Dungeons, waifus and a massive wall of text. That’s pretty much what I always imagine when it comes to Japanese dungeon crawlers and while the first two are indeed true, Nippon Ichi Software goes on the minimal text scrolling with little dialogue per cutscene which makes the game more on open exploration than anything. Originally released in Japan for the Playstation Vita and Playstation 4 in June 2016 and September 2017 respectively and now coming west-side supporting both English and Japanese audio for the Playstation 4, Nintendo Switch and Microsoft Windows this September 2018.
With an art style made by Takehito Harada, the same hands that worked on Disgaea, Phantom Brave and Makai Kingdom. The crazy and bizarre style features everything from cutesy preteen puppets to gargantuan and vicious boss creatures. A boulder monster? We have that! A jumping bean? We’ve got it! You can find just about anything within the labyrinth of Refrain. Dungeons are pretty basic but offers a lot of unique style to it. Going from mossy labyrinth walls to a hidden gnome kingdom or an underground cave filled with tunnels. Each of them provides their unique mechanics be it jumping over hedges as a giant in the gnome kingdom or falling into pitfalls and holes in the first few floors. Destroying cave-ins with bombs or simply getting lost with the sheer amount of quest markers available in a floor.
We start off the journey with the witch, Dronya and her apprentice Luca as they came to the remote town of Refrain where it is said to have a mysterious well that houses a deadly labyrinth oozing with poisonous miasma and wondrous treasures. And what’s worse than poisonous miasma? Well, monsters! Terrifying monsters just waiting to lunge at you at a moment’s notice. Luckily for the witch duo, they ain’t doing the work but our trusty Tractatus de Monstrum, a legendary book written by the only person who was able to explore the labyrinth’s depths but died right after. The story comes off lighthearted yet dark, going from a backfired spell making Dronya fall in love with uhmm… let’s just say something you’d be really interested in seeing while some parts of the story would let you witness death as trolls devour explorers in the labyrinth as well as the deaths reported on a daily basis in the town due to the unclean ones.
The cast of characters offer unique personalities, some lovable ones while some makes your eyes roll backwards. Dronya who is both rude and cruel despite her lavishly good looks and Luca, the sweet and kind hearted girl who simply melts your heart away with a smile and her optimistic nature. A crimson-haired nun that has the “hots” for Dronya and Neldo the otherworldly guy who’s interested in little girls.
Exploration on a dungeon crawler is a dull word in my opinion but what makes the game stand out is its rather wall-breaking moments. Unlike Neptune from Neptunia, I’m not talking about the fourth wall that divides the player from the playee?! But literal wall-breaking mechanics that changes how you explore dungeons to open new areas with hidden treasures as well as shortcuts until you exit the dungeon via the exit or the mud-exit ability which simply acts as a break point during dire situations to let the player collect his or her bearings to either save at crucial event points or simply heal up and reattach limbs. Again unlike your average dungeon-crawler, the game lets you see enemies as they patrol around specific points of a floor and while there are unescapable battles… there are also some that you’d be required to avoid until you get a stronger squad of cutesy puppets. Getting defeated in a dungeon doesn’t literally mean complete annihilation though! But there is capital punishment for letting them die like losing a puppet’s limbs, equipment and mana obtained in the dungeon. Other than that, you can also use a fog ability to escape detection and nullify the effects of miasma-filled floors or the ability to lure enemies to your position. All of that be it wall-breaking or mud-exiting can be used as long as ample “reinforcement” points are available to you.
Squad up and set a formation! Just one of the things that I find endearing about the combat system is the covens can either have a solo attacker, duo or trio of puppets along with support puppets maxed at five in the backline. With a total of five covens active at a time, you can have as many as 15 puppets attacking each equipped to the brim with gear looted from the labyrinth that goes from common, rare, epic or legendary rarity that can have varying bonus stats. But probably the only thing that I hate about the system is it’s rather time consuming because of the sheer amount of variation as well as amount of puppets and slots to equip them. Be it a theatrical star or peer fortress dual wielding any one-handed weapon of choice, sporting a two-handed weapon or a shield on the other then having to worry about the kind of headgear, armor, boots and relic. You can however just equip whatever and roll with it but to get the best of their abilities it does take time and an awful amount of it! Formations is another way to set an advantage as each formation on the five covens be it a vanguard or rearguard will allow you to achieve nifty buffs and passives that complement the squad.
And before you think that’s about everything and I wished it was… there’s a lot more to this than meets the eye. As covens also act as a sort of class to decide what combination of skills a puppet can use in combat. Creating a puppet would also mean choosing its nature and puppet growth to dictate how it develops its attributes. Stance however manages the balance whether a puppet goes attack based or defensive based. Each puppet facet has its own innate passive abilities and you’re free to choose one to learn right away. To keep things simple, don’t expect simplicity!
Actual combat is also a handful with six status effects than can be inflicted to you and to your foes. Poison, confuse, startle, illusion, abyss and stench are just your average status effects and with gore hit literally meaning what it sounds like. Inflicting critical punishment by destroying limbs which deals higher damage or reducing a puppet’s max HP when inflicted to your own. Commands go from your average attack, donum or otherwise known as skills, fortify or defend, escape and formation. And as you can probably tell, the use of consumables can only be used outside of battles. Reinforcement points can be used to increase attack or defensive capabilities and continuous attacks increases damage dealt.
Facilities and general needs? With the game already being filled with so much it wouldn’t really hurt to have even more things to beef out your adventure. There’s your average create, repair, destroy or transfer puppet souls and that’s pretty straightforward. Alchemy pot however lets you synthesize equipment to make them even stronger, disassemble to let you exchange gear and consumables for mana while disassembling artifacts would net you souls to use for more puppet creations and sealed equipment can be unsealed within the same menu once you unlock it or force it on your own but risk the loss of its hidden potential. A general market to buy or sell stuffs for coins. Apprentice’s Notes which acts as side quests in which you exchange items you get in the dungeon for something of their own. Witch Petition however is a facility in which you get to exchange mana for just about everything like obtaining new facet for puppets, more formation types, higher storage or giving dungeon-based skills like post-battle recovery, higher chance of avoidance while hiding, more active mud-exits or higher chance of escaping battles. They pretty much included everything but the kitchen sink.
Voice acting for both English and Japanese audio is done beautifully despite my inclination towards Japanese audio for most games and anime. Although not everything is voiced and encounters in the dungeon is mostly a silent wall of text. Not a huge deal breaker but it might be for some with the already minimal and short scenes in the town that includes voice overs.
To put it simply, the game itself is a nice entry point for newcomers for its vast exploration capabilities as you break walls or put mud-exits at crucial spots to backtrack into afterwards. Having the ability to avoid detection from enemies and luring them is an added feature that I personally feel that is needed in more dungeon crawlers. Although the game also caters towards the hardcore fans of the genre with its vast customization and optimization options towards setting up squads and making full use of the puppet’s potential. Definitely something worth checking out to players at both ends of the spectrum. Having a gentle, ordinary and nightmare world difficulty is something that I am most fond of as I could change on the fly depending on my mood although the leveling curve can sometimes make even a gentle world feel harsh at times when an underleveled team breezes through the early dungeons.