Have you ever played a tabletop game of Dungeons and Dragons? Have you ever sat down with a bunch of friends, rolled up some dwarves and paladins and explored a massive dungeon, marking every step on graph paper along the way? If so, Etrian Odyssey may be for you. From the creators of Trauma Center: Under the Knife comes a dungeon-crawling RPG in the vein of Ultima or Wizardry. It doesn't have a particularly epic plot, fantastic deep characters, religious symbolism, an innovative battle system or fantastic graphics. What it does have, however, is all the fun and enjoyment of traveling through an uncharted dungeon with characters you created yourself, and you're never quite sure what the next step will bring.
The very first thing you're going to do in Etrian Odyssey is create a guild, which will be the home to your group of up to 20 adventurers. Each of the nine character classes has its own strengths and weaknesses. Alchemists, for example, are the game's spell casters, and they have a limited supply of heavy-hitting attacks but are otherwise rather limited. Protectors are tanks, capable of soaking damage and healing wounds, as well as dishing out damage but focus mostly on defensive and support skills. Survivalists are weak combatants but have a number of skills that are of use in exploring the dungeon.
Rather surprisingly, each class has its own uses, so sticking with a basic team of five is not always the most effective method. When searching for rare items, for example, Alchemists and Survivalists are more useful, whereas defeating powerful foes is more the territory of Landsknechts and Protectors. It can also be useful to keep two different units of the same class, such as a Protector built for healing and another built for tanking. Creating a character in Etrian Odyssey requires a bit more effort than those found in other games, as simply picking abilities willy-nilly is going to make your life a lot harder.
Once your new team has been created, you can begin to venture into the Yggdrasil Labyrinth, which is divided into stratum, each going deeper and deeper into the mysterious maze. The dungeon itself has never been fully explored, and countless adventurers have met unpleasant ends in its depths. Reaching the bottom layer is a quest seemingly thought impossible, and it is exactly what your guild has set out to do. Naturally, the dungeon offers countless dangers and benefits to those who adventure into it. Deadly monsters are just waiting for weak heroes to wander by for their evening meals, and these same monsters are the source of many raw materials, such as pelts, claws and bone, which are used by the townspeople to create items. The dungeon is home to a number of materials that can only be found within, such as rare minerals or useful plants. Of course, the labyrinth is mostly unexplored, and none have survived to map its depths, so it is up to your party to do so.
That's right — Etrian Odyssey doesn't keep a map for you, at least not in any but the most basic of senses. Every floor of the dungeon is divided into grids, something that should feel awfully familiar to those who played D&D in their youth. For every step you take, one of those grids is filled in, but only the floor; everything else must be filled in by you: walls, icons, doors, stairs, etc. Thankfully, the game has a simple and easy-to-use interface to accomplish this. The map is on the bottom screen of the DS, and the touch controls make using it a piece of cake. Clicking on a section of the map zooms in on it and allows you to fool around with it. You can draw walls and floors manually, in case you're already confident of what lies ahead. Likewise, you can leave all sorts of marks on the map. Want to remember where a door was when a strange event happened, or track the path of a FOE? Each option is available through a simple drag-and-drop interface. You can even attach a memo to any icon, allowing you to name a specific area or even detail an event for future reference.
This feature, more than any other, is going to be the breaking point for gamers. If this sounds like a neat idea to you, bringing back memories of mapping dungeons in Ultima or drawing on graph paper while playing Dungeons and Dragons, then this game is for you. If the concept of mapping every square of the dungeon sounds tedious and dull, then it's best to avoid this game. Keeping track of your location in the dungeon is absolutely key, as wandering blindly is sure to send you right into the bloody claws of a FOE.
FOEs are the biggest threats in the dungeon, bar-none. A FOE is an extremely powerful monster who roams the dungeon, just waiting for an unwary team of adventurers to cross its path. Compared to the other monsters you'll encounter on the same level, FOEs are like unbeatable gods and can easily slaughter a character in a single hit if you're not careful. Thankfully, they are also avoidable. Unlike the regular random encounters, FOEs only appear in specific locations and are actually visible on the map. Once you've gone through an area or used a specific skill (another use for Alchemists and Survivalists), you can see the FOE moving around, as it moves one step for every step you take.
Most FOEs have a set pattern in which they move, and tracking this pattern allows you to slip by them without attracting their ire. More dangerous are the second kind of FOE; unlike their more docile counterparts, these FOEs can actively recognize nearby prey. If you come within their range, their map icon changes red and they begin to chase you, so keeping track of these FOEs is an important part of a healthy dungeon experience.
Besides the overall goal of reaching the bottom of the dungeon, there are a number of other things to do inside the Yggdrasil Labyrinth. The town at the entrance to the labyrinth thrives on the material found within it, and the game's item shop actually can't create anything without this material. In order to open up new armor and weaponry to buy, you must bring back material and sell it to the shopkeeper. Once enough of a specific material has been found, you can then buy a new item. The Apocathary can be used to revive dead party members or purchase valuable healing potions.
The game's inn is a central hub, where you can rest for the night to recover TP and HP or save your game. However, the areas you'll be visiting the most are the pub and Radha Hall. The pub is the gathering place for adventurers and townsfolk, and also your primary source of quests, special requests to do specific things in the labyrinth, such as find a rare material or defeat a monster. Naturally, quests are rewarded with a number of special items and should be taken at any opportunity. The Radha Hall is the official location in charge of monitoring the Yggdrasil Labyrinth. Like the bar, you can receive quests here, although these are often more important than their pub-based counterparts. Beyond these quests, you can also make records of the monsters and items you've encountered in the hall's codices. These records are useful for your own edification, but also simply because you occasionally get rewards for filling them out.
For all my raving about Etrian Odyssey, it is not without a number of flaws. The first is something that not everyone will consider a flaw, but it must be addressed: This game is slow, and it is pretty difficult at times. Even random monsters can easily wipe out an unprepared party, and the tougher monsters can lead to the "game over" screen in a few attacks. Likewise, the title is very slow, and it will often take multiple trips through each floor to find everything you need. Farming for items for the shop and quests can be a tedious experience, especially since farming is limited to a number of times per day.
One major complaint comes from the lack of any sort of quick-save feature. Any time you want to take a break from the dungeons, you must use a "Warp Wire" item to teleport out, which causes you to lose your place. A simple temporary save would have been a welcome change for those of us who are in the middle of a dungeon when the DS' power light turns red. The interface also lacking a lot of seemingly obvious features that would have made the overall experience a lot more comfortable, such as seeing the difference between a weapon you buy in a store and an equipped weapon.
However, the biggest problem comes from the graphics in Etrian Odyssey. Like the rest of the game, the graphics take a decidedly old-school turn, but unlike the other elements, this doesn't work in its favor. Exploring the dungeons is done by wandering through countless identical corridors filled with identical textures. That alone is annoying, but the fact that there is almost nothing to break up these monotonous treks is even worse. Still, it is a minor mark on an otherwise excellent game.
When you discover an in-game event, such as a magic stream or a snake hanging from a tree, you are informed via a text box, but there is no on-screen graphical indication of this at all. A flowing stream of holy water is exactly the same as a regular dead end, which makes looking at the top screen almost pointless, except for the occasional glance to spot a treasure chest or FOE.
Unfortunately, battles are no better. The first-person view means that all you see in combat are the enemies, but each enemy is simply a static picture. They make no motion at all, not even when attacking, and combat mostly revolves around slashes of light moving across the screen to indicate attacks. While it fits with the old-school feel, the enemy art is not even particularly good, and there is a surprisingly wide variety of pallet swaps to be found. Most who enjoy this kind of game won't be overly turned off by the simplistic graphics, but one can't help but wish the developers had put a little more effort into the visual presentation.
Thankfully, Etrian Odyssey has a fantastic soundtrack. Yuzo Koshiro, who worked on soundtracks for games like Sonic the Hedgehog, Actraiser and Streets of Rage is responsible for the music in Etrian Odyssey, and it works excellently. The music is memorable and interesting to listen to, using the DS' sound capability in excellent ways. There was never a moment when I was tempted to turn down the sound volume. Although Koshiro has worked on other recent titles, including the DS offering Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin, Etrian Odyssey is his best work since the days of the Genesis.
Etrian Odyssey is old school. There is no other way to describe it. It's slow, difficult, sparse with the hints and unforgiving to those who try to speed through it. If this doesn't sound like fun to you, then it's best to move along, because you won't enjoy Etrian Odyssey. However, if you're one of those gamers who has fond memories of Wizardry and Ultima, then this might just be what you're looking for. Although more forgiving than those offerings, it retains that old-school flavor that can bring a warm smile to a gamer's face. While I enjoyed the game, it is easy for me to acknowledge that it's a bit slow and simplistic for everyone, so if you're the kind of person who misses the days of graph paper, add a point to the score.
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