"Competent, yet forgettable."
In the past few years, I've noticed that Idea Factory (and its subsidiary Compile Heart) has been making efforts to rise above its gutter trash reputation and be taken more seriously as a game developer. For example, I loved the way Trillion: God of Destruction brilliantly evoked the "don't judge a book by its cover" theme by turning the scantily clad anime tropes into surprisingly deep and sympathetic characters whom I truly felt for. In addition, not only is Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom the best Idea Factory game I've ever played, but my favorite otome game to date. Unfortunately, not every effort is a winner, though, as evidenced by MeiQ: Labyrinth of Death. This first-person dungeon crawler (think Etrian Odyssey) is not a bad game per se, but it's missing some of that Idea Factory/Compile Heart swagger.
Let's start positively and talk about the smooth gameplay present in MeiQ. Idea Factory/Compile Heart games have often been criticized for having needlessly complicated gameplay systems, twiddly character growth systems filled with ancillary stats to keep track of, and uneven difficulty spikes. MeiQ manages to alleviate most of those concerns with intuitive interfaces and pick-up-and-play gameplay systems. The character growth and management interfaces consist of solid bread-and-butter systems that most any RPG fan can flow into. There are no ancillary statistics or curveball mechanics to mystify or befuddle gamers, making MeiQ one of the most pick-up-and-play games in Idea Factory's library.
The only things to note are the nontraditional element grid and the "Guardians" system. The element grid in MeiQ is earth-fire-water-wood-metal so learning the "what beats what" nature of the elements takes some getting used to. Still, anyone who's played a Pokémon game with its laundry list of creature types will have no trouble figuring out MeiQ's strengths-and-weaknesses paradigm. Ergonomic menus are very good about making that important information like that easily accessible to gamers, both in and out of battle.
Although there is a cast of five characters, only three can be in the active party (only the active party gains EXP), and they must be paired up with mechs called "Guardians." Guardians are highly customizable and new parts for them can be found, bought, or forged. In the game's turn-based battles, Guardians act as the first line of offense and defense, though a simple button press switches between character and Guardian without any turn penalty. Only characters can use items and magic, so strategic switching is important, as is making sure the Guardian's dominant elements are compatible with the character they're paired up with. In battle, if a Guardian falls, the character can still fight, but once the character falls, it's over. Every so often, a Guardian's selected attack combos with another Guardian's selected attack, but there is no way to store those combos as macros like in Phantasy Star IV.
This isn't a game you can brute force your way through. Strategy is important, as the right Guardian equipment and optimal character-to-Guardian pairings to oppose and resist opponents' element affinities can mean the difference between winning and losing. Defeat in battle transports the party back to the inn with no discernible penalty, and if you fall during a boss battle, the screen shows the percentage of its HP you managed to knock down as well as a hint to defeat it next time. That being said, there are times during the game where you're going along at a good clip then BOOM! The difficulty spikes quite sharply, requiring grinding. The Earth Dragon Gomorrah battle after completing three out of the four mystical towers comes to mind immediately. I'd like to note that I played this game on the Normal difficulty setting, though it can be switched to Hard at any time.
It should also be noted that the dungeons in this dungeon crawler all have fixed layouts rather than randomized layouts. This is good, because the game requires backtracking and going through a previously completed dungeon you've already mapped out makes things easier. One example of the backtracking is when a roadblock in the second dungeon requires a trip to the first dungeon in order to get the keys to remove that roadblock. Some folks might say that the backtracking acts as a palate cleanser when the current dungeon feels long in the tooth, but others might say it just adds unnecessary tedium in a genre that's already tedious by nature.
Sonically speaking, I loved the English voice acting. There is an option to switch between English and Japanese voices, but the English voice acting is as close to the Japanese voice acting as possible, including selecting English actors whose voices have the same timbre as the Japanese actors. The only issue I found in both is that several characters' voices sound too similar to each other in both the English and Japanese voiceovers. The music is technically sound and not bad, but it lacked conviction and was merely just there. The best way to sum up the music would be "competent, yet forgettable."
That same phrase could also be used to describe the graphics. Dungeon environments look nice, if nondescript, and lack any sort of distinguishing features. I found myself looking more at the automapper than the dungeon itself. The polygon graphics used during battles look smooth, without any seams or clipping, but don't have any major wow factor. The standard enemies are nothing to write home about, but the bosses look quite stylish.
The most lacking aspects of MeiQ are its throwaway story and characters. The gist of the plot is that the world has stopped spinning and a group of five chosen "Machina Mages" has assembled at the holy city of Southern Cross to unlock the secret of making the world spin again. This involves going through four mazelike towers, defeating the towers' bosses, and performing a cleansing ritual involving bathing in the towers' holy springs. Your character, Estra, fits the "cheerful yet bumbling" archetype to a T, and her other 4 companions all subscribe to by-the-numbers anime archetypes. They don't get much development beyond a surface level, which is a shame given how developed the characters were in Trillion. Initially, Estra adventures alone, because although the Machina Mages all have the same mission, the one who unlocks the key to spinning the world gets to become the game world's equivalent of Madame President. But eventually Estra's good nature encourages the girls to travel as a group, because the power of friendship cannot be denied. As with any JRPG worth its salt, there is a group of main villains thwarting the Mages' quest at every turn and a couple of sidebar comic relief villains who are more nuisance than anything else.
The game has some fanservice in that the female characters, both playable and non-playable, all have abnormally large bosoms and wear ridiculously skimpy outfits that even strippers would balk at. In addition, via the Vita's touch screen, you can poke the playable characters' portraits in their menu screens for some lewd voice clips. Outside of that, there is minimal "sexytime" fanservice in the game proper and I actually found that slightly disappointing. I'm well aware that I'm the first person who would groan at crass dialogue filled with puerile sexual innuendos and shout righteous indignation at "chainmail bikinis" and any such thing that portrays women in a demeaning or degrading manner. But if the MeiQ heroines' purpose for completing a dungeon is to bathe in its spiritual waters and there is no payoff "scantily clad ladies splashing around in the hot spring" cutscene, wouldn't you feel a bit cheated too? Plus, given how uninspired the story and characters were, this is a game that would have benefited from having more
of that Idea Factory crassness to make it stand out in the already crowded field of Vita first-person dungeon crawlers.
If I were to sum up MeiQ: Labyrinth of Death, I would use the phrase I used earlier in my review: competent, yet forgettable. I like its gameplay conveniences geared for those who are new to dungeon crawlers or maybe aren't too keen on them, but the game is still tediously repetitive and has some nasty difficulty spikes, even on the easier difficulty setting. It also lacks the zany personality I typically associate with Idea Factory games. At the end of the day, MeiQ is an also-ran game that does nothing special to set it apart from other dungeon crawlers or other Idea Factory games, and RPG fans would be better served elsewhere.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.