The Best Way To Beat A Dungeon

Sword Art Online Alicization Episode 14 Eugeo strikes

We’ve seen the set up a million times (usually in fantasy). The protagonist has fought their way to the bad guy’s lair only to find an elaborate dungeon, maze, puzzle, or tower between them and the bad guy (who is conveniently just sitting in one spot waiting for the hero to arrive). However, it turns out even writers can get sick of this set-up and so then go about finding ways to break their own device by giving the team a bypass or a way to simply not play the established game. The question is, does this actually make for an enjoyable story to watch?

I first really encountered this set-up from a children’s story I read with my mother when I was really young (no idea when I heard it the first time because it was one of those kids books with a cassette that you could read along to). Anyway, the story was based around the myth of the Minotaur in a Labyrinth in Crete where Theseus had to kill it but then he wouldn’t be able to get out of the maze (clearly he’d never learned just to keep left). Anyway, some girl fell in love with him for reasons that weren’t ever made clear and she gave him some string (what an incredibly innovative idea) and so he left a path to follow to escape.

Bell fights the Minotaur.
Okay, this one is Bell fighting a Minotaur in DanMachi, but still, cool.

Even as a kid I kind of wondered why there was a maze, who stuck the Minotaur in it and why didn’t it just sit at the doorway and eat everyone who entered, and why they didn’t just collapse the roof on its head to defeat it. Okay, even as a kid I was really cynical and liked things to make sense and there was just too much about the story that didn’t. Admittedly, I never questioned whether or not a Minotaur could exist as that was just part and parcel of a story having fantastic creatures in it. I still haven’t given up on my dream of owning a miniature dragon so if you ever come across one, let me know.

A little bit after this I came into contact with the movie Labyrinth and there’s a particular scene with Sarah that drove me absolutely crazy even as a child. She’s frustrated because she can’t find any corners or openings in the labyrinth, has a bit of a hissy fit and slides down a wall, where a worm talks to her and points out there’s an opening just across from her. At first she denies this then she attempts to walk through it. The worm directs her not to go the direction she is going and she just says ‘okay’ and walks the other way. Now, immediately after that the worm points out if she’d kept going the way she had been she’d have gone straight to the castle, which is where she wanted to go. Why she didn’t ask why she shouldn’t go that direction is a question that will never be answered.

Sarah talks with the Worm

Except, maybe it was.

Early last year I watched the anime Death March to the Parallel World Rhapsody and the main character finds himself facing a tower with dangers all the way as he goes to rescue a kidnapped companion. After a limited amount of time dealing with the levels he finds a passageway that leads to a dryad who, in exchange for a kiss, more or less jumps him half-way up the tower.

Death March To The Parallel World Rhapsody Episode 8 Dryad

Which is more or less what would have happened with Sarah if she’d just gone the first path.

However, then what is left to do?

Satou in Death March to the Parallel World Rhapsody more or less just walks through the tower with little challenge, has a few fights at the top and saves the day. And that is kind of exemplary of every quest Satou ends up on. He’s either too over powered for there to be a challenge, or he goes around the challenge in the first place. While it might seem like a clever idea what it made for was a fairly boring viewing experience.

Almost like replaying a game where you can use your character after they’ve already beaten the game. They are now so over powered early levels seem ridiculously easy and without challenge. Worse when you use a glitch in the game. Baldur’s Gate 2 had one particularly glitch you could take real advantage of. If you saved your character at the end with all their cool equipment and levels and spells, and then started a new game with that character, but paused the game before the first screen came up, went into your inventory, you could drop all your existing equipment, and start the game. Once the intro sequence was over you could just pick it all up and play on. Trust me when I point out it was pretty boring and about the only thing it was good for was a speed run because why would you bother opening a single box or crate in the first level?

And I’m pretty sure that glitch doesn’t work on the Steam version and I know my old CD versions of the game are no longer compatible with my system so I guess that one is done.

So, does that mean the best way to beat a dungeon is to actually beat the dungeon?

Sword Art Online - Aincrad

Yes and no. It really depends on the variety of things for the characters to face in the dungeon and whether they grow or learn from the experience. Will crossing through the dungeon cost them anything or will anyone get hurt? Will relationships be tested? Will equipment be lost or found? There’s a lot of good narrative reasons to make your characters fight their way through the dungeon.

And if you aren’t going to use any of them, then the question would be, why bother writing a dungeon, maze or tower into your story in the first place? Just have your villain meet the hero and call it a day.

Sword Art Online Alicization Episode 13

But the reason this came up at this point in time is because of Sword Art Online Alicization. Now we know they like their towers in SAO. The Aincrad Arc is essentially a tower climb that gets interrupted early because the villain is exposed before they reach the top. However, episode 13 sets up a story where Kirito and Eugeo are going to have to get to the Administrator’s room and wouldn’t you know it, it’s at the top of the tower which is probably 100 floors up. I’m hoping they either bypass the levels or they find something worth fighting on their way up otherwise this is an incredibly pointless plot conceit. And why couldn’t the tower be fifty levels instead of 100?

Anyway, I’ll turn this over to you. What anime or story do you think used a dungeon-tower-maze the best? Who had the best way getting through a dungeon?

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Dakaretai Otoko 1-i ni Odosarete Imasu. Pouch
Dakaretai Otoko 1-i ni Odosarete Imasu. Pouch

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Death March to the Parallel World Rhapsody Episode 4: Becoming a Hero

Review:

Well that was a nice twenty minutes of watching someone else playing a dungeon crawler and defeating the boss first go without any real effort once he equipped the right weapon. It’s amazing how reading this sequence was kind of interesting but watching it isn’t, even though the episode plays out almost identically to the read minus some dialogue while Satou eats with the slave girls.

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I do wonder about the end because they seem to have left a few points out after leaving the dungeon but maybe they’ll come into play next episode. And either way, it wouldn’t have made watching this any more enjoyable. It is more like a casual stroll through an unscary haunted house because you kind of know nothing is going to hurt you or the characters and the monsters are kind of lame.

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The highlight of the episode were definitely the magic effects as they looked kind of pretty and visually were the most interesting thing we’ve come across in this series. But when a visual effect is my episode highlight I must admit I’m pretty bored.

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Worst disguise ever – outside of glasses.


Thanks for reading.

Karandi James

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Sword Oratoria Episode 1

Overview:

A spin-off of DanMachi (It is Wrong to Try To Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon), Sword Oratoria focusses on Ais and the Loki Familia.

Review:

For a show that is supposed to focus on Ais, she’s remarkably passive to absent in this first episode with far more time being given to introducing a young magic user who freezes at the sight of monsters (useful). And because of the kind of show it is of course she’s making puppy dog eyes at Ais.

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That said, it wasn’t a bad episode. After an initial narration where we zoom around the city and see some familiar faces we find ourselves on level 50 of the dungeon with the party from the Loki Familia. We get a reintroduction to the members because even though we’ve met most of them before they weren’t the main characters in DanMachi. Then we get a pretty cool fight against some acid spewing caterpillar thing. Before we start returning to the surface and we get our first direct cross over with the previous series and we see how the minotaur ended up attacking Bell.

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My issue with this is that Ais was a pretty boring character back in DanMachi (she served her purpose well enough as a potential love interest and a goal to work towards in terms of strength for Bell) but her personality was pretty much non-existent. When I first heard she was going to be the focus in this I had some real concerns about whether she could carry a show and this episode has done nothing to lay those concerns to rest. The things I liked this episode were throw backs to DanMachi and reminders of how fun that show was. Just being back in the dungeon was fun, the ridiculous monsters and the fighting styles, even seeing Bell again was fun. Ais, not so much.

All and all, I have no intention of dropping this. Even is Ais doesn’t manage to develop a personality, there are plenty of other enjoyable characters and its a dungeon crawling fantasy in a world I already love so we’ll continue on.

Sword Oratoria is available on AnimeLab.


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Karandi James.

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DanMachi Series Review

Overview:

In a fantasy world, Bell Cranel wants to be an adventurer and wants to meet the love of his life in a dungeon. With the divine blessing of his Goddess, Hestia, Bell is going to work hard to become strong.

Review:

Alright, I avoided this anime when it first came out. The name “Is It Wrong To Try To Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?” was kind of an instant turn-off and I just had this image of the most generic harem comedy in existence and wasn’t going to go near it. No idea why I ended up watching the first episode of it, but I do know that I then watched the entire show in the space of an afternoon. For all that it isn’t a perfect series, it is a delightful bit of fun and highly addictive viewing.

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Is it generic fantasy? Definitely. You have dungeons and elves and minotaurs and you’ve got a whole pile of RPG elements thrown in with levelling up and stat scores and the like. It isn’t trying to break new ground in its world building but neither is it playing these things as a joke. While the feel of the show is light-hearted they’ve taken world-building seriously and the world you are presented with is a very functional setting for a story.

Do we have a harem? Not quite but pretty close. Bell does have a lot of admirers by the end but to actually describe this as a harem comedy would not do justice to either this or to harems because while there are certainly elements of harem here, that isn’t the main focus despite the title. There is one girl that Bell likes and he uses that like as a motivation to drive himself to get stronger. While other characters flock around him and the usual comedy elements get thrown in, the story focuses very much on Bell developing as a character.

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This is character development. Bell will definitely learn from this.

So what works about this show? The comedy is a little bit childish and over the top at times, but it generally works and is amusing. Hestia in particular can usually make me smile. But then again, the idea of a Goddess taking on part time jobs to buy her hero equipment (or even dinner in the early stages) is pretty amusing in and of itself. Pretty much if you don’t crack a smile during the first episode then this show isn’t going to work for you because from a tone point of view it isn’t really going anywhere and they are only going to get more excessive in their efforts to make you laugh.

Bell Cranel works as a character. Okay, he’s a bit bland as a character (generic self-insert cliché) but the story allows for him to grow and actually begin to make decisions and choices and to start to find out who he is. And unlike so many other characters he doesn’t discover he is actually an ego-maniac. He discovers that he genuinely wants to have an adventure and to protect his friends and he derives great joy from his small (and not so small) successes.

The interactions between the gods and the gods and their families work really well. I feel a little hypocritical on this point because they do a great job of massacring mythology in this and I’ve certainly criticised other shows for this previously, however I didn’t feel annoyed by the way they presented the gods in this show. They also didn’t try to shove their version of mythology down your throat. It was more they had god like characters who happen to have the names of gods you may or may not be familiar with and as a result you may or may not like the way they are represented. That said, the interactions are great.

Bell’s party that slowly forms is fantastic. Originally hiring a supporter (who comes with a lot of baggage) before recruiting a smith (who also comes with a lot of baggage), these additional characters really help to off-set Bell’s general blandness and inject new energy into the second half of the series. Welf Crozzo (the smith) is one of my favourite characters and my only complaint would be his limited screen time given how late in the series he is introduced.

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Then we have the dungeon exploration itself which is just pure fun. Whether the characters are picking off small fry or facing up against a floor boss, the combat is visually entertaining and hits just the right balance between being dramatic and being over the top. Bell’s battle against the minotaur is one I will continue to love forever. It perfectly brought together the previous plot points (Bell being embarrassed when he was cornered by a minotaur and being unable to fight against it as well as his desire to protect), it allowed for some critical character development and a bit of a power-up in the process before we moved into the final arc, and it was an awesome fight to watch. I loved every minute of that fight.

The biggest flaw might be that the final fight sequence isn’t quite as exciting as it needs to be. Bigger enemy doesn’t necessarily make for a better fight and it actually felt like all the clever moves and strategies that we’d see previous got tossed out the window as the characters threw themselves at the giant blob of a villain (little bit sarcastic but you get the idea).  Admittedly, it ends the way it needs to for Bell as a character, but as a viewer you gain little satisfaction. The Minotaur fight was a personal triumph for a character we’d grown to like and then this final fight was with a boss from nowhere and while it has its place it didn’t feel as rewarding. Worse though, it all just feels like a resting point for a continuation that has yet to come, though I guess we’ll see if it ever does (rumours say yes, but they’ve been wrong before – meanwhile I’ve well and truly read beyond this point in the light novels now and please give us another season).

Okay, I have to mention my other criticism which is the basic dress of every female character (even the armoured ones). Starting from Hestia on, they are not dressed for any practical purpose and while some of the male costumes aren’t any better there is at least a wider variety of clothes for males.

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Is this show going to blow your mind and change the way you think? Probably not. What it should do is provide you with a few smiles, some exhilarating fight sequences, and a whole cast of cute and zany characters to chill out with for an afternoon. If that sounds appealing, pull up a chair and give it a watch.

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Friday’s Feature – The Nice Protagonist

This week I’d like to examine the nice protagonist (note – this is slightly different from the self-insert protagonist so common in the vast majority of harem comedies). No, the nice protagonist has the defining trait of being nice, but still has additional personality traits (underneath being nice all the time).

Just like overpowered or complete jerk protagonists, nice protagonists cop their fair share of criticism. They’re boring, they’re unrealistic, they’re just allowing themselves to be walked all over, and –  probably the most fatal trait for a protagonist –  they’re completely forgettable.

For instance: Bell from Is It Wrong To Try and Pick Up Girl’s in a Dungeon? is a nice protagonist (see my review). He’s also adventurous, impatient, ambitious, a little bit lecherous, and a lot insecure. So being nice isn’t his only personality trait. But when you talk to people about this show they discuss Hestia, the fight scenes, the weapons, occasionally Loki, but they don’t mention Bell. Or if they do, they call him the Main Character because half the time they don’t remember his name.

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And it seems a bit harsh to not even remember Bell’s name. He has some incredible character development both in literal skills and in his focus and goals. He also gives us one of the most dramatic fight sequences I think I’ve ever watched and one where I genuinely cared if this nice character was actually going to make it through the fight.

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The common saying of nice guys finish last seems to apply here. Get anyone to list their favourite protagonists and the vast majority of them will not be nice guys. So why is it we don’t like nice protagonists?

And I already know people will argue, but we don’t dislike them. And that’s true to. That’s why they exist at all. Because they don’t cause people to dislike them. But, in the absence of a truly great story or supporting cast the nice protagonist will just slip off your radar without a second thought.

Which all of course raises the question of what is it about human nature that ‘nice’ is seen as such a dull descriptor of a person? I was watching a rom-com recently (not anime amazingly) where the girl had the choice of two guys and she was describing them to a friend. Mid-way through one description the friend made snorted and then said that she’d literally just fallen asleep. Why? Because the guy was nice. Apparently that’s a death sentence in a rom-com because at the end of the film the girl ended up with the other guy.

So, my question is: Who is your favourite ‘Nice’ protagonist?

Let’s give all the nice guys (and girls) a shout out.