Dungeon crawlers aren’t historically associated with having particularly strong stories, perhaps largely due to their origins as mechanics-heavy games with player-created parties.
A number of recent Japanese takes on the subgenre — including, among others, Demon Gaze, Operation Abyss and Dungeon Travelers 2 — have proven it is possible to blend mechanically sound, deeply absorbing dungeon crawling with a strong sense of narrative, however.
MeiQ is the latest game to follow this trend, featuring an imaginative steampunk-cum-sci-fi tale revolving around a strong, all-female central cast of characters.
We’re thrown into MeiQ initially without knowing a great deal about its world, only that something terrible has happened: the planet has stopped spinning, throwing civilisation into a seemingly eternal night and, as these things tend to go, prompting a surge in the local monster populations. Something, clearly, Must Be Done.
We join protagonist Estra as she is sent from her home village to the town of Southern Cross, where we learn she is to undergo blessing ceremonies in each of the city’s elemental-themed towers in order to prove herself worthy to open a path to the “Planet Key”, a device used to start the apparently clockwork planet rotating again.
She’s joined by four other girls from around the world, one of whom hails from Southern Cross itself, and, while they initially choose to go about things their own way as reasonably friendly rivals, circumstances ultimately dictate that they need to cooperate when the full scale of the true threat facing the world reveals itself.
We’ll come back to the characters themselves in a moment, but first it’s worth taking a look at the context in which the events of MeiQ’s narrative unfold. Little of this is made completely explicit over the course of the game’s main story — it’s primarily confined to optional lore items you can discover in treasure chests as you explore the various dungeons — but it becomes important as Estra’s adventure reaches its grand finale, and also provides considerable evidence that MeiQ’s creators have taken the time to think about the broader world in which the game unfolds, not just its dungeons.
The story of the “Planet Key” is clearly one that has been passed down as a legend from generation to generation, and forms the basis of the world’s core belief system. It’s not exactly a “religion” as such, given that there is clear proof of existence of the concepts on which the story is based — most notably the idea of “machina magic”, or magic-like effects produced by nanomachines — although it’s suggested that an actual understanding of how these things work has declined over time, with most people seemingly simply taking things on faith.
As we can discover through historical documents scattered throughout the game, the reason humanity is now residing on what we can safely assume to be an artificially created planet is due to dear old Mother Earth being torn apart by people getting a bit too enthusiastic about the power which “machina” afforded them. Specifically, humanity was initially driven underground by a large-scale machina-powered war for dominance on the surface and subsequently lived in relative peace for a period — albeit somewhat depleted in numbers. But then history repeated itself, making the planet completely uninhabitable both above and below ground.
The solution the survivors came up with was the construction of a new, artificial home, and an exodus of a select few from the devastated Earth to begin anew. From thereon, many of the details are somewhat hazy, given that it seems a considerable amount of time has elapsed between these events and the story that unfolds in MeiQ, so we’re left to infer a lot for ourselves.
One thing that is clear is that the planet stopping has happened before — part of the Planet Key legend is the story of an intrepid Machina Mage who took it upon himself to seek the blessings of the Guardians, wind the Key and start humanity’s new home spinning once again. Upon arrival at Southern Cross, Estra meets a strange cat-like being who claims to be both the elder of the city and that very mage who wound the Key many years ago, but she is understandably skeptical about this, even though the strange feline seems to know what he’s talking about.
Further documents Estra uncovers through her adventures reveal that the mage from all those years ago was known as Albert Schneider, and he proceeded through the four Towers and Southern Cross’ central temple much as Estra and her companions are now doing. He was just as naive as they were in many ways, but was also clearly a well-respected individual, as we later discover through the revelation that the game’s main villain Gagarin was once his disciple.
The pair parted ways after Gagarin sought, against Schneider’s advice, to make use of a forbidden technique to resurrect the dead — the specific dead person in question being strongly inferred to be Gagarin’s loved one, either killed on old Earth or left behind during humanity’s exodus. Gagarin, it seems, was ultimately unsuccessful in his attempts, but we can infer from his interactions with Estra and the party — and the existence of his lackeys Glen, Aria and Gordon — that in the process of conducting his research he came across the Black Machina Cores: a means through which he could gain more power, and perhaps even enough to finally bring his ambitions to fruition.
What we’re presented with in MeiQ is a technologically advanced world viewed through the eyes of a society that has, over time, regressed to a somewhat more primitive state. As such, there’s an element of “unreliable narration” going on through the entire story, particularly with regard to concepts that don’t seem to be fully explained or understood by the core characters.
Of note among these are the interiors of Southern Cross’ four elemental towers, which the residents of MeiQ’s world believe to be connected to “the Demon Realm”; recurring secondary characters and thief duo Pamela and Gans, who appear to be half-animal, half monster; and the Guardians who stand watch over the altars at the towers’ respective apexes.
The exact explanation for the Demon Realm is a matter of interpretation, given that it causes the towers to clearly defy the laws of physics in numerous ways. Pamela and Gans, meanwhile, act as a reminder that there are many strange things about this world that humanity either doesn’t fully understand — or once understood and has now forgotten. In terms of the overall structure, they also act almost as secondary antagonists; they’re not outright evil as such, but they do frequently get in the way of Estra and her companions’ quest.
The Guardians can be read in a few ways. Clearly mechanical in nature but in possession of at least rudimentary intelligence, the most obvious way to view them is as relics of humanity’s more technologically advanced past: perhaps they were created as artificially intelligent mechanical beings designed to support humanity’s efforts on the new world; perhaps they were even the very weapons that caused the old Earth to be destroyed in the global machina-powered wars. Either way, at the time of MeiQ’s story, access to them is very tightly controlled, restricted only to those who have proven their worth and ability as Machina Mages.
The understanding of what it means to be a Machina Mage apparently differs in various areas of the artificial world, as is clearly exemplified by the five core cast members.
Protagonist Estra, for example, clearly comes from a rather rural environment where living off the land is encouraged and technology does not appear to be a primary concern. She arrives in Southern Cross not really understanding her role or taking it particularly seriously, though her naturally inquisitive, energetic and enthusiastic nature means that she certainly doesn’t resent her obligations.
Estra is a cheerful character who makes a good protagonist due to her natural charisma and magnetism. Indeed, she makes an effort to be friends with all of her four fellow Machina Mages right from the outset of the game, though finds herself let down — albeit gently — by all of them to begin with. It’s not until circumstances demand they each end up having to rather humbly request her assistance that they all come together one by one, but Estra doesn’t hold this “relationship of convenience” against any of them. Indeed, the party becomes a tightly-knit group of friends by the end of the story, with Estra’s relentless positivity and determination acting as the main thing that bonds them all together.
Setia is the first character Estra meets, though she doesn’t actually join the party until much later in the story. Presented as a rather regal but shy gothic lolita — her use of “watakushi” rather than “watashi” when referring to herself in the Japanese script suggests that she’s fully aware of how she is perceived — Setia is seemingly almost as clueless about her role and responsibilities as Estra is, though in her case it is down to an almost crippling lack of self-confidence rather than actual ignorance.
During the opening hours of the game, Setia is torn between a clear desire to cling to Estra as someone to hide behind, and an apparently self-imposed obligation to try and better herself. To her credit, she does deliberately attempt to strike out on her own once the group’s exploration of the towers begins, but her adventures are riddled with misfortune, beginning with her falling down a pit trap in the very first room — one of the very few pit traps in the whole game, interestingly, in contrast to more unforgiving dungeon crawlers — and culminating with her being possessed by Aria, one of Gagarin’s Black Machina Cores.
Much later in the story, Estra and her companions manage to defeat Aria and free Setia from her influence, and Setia manages to use this as an opportunity to learn and grow rather than sinking into despair. It was her weakness and lack of confidence that allowed Aria to dominate her, she comes to conclude, and that led her to become someone she didn’t want to be. In the end, it’s Aria’s rather provocative, dominatrix-style outfit that Setia finds most horrifying out of the whole experience; it was a clear, unavoidable, visual depiction of Setia’s whole identity being completely undermined and consumed, and she knows that she’ll have to change in order to prevent that from ever happening again.
Fortunately, by this point she’s become an important member of the group as a whole — even during her long absence from the rest of them — and has a suitable support network in place to help her through the difficult process of building up her confidence. By the end of the game, she clearly still has a certain amount of shyness and awkwardness about herself, but she’s become assertive enough to speak her mind a little more, particularly when it comes to expressing her desire to spend more time with her new friends.
Maki, a resident of Southern Cross rather than a visitor as the other cast members are, is the first character to actually join Estra’s party when her Machina Core is destroyed and she is left without a Guardian. She initially appears to be the most grounded, sensible member of the group and indeed, little she does through the story does much to challenge that view. Early in the game, she is the one who understands how to get through seemingly impassable barriers, and she is by far the most knowledgeable about machina magic and the role of the Machina Mages in restarting the planet.
But Maki’s knowledgeable and mature “big sister” act conceals a rather more young-seeming, girlish side that gradually becomes apparent over the course of the story — indeed, we can strongly infer that Maki is becoming conscious of it at the same time as the player. Initially content to remain somewhat aloof from the group, speaking as a voice of reason and provider of knowledge and wisdom when necessary, Maki subsequently finds herself feeling mild pangs of jealousy when she sees the fun her fellow adventurers are having at the local hostelry, the Star Wind Inn.
One thing that all the central characters in MeiQ have in common is the fact that their abilities have set them apart from their peers in some way. Estra and Connie, who we’ll come on to in a moment, have probably led the most “normal” existences in this regard, clearly having friends and families who support them, but all of them have been pushed to pursue the quest to restart the planet by themselves and thus become isolated from “normal” society. As such, it’s understandable that they’d end up drawn to one another and find themselves socialising while “off-duty”, as it were.
The practical side of Maki initially has dominance, suggesting to her that because she already lives in Southern Cross, there’s no need for her to go and spend extra time with her adventuring fellows at the inn. But as she sees the developing friendships and affection between the rest of the group, she becomes keen to be more of a part of that, eventually resolving to stay at the inn for the duration of their adventure rather than simply retiring to her own house at the end of each day. It’s a relatively small gesture, but one that helps bring everyone closer together and help them form a coherent, tightly knit group in the end.
Flare, the next character to join the overall group, is a big contrast to Maki’s mature practicality. Very much embodying her favoured element of fire through her hot-headed, rather tsundere personality, Flare is initially aggressive and sullen towards the rest of the group, though her attitude shifts somewhat to dogged determination once she acknowledges the natural talents of her peers. Indeed, for the first couple of dungeons in the game, Flare is a fixture just inside the entrance, waiting to challenge anyone who passes to a duel. She declares Estra her “rival” shortly after the group’s adventures begin, and continues with this rather overeager desire to somehow prove herself right up until, like Maki, her Machina Core is destroyed and she is forced to ask for help.
In typical tsundere fashion, however, Flare is rather proud and unyielding, and does not acknowledge any sort of perceived “weakness” easily. Even when Estra and Maki save her from a potentially fatal fire trap in the Red Tower, she finds it difficult and awkward to say “thank you”, though over time Estra’s influence softens her somewhat. When the entire party finds itself trapped in a room filling with poison gas, Flare, assuming she’s going to die and thus not under any obligations to deal with the consequences of what she is about to say, hastily lets out all of the emotions she’s been repressing for the rest of the game, expressing her true affection towards her new friends and her gratitude for them sticking by her even when she acted like a spoiled bitch towards them. Which is quite a lot of the time.
Like Setia, Flare comes to recognise that a core part of her personality is holding her back — in her case, from forming meaningful bonds with people. She recognises that she needs to redirect her fiery temper: she’s never going to get rid of it completely, because that’s just the sort of person she is, but there are more productive ways in which she could make use of that aggressive energy. By the conclusion of the story, we see a new Flare: one who acknowledges what her friends mean to her, but who also has a sincere desire to be “the best”, using her companions’ abilities and talents as motivation to continually progress and improve.
Finally, Connie is the embodiment of youthful exuberance and natural energy, making her a good fit for the wood element. The most “unsullied” of the cast, there isn’t a cynical bone in her childlike body, and her presence is generally a signal that the general mood is about to get a whole lot more cheerful.
She’s an interesting study in contrasts, though. While Estra’s first encounters with her in the Black Tower see our heroine looking on in bewilderment as Connie spins around and around on the spot, seemingly simply for the pure joy of doing so, it doesn’t take long to realise that, out of the whole group, Connie is one of the people who takes her mission most seriously. She feels she has a lot to prove — primarily to her friends back home — and thus sometimes finds herself stepping into dangerous situations a little too hastily than the others might like.
She’s a good complement to Estra in many ways; while they’re both energetic, cheerful characters, Connie’s childish innocence often serves to act as a dramatic contrast with the darker moments in the story and the unpleasant activities Gagarin and the holders of the three Black Machina Cores get up to. Estra, meanwhile, embodies optimism and positivity, which are essential qualities for a leader — particularly in a story with this sort of tone to it — and thus makes an eminently suitable centrepiece for the rest of the narrative to revolve around.
As with most dungeon crawlers, ultimately MeiQ is primarily about exploring sprawling grid-based maps, beating up enemies and taking their stuff. What its strong characterisation and entertaining — if, at times, clichéd — narrative provide, however, is a convincing, solid sense of context: a feeling that the things you’re doing are part of something bigger, and that they have meaning.
By the time you reach the post-game, whose narrative justification is nothing more than the core cast wanting to spend a bit more time training and hanging out with one other before going their separate ways, you’ll have a good sense of who these characters are and what the world they occupy is really like. That, in turn, gives you, the player, a strong feeling of attachment to them as much more than just collections of stats — and, for many, will be ample incentive to pursue the challenges of the post-game dungeons and higher difficulty levels.
MeiQ isn’t great “literature”, or whatever the video game equivalent might be. What it is, however, is a warm, friendly, comforting experience in a subgenre historically known for being quite unwelcoming to newcomers. A big part of that feeling comes from its characterisation and unfolding narrative. And that feeling, in turn, helps to make MeiQ one of the most approachable dungeon crawlers out there — and a great introduction to the genre for those who have never quite had the confidence to try one before.
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