Finally, my decades of being a dice-rolling dweeb have paid off for this one (1) review.
The Meikyuu Kingdom light novel is an odd duck in many regards, as it is intimately entwined with the hobby of tabletop roleplaying. For those unfamiliar with tabletop roleplaying—which is probably in the minority these days—it is the gaming hobby which sprung up out of the creation of Dungeons & Dragons. While I won’t go into too much depth as the era of livestreamed gaming has made the hobby more visible than ever, tabletop roleplaying is part board game, part improv theater. Meikyuu: Labyrinth Kingdom, a Tactical Fantasy World Survival Guide is set in the world of Million Dungeon, which is the setting for the Meikyuu Kingdom roleplaying game.
To understand my review of the light novel, I think it best you understand my expectations going in (and going forward for future volumes).
Meikyuu Kingdom first came on my radar in 2013. I had known of tabletop roleplaying scenes in other countries for some time, but the Tenra Bansho Zero Kickstarter—an official translation of a Japanese tabletop roleplaying game—really kicked off my interest in getting a hold of these games at that time. Meikyuu Kingdom existed as a fan translated pdf with rumors of an official release, and so I downloaded it and eagerly awaited an official version (thought sadly as of this writing the fan translation is still all that is available).
In some regards, Meikyuu Kingdom the RPG and the light novel have a similar fate. Both are initially familiar, but hold a lot of promise in unexpected ways.
The initial pitch is well-worn territory to most fans these days. There are dungeons full of monsters and treasure. Adventurers journey into the dangerous places to fight and loot. They head back to town to re-up, re-arm, and set out once again. It’s a loop we all are used to at this point.
But what set Meikyuu Kingdom apart was not this aspect of its retro styling, but the other half of its gameplay loop: domain management. Meikyuu Kingdom’s “other half” of gameplay revolves around the upkeep of a kingdom between the player characters. While this sounds novel, it is actually something Dungeons & Dragons once had as part of its core gameplay loop. Adventurers delved dungeons in early levels, but eventually reached a point where they retired and built places to call their own: mighty fortresses, arcane towers, and the like. As D&D has progressed this assumed later tier of play has fallen away from being a “core” tenant of the game, so part of my initial interest in Meikyuu Kingdom back in the early 2010s was that it put this pillar of play back into the forefront. I hungrily read the fan translation, yearned to start a game, but could not find any takers and haven’t thought much about it for many years.
Until this review came across my dash.
So Meikyuu Kingdom is in some ways expected, in other ways surprising. It’s an isekai story about falling into a fantasy world—wait, don’t leave yet! The protagonist is actually a middle-aged man, and rather than have a magic power or deus ex gizmo it’s his real life experience that makes him a great fit for this new world. Taiga is likeable and capable, and while he spends most his time asking basic survival questions then solving those issues, he comes across as genuine and down to earth. Taiga is not selfish or entitled, and his calm in the face of danger makes it clear why the other people of Million Dungeon would gravitate to him (unlike other isekai protagonists I’ve experienced).
Taiga’s companions are a fun bunch too. Troach and Mizuho get a fair amount of focus and contribute in their own unique ways to the success of the newfound kingdom. They have a sort of straight/foil comedy duo routine that’s not riotously funny but it did get a few good chuckles out of me. The real star of the show though is Astoria the Wing Blessed, who completely steals the spotlight and delivers on a lot of great meta-jokes, widens the world-building considerably, and just makes a splash as a gregarious sellsword. My only complaint with Astoria is that I wish she had shown up earlier in the novel.
The setting itself is either wildly original or comfortingly familiar, depending on your experience level. Million Dungeon is a megadungeon, full of the sort of weirdly specific flora, fauna, and wacky geological expectations cooked into the dungeon crawling fantasy genre—a term I’ve seen referred to as “Gygaxian naturalism.” There are travelling merchants on floating goldfish who cross great caverns and deal in information. There are invisible gelatinous cubes—ahem, slimes—waiting at the bottom of pits for unwary adventurers. Pieces of starlight help provide illumination in the deep cavernous expanse of the world below. Again, it’s either strange dungeonpunk weirdness or “no place like home” depending on how familiar you are with rolling handfuls of polyhedrons.
The negatives are few, but significant. First, if you are expecting a lot of direct links to the game itself…I don’t think there is too much here to draw you in. It could just be my old man memory (I did read the Corebook 8+ years ago now…) but nothing really jumped out at me as specifically Meikyuu Kingdom about this, as opposed to the Million Dungeon setting itself—and even that is just a megadungeon. I think this is a benefit to folks who are not familiar with the RPG and makes it easier to get in, but it feels more like an introduction for new folks and the author’s blurb reinforces that this was the intent.
Furthermore, all the excitement about the domain management aspect for me largely went unfulfilled. I realize that my expectations were at fault rather than the work itself, but I still expected more with the actual construction and maintenance of a realm. As it stands, they are starting from scratch and it reads like your standard fantasy survival stuff—locate fire, locate food, fight monsters, explore environs, etc. That all makes sense given the setup, but it ends up feeling like standard “adventurers in the dungeon” faire. Ultimately, the unique elements specific to Meikyuu Kingdom —you know, the kingdom part—don’t feel like they ramp up into prominence quickly enough in this first volume. The primary cast end up functioning as a small tribal unit with limited resources, and if you squint their concerns are not all that different from a typical adventuring party.
My hope is that future volumes will lean into the kingdom half more. As the size of Taiga and company’s kingdom grows, hopefully their concerns do as well. Things like larger supply bases, rival kingdoms, political subterfuge, that sort of thing. If the author grows the scope and continues to add in more of the high fantasy conceptual elements that make Million Dungeon unique, I see this being a real contender down the line.