First-person, grid-based dungeon crawlers have, over the years, become the place to go for those who like hardcore, mechanics-driven, combat- and exploration-centric role-playing games.
Often de-emphasising narrative in favour of deep customisation, challenging encounters and devious level design, the dungeon crawler has gone from strength to strength over the last few years in particular, but also remains a subgenre that is notoriously difficult to get into.
Its with this in mind that Idea Factory and Compile Heart developed MeiQ: Labyrinth of Death (or Death Under the Labyrinth as it was known in Japan) — it’s designed to be accessible and enjoyable even to newcomers, yet incorporate the elements of the genre that longstanding fans enjoy so much. And it’s very successful at what it does.
So how did we get here?
The dungeon crawler has a long and rich history that extends back to the dawn of gaming. Ever since the first developers and computer engineers figured out how to make computers display graphics and make the necessary calculations for game mechanics, we’ve been exploring dungeons, finding loot and killing monsters — a fact helped along by the fact that the dawn of computer gaming also coincided with the creation of legendary tabletop roleplaying system Dungeons & Dragons.
Over the years, developers have taken a variety of different approaches to the genre. In the earliest games of this type such as Richard Garriott’s Akalabeth and Ultima I, we played a single character. Later, titles such as Sir-Tech’s Wizardry, Interplay’s The Bard’s Tale and SSI’s “Gold Box” Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adaptations introduced party-based mechanics and a wider variety of playable classes. And Japan, of course, decided to do its own thing.
Popular Japanese platforms such as the MSX and NEC PC-88/98 series played host to a variety of dungeon crawlers, some of which originated in the West. Wizardry in particular proved to be surprisingly popular despite something of a culture clash between East and West; thanks to poor-quality English-to-Japanese translations and numerous differences in the territories’ respective popular cultures, Japan ended up taking the rather light-hearted series much more seriously than it was originally intended, in one particularly notorious example mistaking a tongue-in-cheek reference to culinary equipment manufacturer Cuisinart (which, at the time, did not do a great deal of business in Japan) for a completely straight-faced, fictional name of a legendary blacksmith. And you thought we had problems with accidental Ku Klux Klan references on Akihabara signage.
These cross-cultural misunderstandings ultimately didn’t do any harm, though; by the late ’80s, series co-creator Robert Woodhead and publisher ASCII had turned Wizardry into an incredibly popular phenomenon in the East — so much so that long after we saw the last Western-developed installment with the Brenda Romero-designed Wizardry 8 in 2001, Japanese developers continued to extend and expand the series well into the twenty-first century.
Wizardry’s popularity in Japan is often credited with kickstarting the entire “JRPG” phenomenon, since, as legend has it, longrunning series Dragon Quest was born as an attempt to combine Ultima’s top-down exploration and character interaction with Wizardry’s menu-based combat. But the series’ influence can be seen more directly in the wide variety of first-person grid-based dungeon crawlers that cropped up on popular Japanese games consoles and home computer platforms such as the MSX and NEC PC-88/98 series.
Of particular note was 1987’s Phantasy Star from Sega for its Mark III and Master System platforms, which was a pioneering work in many ways. It was one of the earliest games to feature a female protagonist, it was an early example of textured 3D graphics (albeit produced using graphical trickery rather than a true polygonal 3D engine) and it was one of the biggest games around at the time, weighing in at a mighty 4 megabits (512 kilobytes, or half a megabyte).
Phantasy Star mixed top-down visuals for its overworld and town exploration with its famous faux-3D effect in its dungeons. It provided a much more story-based experience than many of its contemporaries and predecessors, featuring a fixed cast of characters rather than the established convention of a completely customisable party set by titles such as Wizardry. And it eschewed the usual Tolkien/Dungeons & Dragons-inspired fantasy backdrop in favour of a creative, colourful and distinctively Japanese sci-fi setting that was deceptively cheerful-looking, but which hid a heart of darkness, speaking both mechanically and narratively.
The original Phantasy Star was an enormously influential work, and many of its traits can be seen in modern Japanese dungeon crawlers. In particular, while the game’s use of a female protagonist was an exciting development at the time, it’s now not at all uncommon to see Japanese role-playing games in general — not just in the dungeon crawler subgenre — being either female-fronted or featuring exclusively female characters.
MeiQ is no exception in this regard, and also adopts a vaguely Phantasy Star-esque sci-fi angle to its narrative, concerning itself with a far-future fusion between magic and machinery and how this can be used to help or hinder both individuals and the world at large. While its overall focus and feel is rather different, there are some clear influences at play.
Phantasy Star is a high-profile and important title, but it’s also worth looking at some smaller-scale Japanese games that have indirectly led to where we are with MeiQ too, and it’s especially important to consider an early title by Compile Heart’s spiritual predecessor and partial namesake Compile.
Madou Monogatari first came out in 1990, some three years after Phantasy Star. It was initially released for MSX2 and PC-98 and was subsequently ported to Game Gear, Mega Drive, PC Engine and Super Famicom. Today, it’s primarily noteworthy for being the game that indirectly spawned the Puyo Puyo series of puzzle games — indeed, the characters from the original three chapters of Madou Monogatari were most recently seen in the excellent Puyo Puyo Tetris — as well as a spiritual reimagining in the form of Sorcery Saga: Curse of the Great Curry God for Vita, but it’s also rather interesting to explore in its own right.
Arguably Madou Monogatari’s most distinctive feature across its original three installments was its resolute refusal to use numerical stats for pretty much anything except how much gold you were carrying. Instead, it represented everything graphically in one way or another: the amount of experience you had earned towards the next level, for example, was shown by gems around the perimeter of the screen that lit up as you progressed, while the physical condition of protagonist Arle was represented by a large, constantly present portrait of her at one side of the screen, making her very much the star and mascot of her games. It is, in other words, a very early example of the female-fronted “moe RPG” style that modern-day Compile Heart is primarily known for.
Madou Monogatari’s emphasis on its protagonist as a visually appealing character rather than a collection of stats — in stark contrast to the rather dry, mechanics-centric approach of Wizardry and its ilk — is something that Japan has maintained to this day. Even in modern Japanese dungeon crawlers where you have the opportunity to create a complete custom party (such as Experience, Inc.’s Demon Gaze and Atlus’ Etrian Odyssey series) there’s still a strong focus on the characters’ physical appearance at the very least, and in some cases your creations actually get involved directly with the narrative; meanwhile, Aquaplus and Sting’s outstanding Dungeon Travelers 2 takes an alternative approach by providing an enormous cast of characters whose personalities and appearances are predefined, but whose abilities and progression are fully customisable within certain rather broad constraints.
MeiQ maintains a somewhat character-centric approach, too, with its visually distinctive (and fixed) all-female central playable cast complemented by an array of fully customisable mech-like “Guardians”. The Guardians primarily take care of the mechanical side of things, while the more immediately appealing human cast members handle the narrative aspects. It’s an approach that works well, striking a good balance between the strong characterisation and visual appeal elements modern JRPGs in general are typically known for, and the deep mechanics and customisability of modern dungeon crawlers.
To return to Madou Monogatari for a moment, mechanically speaking Compile’s title placed an even stronger emphasis on elemental affinities than usual for Japanese role-playing games by removing the option for a standard physical attack altogether. Instead, every ability made use of one of five elements, with some enemies being weaker or stronger against particular elements than others. This aspect in particular is something that has been carried across almost directly into MeiQ, as we’ll explore further when we come to look at its mechanics in detail. Suffice to say for now that while MeiQ is a considerably deeper experience than the ultimately rather shallow Madou Monogatari games, Compile Heart clearly hasn’t forgotten its roots.
During development, MeiQ’s director Tomoki Tauchi also noted that the team at Compile Heart had directly drawn inspiration from another source: Crea-Tech and Data East’s Metal Max series for Famicom and Super Famicom, which never made it out of Japan.
Indeed, even the most cursory of research into Metal Max reveals that MeiQ has lifted its core mechanical concept of powerful Guardians protecting relatively weak characters almost wholesale: in Metal Max, each character was able to ride one of eight different vehicles, which protects them from damage and provides various abilities according to their equipped weaponry; in MeiQ, meanwhile, each character is able to control one of eight different Guardians, which conveniently also protects them from damage and provides various abilities according to their equipped parts. Coincidence? Not in the slightest, but at least Tauchi wasn’t even attempting to hide this fact, and it’s a solid, unusual mechanical basis to build a game of this type on.
These core mechanics are the only real similarity between MeiQ and Metal Max, however. While Metal Max was one of the earliest examples of an open-ended, non-linear game, particularly on console, MeiQ is resolutely linear in its overall progression, though it does offer some opportunity for side activities through its optional quests.
MeiQ is also designed to be one of Compile Heart’s most replayable games; rather than encouraging replays with multiple endings, however, it instead unlocks one endgame dungeon per difficulty level you defeat the final story boss on. In order to challenge every dungeon in the game, then, you’ll need to clear the story on Normal, Hard, Devil and Hell, the latter two of which don’t unlock until you clear the game on Hard and Devil respectively.
As usual for Compile Heart games, story scenes can easily be skipped on subsequent playthroughs, and you get to carry over your levels and equipment into your next loop; between these two aspects, a replay is relatively painless, and the opportunity to bump up the difficulty as well as make use of items to make monsters more challenging (and rewarding) to fight means you’re less likely to be completely overpowered for a second, third or fourth loop — unless, of course, you decided to grind to level 999 in your first playthrough.
This approach of requiring a game clear on specific difficulties is largely impossible to exploit through save-scumming, unlike, say, the multiple endings of the Neptunia games, which tend to depend on easily manipulable event flags rather than game progression. That said, after beating the final boss on the relevant difficulty levels MeiQ does allow you to drop the difficulty back down to challenge the unlocked endgame dungeons if you’re not feeling overly confident in your own abilities, equipment or levels.
Ultimately, MeiQ is the product of over 40 years of genre development and evolution, and a bold attempt to balance the challenge dungeon crawler veterans have come to expect from the subgenre with the accessibility newcomers need in order not to immediately bounce off.
It’s one of Compile Heart’s lesser-known titles and was perhaps always going to be as such — anything the company puts out that doesn’t have the word Neptunia on it is seemingly destined for relative obscurity — but don’t make the mistake of thinking that means it’s in any way an inferior game.
As we’ll come to discuss more very soon, it’s mechanically solid, narratively sound and simply a great deal of fun to play — and, moreover, eminently successful in its attempts to make the impenetrable-seeming dungeon crawler subgenre a little more friendly to rookie adventurers. I call that a win.
MeiQ: Labyrinth of Death is available now for PlayStation Vita. Find out more at the official site.
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