MeiQ: Labyrinth of Death
Publisher: Idea Factory
Developer: Compile Heart
Genre: Dungeon Crawling RPG
Release Date: 09/13/16
Dungeon crawling RPGs of any sort have always been an acquired taste among gamers, even at the best of times. Synonymously difficult, vague, and grind heavy, most developers will design a dungeon crawler with these characteristics as a consistent starting point and build from there, almost without question or exception. Even though the genre originated in the West (primarily in the PC market), these days Japanese developers have more or less kept the genre alive, almost exclusively in some cases, and fortunately for those of us who still remember and appreciate the genre, we have received a fair number of ports. From Atlus’ traditional yet quirky Etrian Odyssey series, the amazing Wizardry: Tale of the Forsaken Land and the outstanding The Dark Spire to more recent releases such as Experience’s Stranger of Sword City, the genre is alive and well on both sides of the world in its most typical style, as it were. What happens, though, when you build a dungeon crawler that goes out of its way to shatter some of these expected cosmetic molds and expected tropes? What happens when you swap out generic characters created via dice rolls with a cast of anime heroines, each with their own defined (albeit somewhat stereotypical) personalities? You would most likely wind up with something like MeiQ: Labyrinth of Death.
MeiQ sets the stage for the main heroine, Estra, one of five “Machina Mages” who are on a collective quest to deem themselves worthy to turn the planet key. At the start of the game, the world has stopped turning, is shrouded in perpetual night, and has become a playground for loathsome monsters. The only way to get things spinning back to normal is for a master Machina Mage to wind the key back up. The game takes place entirely within the holy city of Southern Cross, which has different colored towers in each of its four corners which serve as the game’s dungeons. In the beginning, the characters all split up and go their separate ways, leaving the player with only Estra to use during dungeon traversal. Since everyone decides to go to the same tower, however, you’ll occasionally bump into them as you’re navigating, and eventually, as you progress through the game, the girls will fall under Estra’s “power of friendship” spell, and permanently join your party one by one. The characters are all likable enough, but each of them fits securely into just about any thematically similar JRPG template you can think of; they’re not especially unique characters, in other words, but they’re likable enough even so that it doesn’t matter much, as the story is still enjoyable even so.
That said, while the characters aren’t especially unique, in other words, they’re likable enough even so that it doesn’t matter much, and in a game with a strong story this wouldn’t be a big deal. MeiQ isn’t really that game, unfortunately; the concept of having to turn a key to wind up the world is an interesting one that has some real possibilities, but the game doesn’t do enough with the idea, and other than that plot point, the rest of the story is pretty lackluster. The villains, who don’t reveal themselves until close to a quarter of the way in, are completely forgettable as well, which doesn’t help much, as they do little to help drive the plot along. That said, while this might be more to the game’s detriment if it was a standard role playing game, since it’s of the dungeon crawling variety, the plot ends up mostly seeping into the cracks of the experience, filling in spots that typically wouldn’t be filled at all in a game of this sort. The game doesn’t hold up narratively when compared to something like Stranger of Sword City, but the attempt is ambitious enough to be interesting, and while its characters and plot are at times corny, the mere existence of such elements in the game somehow adds to its overall charm. It’s also worth noting that the voice work is quite solid, which helps a lot, as the dialogue is competently voiced in English, though the game also includes the original Japanese voice track for those who would prefer it.
For those who are familiar with the genre, it should be noted here that Labyrinth of Death is REALLY the wrong subtitle for MeiQ for a few reasons. Alongside the bubbly anime inspired cast is a presentation full of bright colors, airy atmospheres, and commonly delicate and ambient background music. It’s also really worth noting that the bestiary includes a flying hippopotamus in various shapes and sizes, which is exactly as adorable as you’d expect, so those who’ve cut their teeth on Wizardry and The Dark Spire won’t find that here. The four tower dungeons in MeiQ are a far cry from the bleak and scarcely lit corridors one would typically drudge through in a dungeon crawler. To be fair, the game does have its fair share of large, imposing dragon and dragon-esque monsters, but generally the tone of the game is tranquil, warm, and not the least bit oppressive. The gameplay follows a similar tone and aesthetic, putting aside a good deal of the traditional dungeon crawling tool set in favor of a much more forgiving and casual experience. In fact, the only things that directly mimic the typical dungeon crawler aesthetic are the first person perspective dungeon navigation and the turn based combat.
As mentioned earlier, the game begins with you only having one character to use, though this is a bit misleading if you’re worried it’s just the characters on their own. Each character comes equipped with what is known as a Guardian to assist them in combat, meaning they’re not stuck battling enemies by their lonesome. The Guardians themselves take the form of robot like contraptions, and one can be paired to each character depending on what you have available and what you need at the time. As more of the characters team up with you, you can eventually form a party of three pairs of Guardians and mages, which can be built as needed depending on the dungeon and your personal play style. Though the characters are capable of attacking enemies themselves, the majority of your battles will be fought using the Guardians; while the characters themselves are quite capable of engaging in battle, Guardians are simply better equipped to deal with the enemies you face as you play through the game.
Using a relativity rudimentary Rock-Paper-Scissors element system, the turn based combat certainly doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but is a lot of fun thanks to the highly customizable Guardians. Each Guardian can be equipped with a body and two arm weapons that not only allow the Guardian to be finely tuned in a number of different ways in regards to statistics and elemental affinities, but also alters their appearance. Gems can be inserted into the Guardians core as well, which will boost its stats or provide a variety of different combat options, such as a double strike or guaranteed critical hits at the expense of HP. Arm weapons, which can be anything from swords and spears to Gatling guns and missile launchers, can offer several different kinds of attacks, sometimes utilizing an elemental affinity along with the attack itself. The possibilities are quite high, and it’s easy to say that the guardian customization and combat mechanics are some of the best parts of MeiQ.
Short Attention Span Summary:
MeiQ is a light hearted dungeon crawler that is accessible to pretty much anyone as the typically unforgiving and difficult nature of the genre is almost all but completely tossed aside here. The characters and plot are the epitome of the JRPG stereotype, but somehow work in the game’s favor more times than not as these aspects again continue the push the game further from its genre’s norm. Customizing the robotic Guardian companions is surprisingly very deep given the considerable amount of parts and gems one can use to finely tune each one. Though it definitely won’t scratch you’re itch for a traditional dungeon crawling experience, MeiQ proves to be a charming game that shoots more for fun than dungeon frustration.