The dungeon crawler genre isn’t particularly renowned for its storytelling, though this isn’t necessarily a criticism.
The genre grew out of tabletop adventures where the players just wanted to hack and slash their way through some monsters and take their treasure, after all, so it’s understandable that a computerised version of this type of adventure would emphasise mechanics — particularly combat — over narrative.
That doesn’t mean that your average dungeon crawler is completely devoid of plot, however, and in recent years Japanese developers in particular have shown how to strike a good balance between narrative, characterisation and satisfying mechanics. Dungeon Travelers 2 is a prime example.
Dungeon Travelers 2’s basic plot is about as unimaginative as they come for fantasy RPGs. Someone has woken up the Demon God (yes, that actually is its name) and, naturally, this has caused all sorts of trouble around the kingdom. The player character Fried, a member of the Royal Library, sets out to investigate these mysterious happenings, accompanied by his childhood friends Alisia and Melvy, and suppress the threat of monsters.
In many ways, though, the basic plot is the least important part of Dungeon Travelers 2’s narrative components. Instead, what actually matters — where the effort clearly seems to have gone so far as the writing is concerned — is the background lore of the world in which the game takes place, and the characterisation of the main cast.
Let’s take a look at the world lore first.
Dungeon Travelers 2 unfolds in a kingdom called Romulea. As with most dungeon crawlers, we don’t get to explore this world freely; our exploration is strictly limited to the dungeons of the realm. Instead, a sense of worldbuilding is brought about through the dialogue between characters and Fried’s narration of the situations in which he finds himself.
Central to the game’s setting is the idea of a “Libra”, an individual who has the power to seal monsters inside books. Fried is one such Libra, and like most of his peers, he’s no fighter; consequently, he relies on his Suppression Team to protect him and weaken the monsters enough to seal them.
While “sealing” sounds like a somewhat permanent solution, the game reveals over the course of its story that it doesn’t actually harm the monsters in question — in fact, when they are released from the Libra Book in which they are sealed, they’re completely cured of all their wounds and any afflictions from which they were suffering. The monsters — who, despite having a considerable amount of diversity in their ranks, are seemingly regarded as a single species — are well aware of how this works, and more often than not don’t require much convincing to be sealed once they’ve been defeated. Indeed, after many boss fights there is a short dialogue sequence that appears to indicate that their battle with Fried and his friends helped clear their head of the frenzy inflicted on them by the Demon God’s awakening, and they are happy to be sealed away to prevent causing further trouble.
The majority of the monsters take on the form of women of all shapes and sizes, their overall figure and design inspired by the fantastic creatures they’re named after. Like many other Japanese role-playing games, Dungeon Travelers 2 draws its monster names from a variety of mythologies, including Norse, Celtic, Zoroastrian, Greek, Shinto and many others besides, and their designs often reflect these backgrounds. The monsters inspired by Japanese mythology, for example, tend to be clad in traditional Japanese garb such as kimonos.
Monsters aren’t the only threat wandering the tunnels of Romulea, though; over the course of the game we also occasionally encounter three other main species. Fruits and Cats are fairly self-explanatory — the former suggesting that the fruit we take for granted in our own world are actually sentient beings who are not particularly keen on the idea of being eaten, and the latter tending to be sneaky little bastards, just like real life — but the Therians are a bit of a special case.
Subdivided into three races — the sheep-like Mary, the bear-like Beard and the penguin-like Peggy — the Therians have their own culture and way of life and are treated with a certain degree of suspicion by some members of the Romulean populace. Indeed, it’s surprising and striking to be confronted by a talking penguin, bear or sheep at the outset of your adventure, but over time it becomes perfectly “normal”, and the racism of those who look down upon these very different — but nonetheless very “human” — characters is thrust into the cold, hard light of day.
One interesting aspect of Dungeon Travelers 2’s overall narrative presentation that helps to humanise the Therians is an ongoing side story called “Magical Monstery Tour”. Initially presented as a means of delivering tutorial information to the player, this subplot runs the entire length of both the main game and the postgame and explores the relationship between a Beard Libra and his Peggy protector. The pair are constantly sniping at each other and bickering, but it’s clear that they are very good friends, and once the game has finished using them to tell you about its mechanics and things you may want to pay attention to, their story continues and develops to a surprisingly emotional conclusion. It ultimately has absolutely nothing to do with the main story, but it’s just one of many ways that Dungeon Travelers 2 fleshes out its sense of context and worldbuilding over the course of your adventure, rather than becoming an entirely mechanics-focused adventure after a certain point.
By far one of the most interesting and memorable parts of Dungeon Travelers 2 is the way in which your party members are characterised. Unlike many dungeon crawlers, which allow players to create their whole party and consequently tend not to include much — if any — narrative development for them, Dungeon Travelers 2 takes a much more traditional JRPG approach of providing you with an (admittedly substantial) roster of predefined characters, which you’re then able to customise through their various advanced classes and skill trees. Their personalities and characters, however, are fixed; they’re people, not sets of stats.
The character development of Fried and his party comes about in two main ways. Firstly, there are the key event scenes that advance the plot over the course of the main story. These include the same characters at the same time for every player, and are often used as a means of recruiting new characters into your squad or pushing the overall narrative towards its eventual conclusion. This is nothing unusual, even for a dungeon crawler: it’s the common use of story advancement as the carrot to dangle in front of the player, pushing them onwards to progress through their current challenge and defeat it.
What’s much more interesting, however, is the Sub-Event system, which consists of an enormous number of possible events with a variety of triggers. These triggers range from having a specific combination of characters in your party to an individual character being afflicted by a certain status effect. Squad members will berate you if you’ve been on a lot of expeditions without them recently; current party members will often explain to Fried what the new skill they just learned actually does and how it’s useful. One Therian-loving character gets upset any time you have to fight Therians or treat them in an otherwise unpleasant manner; another acknowledges the game’s “Crowning” mechanic — whereby you can max out a character by repeatedly resetting their level to gain bonus base stats — by expressing a desire to be the best she possibly can be.
These events aren’t just for show, either; they’re often either a response to something happening in the game or have a direct impact on your current situation. The aforementioned Therian-loving character, for example, sees her hidden Motivation stat plummet whenever you do something unpleasant to a Therian, making her less effective in combat. Neurotic motormouth Monica expressing a certain degree of negativity towards organised religion sees priestess Fiora calmly inflicting Silence on her to shut her up. Magic-using Melvy complains — politely — if she gets knocked out of chanting a spell in combat.
These events serve multiple purposes, then; they give you additional information about the game and its mechanics, and they also make your party members feel like people rather than collections of statistics. By the end of the game it’s hard not to feel attached to each and every one of them.
Which leads us on to a discussion of the game’s most controversial aspect: its sexualised content.
What’s important to bear in mind with regard to this topic is that developer Aquaplus is primarily known for making eroge, and indeed Dungeon Travelers 2’s predecessor was actually a spinoff from one of its most successful, well-known eroge, ToHeart2. As such, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Dungeon Travelers 2 has its fair share of sexually provocative content, though it’s worth noting that everything is suggestive rather than explicit; there are no actual sex acts in the game whatsoever.
Dungeon Travelers 2‘s provocative content occurs in two main situations: as events between Fried and his all-female cast of party members, and after defeating a boss monster.
In the first instance, these scenes are used to depict the intimacy between Fried and his friends. Fried is presented as a largely asexual character throughout the game, seemingly oblivious to the degree of affection with which his female companions come to regard him, but pretty much all of them make a fairly obvious advance on him at one point or another in the game. During such situations, they tend to be wearing somewhat fewer clothes than in their usual incarnations, and in some instances Fried finds himself in fairly intimate physical contact with them.
This is far more than just titillation, however. In Japanese popular media — and indeed in Japanese culture at large — nudity is seen as a sign of openness, honesty and intimacy. Being nude with others is a demonstration that you have nothing to hide and that you are at ease with your companions, and likewise physical contact — “skinship”, as it’s sometimes described — is a representation of friendship and trust, and doesn’t necessarily have any sexual connotations whatsoever. Indeed, there are a number of such events in Dungeon Travelers 2 where the contact between Fried and his companions is undoubtedly intimate, but non-sexual in nature: the scene where Fried enjoys the anime trope of resting his head in priestess Fiora’s lap is one such example, allowing him a period of much-needed respite and relaxation from the trials of his daily life.
In other words, the scenes in which the main cast members are depicted in various degrees of undress should be regarded as symbolic: they show the deepening relationship between Fried and his companions, even if Fried steadfastly refuses to acknowledge anything beyond friendship with any of them. This is initially presented as Fried being socially awkward and not knowing what to do with a woman throwing herself at him, but over the course of the game it becomes apparent that he’s doing this more for the benefit of his entire squad: since he knows that they all like him to one degree or another, he’s careful not to show favouritism by pairing off with any of them, as this would have the potential to sow discord in the ranks.
Fried’s awareness that engaging in any sort of relationship or sexual play would probably be frowned upon by some or all of his party extends to the post-boss scenes, too. After defeating a boss, said monster is usually presented with torn clothes or sometimes entirely nude. Once again, this is symbolic, but not of intimate relationships this time; instead, it’s used as a means of showing that Fried and his party have gained such a complete understanding of the monster and the way she fights that they were able to defeat her. Their fight revealed everything about the monster, in other words, and she has nothing left to hide.
That doesn’t stop a lot of them from trying to wriggle their way out of being sealed, however, usually by making some sort of very obvious sexual advance on Fried. Early in the game, Fried doesn’t quite know what to do with this, but as it progresses and he matures into the responsible team leader he eventually becomes, it’s entertaining and amusing to see him becoming increasingly impatient with the bosses attempting to manipulate him through his more base desires.
These scenes also offer a sly dig at the player, too, especially in the scenes that present monsters as particularly young-looking girls. By making these scenes in many ways the most suggestive out of the lot, the game is specifically acknowledging that yes, this probably makes you feel uncomfortable, doesn’t it? It’s well aware of what it’s doing, in other words, and is completely aware that some people may well find it distasteful, but 1) it doesn’t care what you think and 2) always stops short of anything truly offensive anyway, often at Fried’s behest, or increasingly as the game progresses, at the withering looks from the party members behind him.
These post-boss scenes serve another purpose, too: to remind you that the “monsters” in Dungeon Travelers 2 aren’t actually monsters in the sense we typically think of in RPGs. No; they are people in their own right, with their own cultures, traditions and norms, and indeed some of the more awkward situations Fried finds himself in with them comes about as a result of his inherent scholar’s desire to learn as much as possible about the monsters he studies in his career as a Libra. These scenes, while amusing and titillating, then, provide yet another means through which Dungeon Travelers 2 helps us understand its world and the people in it.
Of course, the nice thing about Dungeon Travelers 2 is that if you’re not particularly interested in long, wordy expanses of plot, all this is optional for you to engage with and can be easily skipped so you can get back to the exploring and fighting. Since the game keeps these scenes short and snappy, though, you may well find yourself wanting to engage with them anyway, however, even if your main priority is to hack and slash your way through as many monsters as possible.
And if you do, you’ll find yourself enjoying one of the most rewarding, complete-feeling dungeon crawler experiences out there. There really is something for everyone here, whether you’re a narrative junkie or a more mechanics-focused gamer. You may even find that this game provides a good “bridge” between these two somewhat disparate camps — I know I certainly did. While I think of myself as a narrative enthusiast first and foremost, Dungeon Travelers 2’s mechanics proved accessible and interesting enough to make me want to understand how it all worked a little better. And, in turn, the narrative and characterisation provided plenty in the way of motivation to experiment with different party lineups, abilities and ways of exploring and fighting.
It’s a rare game that manages to strike this difficult balance, but Dungeon Travelers 2 absolutely nails it, and should be celebrated for that fact.
In the next article, we’ll take a look at Dungeon Travelers 2’s distinctive aesthetic, from both visual and audio perspectives.
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Dungeon Travelers 2: The Royal Library and the Monster Seal is available now for PlayStation Vita. Find out more at the official site.