By attempting to provide an accessible dungeon crawler experience, MeiQ has put itself in an interesting position.
Too much mechanical depth and it will alienate the very people it’s hoping to attract. But not enough depth and the hardcore gridder enthusiasts will tire of it long before things get interesting. How to approach this, then?
Through a combination of approaches, as it happens, and the result is both effective at what it does and surprisingly distinct in a subgenre that is sometimes accused of taking a bit of a “cookie-cutter” approach.
Let’s take a look at the game’s mechanics in more detail.
MeiQ eschews the “traditional” dungeon crawler approach of asking you to create a party of custom characters of various classes, perhaps with the opportunity to swap members in and out according to your needs. It also chooses not to take the approach Aquaplus and Sting took for Dungeon Travelers 2, which featured predefined characters with a large degree of customisation as they grew in level. Instead, its core mechanics are highly customisable but difficult to get “wrong”; there’s no real way of building an unworkable party because you can always just swap things around until you get something that works.
MeiQ starts things slowly and gently by providing you with just a single playable character — protagonist Estra — and her mech-like Guardian, which you can name at the outset of the game. Estra’s Guardian has an affinity with the earth element, and the first dungeon is themed around water which, in the world of MeiQ, is conveniently the element that earth is strongest against. In this way, you get a practical demonstration of how some of the game’s core mechanics — elemental affinities and their relationships with one another — can work to your advantage.
Clearing the first dungeon rewards you with a water-affinity Guardian, and rather helpfully the next dungeon is fire-themed. Fire is weak to water, so once again you have the opportunity to use the “best” Guardian for the job. You also get another party member, though — Maki, who errs on the side of affinity with the metal element — but the only other Guardian you have at this point is your starting, earth-element companion. At this point, the game’s design shows how you can both manipulate a character’s elemental attributes to provide the maximum possible benefit to their Guardian, and also how affinities can work against you, too.
As the game progresses through its subsequent dungeons and new characters and Guardians join your party, you gradually build up much more flexibility to approach challenges as you see fit. By the end of the game, you will have five party members (three of whom can be in your party at one time, and each of whom tends to favour one of the five elements in particular, with Estra having the unique ability to change “Form” and manipulate her affinities) and ten Guardians: two of each element. Fighting most effectively, then, means picking both the right characters and Guardians for the job, though the fact there are only two, not three Guardians of each element means that you can’t just steamroll a whole dungeon with a party that exploits the most common weakness among the enemy population: you also need to think about your own weaknesses for at least one of your party members.
The basis of this elemental affinity system is pretty straightforward and not at all uncommon in Japanese role-playing games. Even games designed with young players in mind, such as the Pokémon series, have a network of elemental or attack type relationships in place to keep things interesting and demand a certain amount of strategy from their players. Where MeiQ makes things rather more interesting is in your ability to customise your characters and Guardians to maximise their potential with regard to these affinities.
Each Guardian has a series of base stats, which can be multiplied by a percentage figure through a combination of factors including their controlling character’s affinity with the guardian’s element. In turn, each character’s affinities can be manipulated by equipping them with magic stones (looted from enemies or found in chests) and “Seeds” (unique items, generally dropped by major bosses), each of which tend to adjust at least one elemental value up or down and have some sort of special effect — positive or negative — attached as well.
Characters are limited in terms of what stones and Seeds they can equip in two ways: firstly, by a number of available slots, which increases at various level boundaries, and a “power cost”, which increases steadily with each gained level. More powerful stones and Seeds have a higher cost but still only take up a single slot, so equipping your party effectively is a case of maximising slot usage to get as close to your power cost cap as possible while benefiting the elemental affinity of your Guardian as much as you can.
If that sounds confusing — and make no mistake, for all MeiQ’s attempts at being accessible, it can be initially baffling — let’s take a practical example. The character Flare, as you may expect from… well, everything about her, from her name and appearance down to her general demeanour, favours the fire element. This means if she pairs off with a fire-based Guardian, she naturally gives them a small bonus to their stats without having to equip anything, but equipping further stones and Seeds that increase her fire-element affinity gives the Guardian an even more significant boost.
To provide an even more detailed example from my current save game at the time of writing: Flare, at level 103, has a maximum power cost of 207. Her current loadout includes a Seed that costs 80 power, but increases her fire affinity by 70 flat points and her final overall fire affinity total by 30%; a 50-cost Seed that increases her fire affinity by 43 points plus an additional increase of 20% to her final total; two 35-cost stones that increase fire affinity by 25 points apiece; a 5-cost seed that increases fire affinity by a further 5 points; and to take her up to the cap, two additional 1-cost stones that increase fire affinity by another 2 points apiece. In total, including her base bonus (which increases as she levels up), her fire affinity is through the roof with 624 points, giving her partner Guardian a bonus of 624% to its stats even before taking its own equipped parts into account.
Which then brings us to the Guardians themselves. Each Guardian consists of four parts: a Core, which is fixed and determines their elemental affinity (and, in narrative terms, their “identity”); a body part, which determines most of their base stats and sometimes has skills attached; and two arm parts, which typically provide small bonuses to base attack and magic attack stats and, more importantly, come with skills attached. Individual skills attached to body and arm parts have their own affinities and will be more or less effective when equipped to a Guardian with a Core of the appropriate element. For example, an arm part with fire-based skills attached is best equipped on a Guardian with a fire-element Core.
A Guardian’s Core levels up independently of the main characters, and it, in turn, provides its own bonuses in addition to that which the Guardian’s partner provides. While the partner character provides a flat bonus to all stats, however, each Core provides a different spread of bonuses. The fire-based Sigma Core, for example, provides a bigger bonus to attack stats than defense, making it good to pair with highly aggressive skills. These bonuses can, however, be further manipulated by inserting magic stones into the Core, allowing a certain amount of customisation — though it’s worth saving at least one slot in the Core for a stone that carries a special ability rather than a simple stat bonus, since these often allow you to make multiple attacks in a single turn or unleash devastatingly powerful attacks at the expense of the Guardian’s health.
To return to our previous example of Flare and her fire-based Guardian, her elemental bonus combines with the Core’s bonuses to increase the Guardian’s stats by over 4,000% in a number of cases. A base magic attack stat (calculated from the equipped body and arm parts) of, in this case, 123 becomes a mighty 5,364 when multiplied by a total bonus factor of 4,361%.
As you can see, there’s a strong emphasis on min-maxing and exploiting weaknesses in MeiQ, which will please those who enjoy optimising damage output. The latter aspect becomes particularly pronounced on the harder difficulties; on Normal (and a New Game+ run through Hard) you can often get away with simply attempting to overpower enemies without worrying too much about elements; bump the difficulty up for your third and fourth playthroughs, however, and you’d better make sure you’re well-prepared.
In fact, the idea of being “well-prepared” is pretty core to MeiQ’s mechanics as a whole. Once an actual battle starts, the mechanics are pretty straightforward: for each of the three party slots, either the Guardian or the character can take an action, and then these actions are resolved according to the various combatants’ speed stats. Most of the time, you’ll be wanting to use your Guardians’ most powerful area-effect abilities on groups of trash enemies, and powerful multi-hit single target abilities on bosses or other, stronger individual foes. The characters’ actions largely consist of buffs, heals or item usage — though interestingly, most healing items can’t be used in combat, only Connie can revive fallen allies and only Maki can revive fallen Guardians.
In other words, success in combat is generally down to properly preparing your Guardians and characters beforehand rather than moment-to-moment tactical play in the heat of battle itself. This makes combat rather fast-paced for the most part, despite being turn-based — and, if you do it right, it’s often over quite quickly, even in clashes against bosses. This becomes particularly pronounced as your characters reach higher levels, where, for example, Estra learns a spell that temporarily multiplies a Guardian’s stats by 4 (on top of the bonuses they already receive that we’ve previously discussed), and Flare learns an ability that doubles the damage output of a Guardian’s next attack. These skills, and others like them, stack to produce some pleasingly gigantic damage figures.
You can further tweak the way your Guardians play with the aforementioned magic stones, according to how much you enjoy taking risks and micromanaging. Some stones simply provide an unequivocally positive effect: those that allow a Guardian to use a skill twice or three times in succession with no penalty are good, reliable examples that remain useful for the whole game. But then you have something like the Champion Godstone, which multiplies the normal damage from a single skill by 5, but deals 300 damage to the Guardian every time you use it. Or the Peerless Stone, which lets a Guardian use all of its skills in a single turn rather than just one, but deals 250 damage. These can be useful, but they come with a risk attached: you’ll need to stay on top of “maintenance” if you’re planning on a long expedition.
Generally speaking, these “risky” stones are mostly found towards the early stages of the game, while later you tend to get more that have good synergy with a proper equipment loadout and thus require more detailed preparation and planning. For example, there are a number of stones that allow a Guardian to trigger all skills of a single element in one turn for no penalty, and as such are most useful if you’ve taken care to pick parts of an appropriate element with more skills attached. This isn’t always as easy a choice as it might sound, as at a number of points throughout the game, there is only one part of each element that provides the maximum possible bonus to a Guardian’s base attack and magic attack stats. In this case, do you pick an inferior part with more skills, or simply attempt to maximise the Guardian’s stats in the hope that the fewer attacks it will get will hit much harder?
MeiQ is full of interesting decisions like this, and with new, rare parts becoming available as you level up, progress through the story and learn how to craft them from items you discover in the dungeons, there are a variety of different ways you can build your party. The game encourages experimentation with its mechanics by being fairly forgiving in its early stages; should you wish to challenge the optional endgame “Crest” dungeons or take on the harder difficulty levels, however, you’d better take the time to master the fine art of min-maxing.
Above all, though, the nicest thing about MeiQ’s core mechanics is that the game as a whole is trying to do something a bit different. It’s completely abandoned the dungeon crawler convention of basing everything around character classes and party makeup, and even the genre’s typical strong focus on gear is turned on its head by abandoning the usual “armour, weapon, accessory” approach.
It’s still ultimately a numbers game at heart — the bigger the numbers, the better — but the added twists of the elemental bonus system and the fact that your attack skills are tied to your equipment rather than overall progression mean that you never feel railroaded down a single path; there’s a great deal of joy to be had from swapping out and upgrading your Guardians’ parts and experimenting with different loadouts of stones and Seeds. The game is very generous with loot drops, too, making it always worthwhile to see how much you can optimise your characters and Guardians after each expedition.
In short, those of you who like nothing more than optimising damage-per-second/turn/whatever… you’re going to have a great time with this.
MeiQ: Labyrinth of Death is available now for PlayStation Vita. Find out more at the official site.
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