“MeiQ: Labyrinth of Death” is a JRPG Dungeon Crawler published on Playstation Vita. It is available as digital download, and physical copy, to be released in the UK on 16/09/2016. (If you really want to splurge, a collector’s edition is being released in NA for $57.99 + shipping)
Developed by Compile hearts and published by IDEA Factory, MeiQ is the second installment in their Mekai Ichibikan project. Don’t worry though, you don’t need to have played “Trillion: God of Destruction” to play or follow what is going on. The game takes place in the legendary city “Machina City, Southern Cross.” The capitol, and most important location in an undisclosed world; A world which has gotten stuck, heading towards total destruction unless the Planet Key is turned to start the planets rotation again. This task falls to “Machina Mages” a role which you take on as the Protagonist Estra, alongside other Mages. In order to do so however, you must get blessed by the guardian of each tower. Oh, and did we mention that you need to defeat them to get their blessing, and that the towers are full of monsters? No? Well, it’s okay, it’s a minor detail anyway.
Before you’ve even pressed start, you’re spoiled with beautiful music, which continues throughout the game. ( I can’t wait for the OST to be released.) The start screen menu track, as well as others, seemed reminiscent to Breath of Fire 4 and Dot Hack, though the composer is Tenpei Sato; a staple in Idea Factory games, probably best known for his work on the Disgaea series of games. (As well as another favourite of mine, Brigandine.)
Starting the game you’re given the options of game difficulty. There are 2 modes, Normal//Hard, in my play-through I chose the normal difficulty. You are also presented with the choice of Audio language: Japanese or English. The developers have given us the ability to be able to change this through the menu during game-play. So if you don’t like your initial decision it’s not the end of the world. You might however, be irritated for a while in your introduction, as the menu is not accessible during passive scenes (i.e. talking), which, there is a moderate amount of.
The choice of Language is obviously a personal preference, but to be thorough I tried out both. My own preference is the Japanese Voice acting, I found the English Voice actors to be too high-pitched, and in my opinion out of place to the characters’ represented personalities. The Voice acting quality in both languages is superb though, there’s no problems at all, it just comes down to taste.
On the subject of Voice acting, a really great feature of this game is that every Character you interact with has VA. It really helps bring an extra dimension to the game, and the quality of acting is consistent whether you’re speaking with your party or a NPC.
Once you’ve finished being briefed on the situation and acquainted with the other Machina Mages who are also aiming to wind the planet key, you receive your first guardian. After you’ve optionally renamed your guardian and completed your contract, you’re moved ahead to the first dungeon at the prompt of an impatient Flare, who is determined to get there first. (Bet you can’t guess what element she controls ;D)
Now we get a look at our first dungeon. Controls are very simple, D-Pad controls movement, you can also move Left or Right with the L&R Shoulder triggers. Traveling through the dungeon is viewed through first person view (similarly to Persona 1/2, Sorcery Saga: Curse of the Great Curry God.) Should you walk into a wall, if there is only one direction to go, then you will automatically move that way, otherwise you get to delight in the sounds of your party members exclaiming their pain or question your navigation abilities.
Enemies (with the exception of bosses) are not visible on the map, going for the random encounter setup instead. However, the encounter rates are really reasonable. In fact, more often than not you’ll probably be using items to boost your encounters. Of course, the opposite is also available, though the ratio is different. 50 steps for attracting monsters, and 30 steps for repelling them.
The dungeons are full of the staples you would expect, Treasure chests, switches to open doors, slippery floors, and “other gimicks” as IDEA Factory lovingly calls them. i.e labyrinths (who’d have thought right?), traps, and hidden doorways to name a few. On the bottom left of your screen is a mini-map which fills the blank spaces out as you explore. Moving the left analogue stick will zoom in, zoom out, and hide it. Key “gimmicks” aka triggerable actions on the map are conveniently keyed on the mini-map. Some objects appear in the environment as well, as items to interact with, including a healing spring and monument which records the players visit to be able to return to that location with a spell which is unlocked later in the game.
Note – The healing spring heals all health and magic to the character and the guardian, but does not revive them, so be careful.
Elevators/Gates unlock during your progress so that you can return to previously visited floors. You can exit the dungeon at any time through the use of an exit item/spell, or by foot, without penalty. So if you need to stock up on items or go back to the inn to revive characters/guardians you can do so.
In MeiQ, your party is comprised of teams rather than the standard slot fill setup. (Similar to Conception II) Each team comprises of a character and a guardian, and your party can have three teams active at any given time. The Triangle button switches between your character and guardian in battle, only your character or your guardian can perform an action each turn, so you need to assess your enemy wisely.
Guardians can use skills which are equipped to different components; their left arm, right arm, and core. Different parts bring with them different skills, and combinations with other guardians create powerful combos which deal much more damage. Customising your guardians will also alter their parameters, keep an eye on affinity between Machina Cores element and the element of skills.
MeiQ uses a typical elemental wheel which creates strengths and weaknesses against each-other, conveniently you can see this at any time during battle through the START button, as well as showing whether the attack is weak or strong against an enemy which you have defeated before.
The four character commands available in battle are Attack, Magic, Item, and Defend. When a character performs either item or magic action, the guardian is capable of taking the blow for them, however this isn’t always possible. Character position is important, when the character has moved in front to attack they can be hit directly. A character can still act if their guardian is defeated, however, if the character is defeated the same is not true for the guardian, and they effectively leave the battle.
If all teams in the party are defeated then the battle is lost, and you will be teleported back to the Star Wind Inn. After completing your first dungeon (trying to keep things spoiler free here), and receiving a shiny new guardian, you return to town and now get a chance to see the facilities on offer. That is, if you didn’t head out already, they don’t stop you from leaving before then like some games might.
New guardians you receive are quite a few levels behind your current rota, the good news is that guardians level up faster than characters do. Also, leveling up is not too arduous a task. With 90 minutes to spare, 15 monster charms, and a close-by healing fountain, I leveled all of my characters up by 10.
Asides from the local shrine where you received your tutorial, guardian, and further information throughout the game there is the:
- Star Wind Inn – Here you can save your progress and rest. (resting revives any defeated characters or guardians) After a quick nap the innkeeper will send you off with either a cheer of encouragement, or let you know that the shop has new or rare items in stock.
- General Store Cash – As you would expect, you can buy and sell items here. Throughout the game there will be the opportunity to purchase rare items. These cost a fair bit more than the rest of Miss Cash’s stock, but they will typically be stronger than your current equipment. She also stocks junk parts to use in crafting.
(I’d advise against selling any revival items, these can’t be purchased, they are found sparsely in the dungeons. The game is leniant enough that you can complete it without them, it just depends on how many trips you want to make from the inn to the dungeon.)
- Smithy Machina Factory – This is the place to create parts and evolve your Guardians body. You can use recipes found throughout the dungeons to craft, or you can try and make your own. Crafting requires parts (dropped by monsters), demon ore, and aether.
- Machina guild of arrows – Where you can accept quests and report their completion ,exchanging key (unusable) items found in the dungeon for useful ones. (You can find the items before accepting the quest and still complete it.)
Characters can equip seeds and magic gems which affect the parameters of a character and their guardian. Their effects change depending on if they are equipped to a character or a guardian. (Seeds can only be equipped by characters though.) There is a cost to equip seeds/gems, and the total value of your equipped gems and seeds cannot exceed the maximum. This increases as you level up, as does the number you can equip.
Each character has a “Form” (outfit) which have bonuses that affect the characters parameters. Throughout the game Estra will receive new forms with different attributes, she is the only character who can change forms, her form bonus also affects the entire party. Each form levels up separately, and like leveling up party members, only those which are currently being used will gain any experience.
Keep in mind the forms are elemental based and so affect your guardian.
IDEAFactory has clearly put major thought into keeping things convenient for players, and really targeting the platform audience. There are many features which enable the player to speed up their progress, getting more into a game session.
- Outside of battle you can dash through the dungeons, not only does this speed things up for trekking to and from switches and newly opened doors; but is also really enjoyable in later levels where the twists and turns get a bit dizzying, and you can just dash your way through for a bit. (Great for blocking out some of the map to find areas you should explore.)
- Inside of Battle, the Right trigger button will repeat the last action your team/party performed. A point to remember though, which is omitted in the tutorials, is that if you change a character or guardians equipment, then this will reset the repeat function to defend.
- Also inside of battle, once all actions have been selected, holding the X button down will fast forward all animations.
Combining these two useful features really helps grinding, should that be your desire, or just help in getting as much progress as possible during your commute. There is also the ability to save and suspend play, another pointer at IDEAFactory’s attention to detail and thought to their audience.
The tutorials are nice and quick, and really well explained without any sort of overload which can easily happen in a game with multiple mechanics such as MeiQ. I really like that they included the option to be able to review them at any point after viewing them, making it easy to pick the game up again should you have left it for a while for any reason, and refresh your memory if you’ve forgotten. Given this, I am a little confused as to why they did not include a journal or some other form of prompt for if you forget what you’re doing. (Which I may have done after a bit of in-depth grinding and 100% map filling.)
Some of the tutorials seem somewhat oddly timed, with you already having figured out how to do so long before the tutorial pops up. Though I’d credit this to the designers spectacular job in designing and implementing the interface. Everything is really easy to grasp straight away, even if you aren’t generally a player of this type of game. This strengthens the admiration for how they created the tutorial. There’s no frustration if you already know how to do something, as it’s only a few button presses long.
A fantastic job has been done in quantifying the parameters and showing the consequences of a customization before it becomes permanent, which can be easily muddled in a game with multiple parameters or mechanics simultaneously interacting with one another. I’ve been put off by quite a few games which I’d have otherwise enjoyed if not for stat screens so complex I could mistake it for an algebra lecture. Natural Doctrine I’m looking at you here.
MeiQ also boasts some quirky monster mechanics, such as ones which will shrink when attacked and grow as they regain health (with appropriate sound effects too.) There are also enemies which split into multiple smaller ones, call for backup, and super-powered ones. All of them provide various ways to tackle the fight, and to plan routes to character development. With some of the enemies which split, you can save yourself time grinding through individual fights by taking advantage of the exp gain from each called opponent.
Of course, it’s useful to check up on the handy tool which has been provided to us, in the form of the library. As the name might suggest, you can look up the data of enemies you have defeated, and parts you have obtained, with their corresponding exp, drops, and necessary to build; so you can weigh up if you should stay in that fight, or realizing that it’s a spawn which won’t drop exp.
Like Darks Souls‘ Crystal Lizards, or Dragon Quests Metal Slimes, some enemies provide extra experience and/or items. The catch being that they’ll try and escape, and pack an extra punch if they stay, but they’re worth it for the experience boost you’ll receive at the end.
The game boasts spectacular graphics, art and sound throughout. The game is well balanced, and well paced, traveling between dungeons to satisfy requirements to progress with the current objective. It is a game that would satisfy those who playthrough in one session, or more casual players who would be breaking their play up throughout free moments. Asides from when equipping new items to characters or guardians, loading times are non-existent, and after equipping still very fast.
Oddly enough admidst the predictable events, and terrible (still not sure if sarcastic) naming conventions, the writers insert some interesting tie-ins to astrological theory, and references (as well as similarities to the method of obtaining guardians) to the practice of taming demons to use their power in the Kabbalah. Pre-christianity “daemons” were guardians, every human had their own personal daemon. I’m really interested to see if any of these breadcrumbs lead deeper in later installments of the Mekai Ichibikan project.
Whilst I do think the game is spectacularly executed, beautiful visuals and music, and highly thought out and implemented design, I think the play-through value of the game would be somewhat limited after a few completions which I feel is the defining quality which would make a game legendary. It couldn’t quite make 9 either, due to the average and predictable story-line and scenarios, which could be considered a personal preference mark, however given that the genre is a mixed dungeon-crawler and RPG, I believe it is a necessary thing to take note of. This does as well, tie in to the replay value of the game. Since it is already predictable on first play for average JRPG fans, it doesn’t gain anything in another go around.
By all means though, don’t take that as making the game non-play worthy, it’s how I am breaking up the rating. MeiQ is definitely worth having a go. Where the game does shine however, is in its dungeon-crawler aspect, which has been beautifully executed. As it is, its a fantastic game to play, and the writers do a good job of turning the games cliches on itself to be seen in a positive light, in a breaking the 4th wall kind of way (not quite though).
If IDEAFactory wanted to ramp up the replay-ability factor of MeiQ, a DLC in the future which allowed for multi-player races against one another, or co-operative raids would be a welcome idea. Or a randomly generated dungeon, since the dungeons themselves are fantastic and simply having new ones to go through would help its longevity. Patches with the occasional new monster/monster mechanic couldn’t hurt, nor could personal or online goals to complete such as time-limit/damage dealt/survival mode.
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