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A good dungeon crawler has two aspects it has to nail in order to be successful: combat and exploration.
Japanese takes on the genre often tend to incorporate a strong sense of narrative and characterisation to the experience, too — and certainly MeiQ: Labyrinth of Death is no exception to this — but at its core, a dungeon crawler is about 1) navigating your way through a series of increasingly complicated mazes, and 2) kicking the snot out of any monsters who appear to block your path.
We’ve already talked about MeiQ’s interesting and unconventional combat, progression and equipment mechanics. So now let’s take a closer look at its approach to dungeon design.
We’ve previously discussed how part of the design philosophy behind MeiQ was clearly to make a historically rather impenetrable-seeming subgenre of role-playing games more accessible to newcomers. And, indeed, this is very much reflected in how the game’s maps increase in complexity as you progress, with the most complicated, challenging areas to explore being completely optional endgame dungeons only unlocked by clearing the main story on four separate difficulty levels.
Being a traditional “gridder”, MeiQ’s dungeons are primarily designed in two dimensions, to be explored a “square” at a time, with all corners being 90 degrees. While this places certain limitations on exactly what can be accomplished from a design perspective, game developers have been designing dungeons in this fashion since the earliest days of gaming, so there are plenty of interesting applications of these simple tools.
A common approach that many dungeon crawlers take is to “make every square count”: to fill as much of the available space as possible with traversable areas, arranged in a deliberately complicated, confusing manner. Take, for example, this map from Dungeon Travelers 2:
As you can see, very little of the map is left empty, and the route through it isn’t immediately clear. You may also notice that there are a lot of “gimmicks” such as one-way walls and dark areas as well as a large number of routes up to the next floor rather than just one. This is a pretty common approach to dungeon crawler map design.
MeiQ, on the other hand, starts deceptively simple.
It’s still recognisably a maze, just not a very complicated one. There are a few dead ends to discover, but there’s only really one path onwards. And although you may notice two stairways up on this map, the linear path you follow in this initial dungeon means that you’ll naturally encounter them without having to go too far off track, rather than having to seek out secret areas.
This may look like a simple approach — almost insultingly so, to dungeon crawler veterans — but at least it isn’t as simple as the original Phantasy Star’s first dungeon, which was literally a single pathway with one branch off it.
However, it is less complicated than the first floor of the grandaddy of them all, Wizardry:
Interestingly, you’ll see from Wizardry’s map that it incorporates some common dungeon crawler gimmicks right from the outset, most notably one-way walls, which you can pass through in one direction, but which become a solid wall if you attempt to go back through them. MeiQ, meanwhile, keeps things simple for its first few dungeons; it does incorporate most of the common gimmicks by the end, but usually only once, and mostly quite late in the game.
One thing MeiQ does do with its dungeon design is make use of much more in the way of “open space” than your typical dungeon crawler. Here, for example, is a floor from the Blue Tower, whose interior resembles a forest:
You’ll notice that this has a much more “organic” design to it than we typically see in conventional dungeon crawlers, making use of more gradual-seeming corners and meandering pathways as much as is possible using a grid-based arrangement, rather than featuring exclusively 90-degree angles.
It’s also not conforming to the unwritten “make every square count” rule. Said rule originated as a result of the tight memory and storage space constrictions placed on developers creating games in the early days of the medium — it was necessary to squeeze things in as tightly as possible to make the game as big as it could be and make most efficient use of the available technology — but it’s been proudly maintained by the majority of dungeon crawler developers today, as seen in the above example from Dungeon Travelers 2, or indeed this from Demon Gaze:
MeiQ isn’t the first game of its type to create dungeons that are modelled after organic, open-plan or outdoor areas such as forests, but it is one of the few that is arguably making fuller use of the technology available to it by allowing its maps to spread themselves out over a wide area and not worry about having to squeeze everything into, say, a 20×20 grid as in Wizardry.
Contrast the above map from MeiQ’s Blue Tower with this example from venerable Western dungeon crawler Lands of Lore, for example, which represents a swampy, wooded area:
There’s a reasonable amount of open space in Lands of Lore’s map, but nowhere near as much as in MeiQ’s. Lands of Lore also consistently restricts itself to passageways that are a single square wide, while MeiQ has no qualms in featuring more open areas representing “clearings” in the forest, linked by passageways and pathways.
In many ways, MeiQ’s dungeon design is often rather more akin to what you might expect from a tile-based top-down RPG from the 8- or 16-bit era such as the old Final Fantasy games. A number of its areas are designed to make an aesthetically pleasing arrangement, either in an organic, chaotic style as seen above, or in some cases later in the game, actually forming pixel-art images:
Any time MeiQ opts for this latter approach, however, it takes care not to make things too easy for the player to navigate. Rather than filling large areas with solid “colour”, it scatters single squares of obstacles or arrangements of walls around the place to keep things interesting and get in the way. In the case of the “skull” above they don’t really hinder navigation too much, but in this more complex “cross” arrangement on the very next level they most certainly do, especially in the tangled middle area:
All this focus on “big-picture” design isn’t to say that MeiQ doesn’t enjoy a good old-fashioned maze, mind you, and it’s here that we can point out one of the game’s main strengths: its variety in dungeon design. Rather than being constantly confined to cramped corridors with different tilesets, we find ourselves exploring many different environments, each of which has a distinctive style to its maps.
Besides the forest of the Blue Tower and the ruins of the Dark Tower that we’ve already seen, a particular highlight is the White Tower, which is probably the most “maze-like” dungeon of the main story content.
The principle behind how the White Tower’s various floors are designed is pretty simple: split each floor into a grid of equal-sized rooms, then link them together with one or more passageways. To complicate matters, add some locked doors that require switches to be pressed, and secret doors that can be recognised in the main 3D view by a visible shadow.
It’s a simple approach, but very effective, and the White Tower is a pleasure to explore as a result. This particular dungeon doesn’t rely exclusively on this method, either; it’s at this point in the game that you start coming across a lot more of the usual dungeon crawler gimmicks such as pairs of teleporters and groups of floors that require you to go repeatedly back and forth between them to find the path forward.
MeiQ doesn’t overuse any one gimmick in its main story content — most of the dungeons only use one or two of these tricks at a time at most, and you’ll tend to only see each of them used once or twice across the entire story.
This is a sensible decision, as it allows the game to gradually increase in complexity as it progresses without overwhelming the newbie dungeon crawler. Once you beat the “final” boss and get into the postgame, however, all bets are off, and the game starts throwing you challenges such as the mindbending maze seen above, or the delightfully silly “Floor of Nihility”, which is simply a huge empty area floating in space, with a pathway to the next area somewhere in its expanse.
MeiQ is so rewarding to play because of the sheer variety in the areas you’re exploring. You’re rarely confined to one “type” of floor for very long; once you overcome one challenge, rather than being presented with more of the same, you’ll instead tend to find yourself doing something different for a while.
To use the previously mentioned White Tower as an example, there are initially two interconnected floors of the grid-like maze to negotiate before you encounter a floor entirely themed around teleporters, requiring a completely different approach. Elsewhere in the game, the Blue Tower features a small floor with a variety of exits into the next area’s labyrinth, with only one providing the correct route forward. And the fire-themed Red Tower tasks you with hunting down and destroying all the statues on one of its floors to deactivate an impassable fiery barrier.
You’ll encounter a floor entirely covered with ice, where you’ll have to determine how to reach your desired destination while only being able to move in a straight line until you hit something. You’ll descend into the depths of a temple four different times from different starting points in order to open up a path to its deepest secrets. And you’ll explore an “illusionary prison” where every passageway is completely invisible until you stand next to it on the map.
There are plenty of secrets to discover, too. The main story dungeons each house a number of “sealed doors” that lead to mysterious star-filled other dimensions, some of which contain powerful Zodiac Beast bosses to defeat. There are a wide variety of treasures to discover, and quests to complete that reward you with useful items for both exploration and battle. And, with each of the four difficulty levels you beat the story’s final boss on, you unlock a new postgame dungeon to challenge.
There’s a lot to do in MeiQ, in other words, and while veteran dungeon crawlers may find its early stages rather straightforward and easy to navigate, the game is paced well and in such a way that even total beginners to the subgenre can feel confident negotiating even the most complex mazes by the end — and those looking for a stiff challenge will find what they’re looking for in the substantial postgame content.
In terms of achieving its goal of making dungeon crawlers accessible while still keeping them challenging for experienced explorers, then, MeiQ mostly succeeds admirably — perhaps slightly favouring those who err more towards the “beginner” end of the spectrum. That said, even though the game requires four clears of the main story to unlock all the postgame content, each new difficulty level ramps up the challenge factor of combat significantly, and continuing to increase in level allows you to uncover more and more powerful equipment for your characters and Guardians, so there’s always something new to discover.
Whether you have the time or patience to uncover all of MeiQ’s mysteries is entirely down to your own personal circumstances and preferences — but make no mistake, if you’re willing to go the distance, there’s a whole lot of game to love right here. And even if you aren’t, there’s still a solid, entertaining and pleasingly accessible dungeon crawler populated by some absolutely charming characters to enjoy. You certainly get your money’s worth.
Now where are those last couple of Zodiac Beasts…?
More about MeiQ: Labyrinth of Death
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