adding needlessly complex systems to a genre they’re unfamiliar with.
Dungeon Role Playing Games – ,or DRPGs for short, are games that take place in nothing but dungeons. They’re typically done in a first person view. The dungeon maps are usually tile based and you yourself have to fill out the map yourself by walking over each tile. Lastly, depending on the type of story, the characters are the ones you have to make up yourself as the story is nonexistent, or there is a set of characters to use as the story is also a main focus.
Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk (which will be short handed to Coven from the remainder of this review) in an interesting way actually checks all of these boxes; even that last bit that diverges into two. By all means, the overview of this game is very by the book in terms of overall design.
Let’s look at the design of the game from the very beginning and start at the story. The story of Coven is a tale of two cities. On the surface, Coven takes place in the town Refrain. A town basically in the middle of nowhere. You, your master – an easily irritable witch with a weak constitution and prosthetic leg – Dronya, and a little (annoying) girl Luca, travel to the town of Refrain after hearing of the town’s well. Well, that and the fact that the mayor asked Dronya to explore it and give him all of the valuables items in it. Of course, in some DRPGS, that would be it. Sure, it starts off as nothing, but it certainly turns into something rather quickly as the town has some interesting secrets… Especially for one where witches aren’t all that well liked and aren’t welcome.
I did mention that this is a tale of two cities, and so the second tale is the well itself. You see, the well is filled with all sorts of nasty miasma and monsters so humans wouldn’t survive exploring the place. Therefore, it’s up to you, a non-human to explore the well in Dronya’s place. Each part of this massive labyrinth has a sort of mini story to tell in each stage. These stories and whatever items you pick up are reported back to Dronya per her request.
I know just a moment ago I called you a non-human but you’re actually just a book… So whatever thoughts you have in what you played as before can be laid to rest. Although if it helps you do have the soul of a person who traveled the labyrinth before. But again, you’re a book so fighting is a no-go. Instead, you have puppets to fight for you.
It’s the creation of these puppets is where the madness truly begins of this game. You start off with six classes. They are: your all arounder knight, an assassin who strikes heavily and quickly, a wall with impenetrable defenses, a general magic user, a magic user than can also deal physical damage, and lastly a status abuser.
Unless you truly know what you’re doing, making a puppet is information overload in the beginning. Making a name, nickname, and even making the flavor text of the character are simple enough. Choosing the appearance and voice of the character is easy as well. The hard part is choosing the puppet’s nature. This is isn’t as simple as Pokemon where we’re dealing with only two stats changing in a simple 10% in one stat -10% in the other. In the case of Coven, we’re dealing with eight stats potentially being modified in one way or another and how each of the 15 natures affect your puppets varies from each class. There is no default nature to fall back on and none of them are overly positive. They all even out in some way.
Now that you’ve decided on the puppet’s nature, it’s time to decide on the puppet’s preferred stat growth. This is different from choosing the nature only because the game wants to know what you REALLY want to grow and what stats you REALLY want to ignore. This option ultimately comes in three flavors: Natural is you letting your puppet sort of be an all-rounder. Or at least, the best the class would let it. Flat is when you want your puppet to dabble a bit in their strengths at the cost of some stats deteriorating. Lastly, sharp is similar to flat, but on steroids. Unlike your nature, which can only be changed by reading books, this you can change anytime.
We’re not done in deciding on how you want to build your unit just yet. Now, it’s time to talk about stances. Stances are the simple +/- like in Pokemon. Standard stance means nothing changes. A Sun stance is a defensive stance – so you get higher HP and DEF, with lesser magic. The other main trade-off is that enemies are more prone to attacking this unit. As you can imagine, the moon stance improves offense. Expect higher physical and magic output but at the cost of defense, HP, and your luck stat.
Last few things to consider, your character starts off with two skills, and you get a pool of skills to choose that third slot. Finally, just to tantalize you even more, it’s time to pick your lucky number. It does something, you’ll just never know what it does or does not do.
Now that you’ve chosen and built your puppets to be just the way you want them — or pressed random to bypass the whole process, it’s time to make a pact with your puppet called a coven. These covens also provide bonus stats and also dictate what skills or magic your puppets will have as they go through the labyrinth. Depending on the coven, you can have up to three attackers and five supporters ready to go. Due to the fact that you have five slots available to you, you can potentially send up to 40 puppets down at once.
As mentioned earlier, the labyrinth is tile based and as you walk across the dungeon, you’ll be filling out your map. While the labyrinth is littered with treasure it’s chock full of all sorts of craziness. There are pitfalls that send you to the next floor but cause a lot of damage, traps that cause random status as well as cause damage when stepped on, unmappable rooms, and of course enemies.
Traveling is a bit of a slog at first, but as the game progresses you’re able to make Witch Pacts. Provided you find enough mana in the dungeon, Dronya will reward you with buffs such as: the ability to hide from enemies, creating your own one way use warp points, creating formations in battles, etc.
While battles are turn-based, there are so many hidden subsystems at work, it’s hard to describe them all. Although there are some important ones to consider:
You see, your puppets while seem to have some form of sentience as they’re able to build some form of rapport with each other. The closer they get and the more they bond with each other, the more they resonate. Resonance happens when one teammate goes after another and they have some sort of relationship. This increases the attack power of that attack.
The same sort of goes with magic attacks. No rapport is needed but instead it’s just the simple act of one magic attack going after another. The more magic attacks going at once, the higher the chain and the attacks they may be. Be careful however as enemies are able to take advantage of this as well.
Last main thing to touch upon in regards to battles, are gore hits. Gore hits are the best form of critical hits in the game. Not only does it cause massive damage, it also causes lowered stats including permanently lowered health as well. Not that, this can also happen to you as well. These are a puppet after all, and puppets do break. They can be put back together, but until you do, be careful traversing the dungeon.
Once you’re done traversing a dungeon, if you make it back alive, the game give you a bonus 20% EXP to whatever you gained. You also keep the mana you’ve gained. If you give up in a dungeon or lose a fight, the game will punish you by reducing the amount of mana you received and potentially losing one of the limbs on your puppet.
Once you’re back in the main hub area, there are a few things you can do. Outside of the Witch Report which continues the story, you can enhance your items via using alchemy, turn in items from doing sidequests, and of course enhancing yourself as mentioned earlier which makes the game more enjoyable all round.
If there’s anything the game wants from you, it’s that you understand what’s happening in it. Throughout dungeons the game is also filled with tip markers sometimes providing very useful information the game wouldn’t have stated otherwise. Others may just be a simple reminder on something you learned from a tutorial earlier. But not it’s just that either. The map is, if not the most important tool when traversing. Obviously, yes it’ll show you where you are as well as a map of the entire area, but most importantly it’ll tell you what walls are breakable. By the game’s own design, there are times where you’ll come across a door that needs a key, but the wall next to it is breakable so you can still get to the next area. Granted it’ll be an extra step in the process.
When it comes to graphics don’t expect anything like a graphical powerhouse. The game has some really nice 2D art sure. The character designs for the most part are great. While the labyrinth themselves look nice, it’s pretty cheaply made so don’t complain that this game isn’t pushing your PS4 let alone Switch in handheld mode. The game’s music certainly doesn’t detract from the game, albeit doesn’t add much either.
Coven to me is a weird game. When it was out in Japan, I heard it was a great game. But the ending result is nothing short of something masterful. The game is as deep as you want it to be. If you want the game to have only Epic tier items and upwards to show, it can do that for you. Mob enemies can generally be beaten by just doing regular attacks; no real thought has to be put into the fight. Naturally, real thought has to be placed into the boss battles. If you aren’t thinking two steps ahead, you’re in trouble. Ultimately speaking, my feelings for Coven can’t really be summed up by a simple like or love. It’s something more akin to respect. Despite everything being needlessly complex, it’s done in a way to make the game much more enjoyable rather than bogging it down.
When Coven came out on the Vita back in 2016 it was and still is considered one of the best for the platform. If the Vita version made it west, it would easily be the Game of the Year on the platform with no issue. With it being on different platforms, that’s not the case here. However, for their first time doing a game like this, one might have thought NIS has been making DRPGs for years due the amount of polish. While I don’t necessarily like all of the decisions made in the game, if NIS decides to make another I’ll be one of the first to pick it up.