Etrian Mystery Dungeon is a combination that sounds crazy but just might work. The Etrian Odyssey games are hardcore first-person dungeon crawlers that recall the days of games like Wizardry or even Phantasy Star, in which we went through reams upon reams of graph paper mapping out labyrinthine dungeons with fixed layouts. The Mystery Dungeon games are “Roguelike” games with third-person randomly generated dungeons, such as the Shiren the Wanderer and Pokémon Mystery Dungeon series. Etrian Mystery Dungeon wants to show that the combination of Wizardry and Rogue can work, but a slew of iffy design choices prevent this promising game from reaching its full potential.
Story is not a massive component of games like this, but compared to Shiren the Wanderer, Etrian Odyssey Untold: The Millennium Girl, or even Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Gates to Infinity, Etrian Mystery Dungeon’s story is as bare bones as it gets. Adventurers converge on a town near a set of mystery dungeons and intrepid explorers go forth to seek fame, fortune, and a chance to see the fabled Amber Yggdrasil tree up close. There are some plot lines featuring NPCs that serve as motivation to explore, as well as an overarching plot about a “day of reckoning” when an ancient evil reestablishes itself, but they’re shallow and not very interesting. Even more disposable is the music, which is not unpleasant, but is utterly forgettable to the point that it would make zero difference if the game had no music at all.
If you have played a Roguelike game before now, the gameplay should be quite familiar to you. Each time you enter one of the mystery dungeons, its layout changes, and if your party dies in the dungeon, they’re warped back to town stripped of any items found in said dungeon. Many Roguelikes reset party levels back to 1 upon exit, but Etrian Mystery Dungeon mercifully lets you keep your hard earned EXP while taking away found treasure and one piece of each party member’s current equipment.
Early on in the game, the Fort System is introduced, whereby forts can be erected, for a price, in various floors of dungeons to make that floor’s layout fixed. Forts can be staffed with members of your guild (who gain levels while manning the fort), and should your main party fall in battle, the reserve party from a fort can go down into the dungeon for a search and rescue mission to retrieve the main party with no penalties incurred. Search and rescue missions are done manually by the player, so it’s a good idea to have a decently-equipped second string.
Dungeon layouts themselves are pretty manageable and nowhere near as extensive as those in a typical Etrian Odyssey game. Dungeons also contain plenty of surprises, both nice and nefarious. Every so often, a black market shopkeeper appears in dungeons to sell, buy, and specially enhance items. There are also occasional uber-enemies comparable to the F.O.Es in classic Etrian games and nuisance traps that pop out of nowhere.
In terms of party building, classic Etrian classes like the melee-oriented Landsknecht are present, but the game also offers new character classes like the Hexer, whose specialty is in debuffing and inflicting status ailments on enemies. Depending on the enemy types populating dungeons and the nature of bosses, choosing the right party for the situation is important.
Battles are semi-turn-based in that for each movement you make, the enemy makes a movement. If you do nothing, the enemy does nothing, and blows are traded by turns. Battles could best be described as “strategy-RPG lite,” and the stare down is as important as the shootout. Players manually control the party’s designated leader (who can be changed on the fly) and rudimentary AI controls the rest.
Enemies are generally sparse in dungeons, but some can debilitate you before your party even enters a room, so always proceed with caution. Corridors between rooms are very narrow, so if an enemy hits you before you enter the room, the character leading the party may end up being a punching bag. Some particularly annoying enemies even give chase through the corridors, and it is possible for party members to get separated during a course of exploration.
Boss battles are a different ballgame from standard battles. During boss battles, the player controls everyone’s actions, including battlefield placement, making them feel like fast paced, turn-based SRPG battles. Boss battles are easily the most fun and challenging part of the game and were my personal incentive to keep playing despite the game’s grindy and repetitive nature.
The biggest challenge lies not in the boss battles or the variable dungeon layouts. In fact, Etrian Mystery Dungeon’s difficulty is about average when compared to other Mystery Dungeon games, being more challenging than Poké:mon Mystery Dungeon but less difficult than Shiren the Wanderer. No, the most challenging battle is with loose controls and a decidedly un-ergonomic interface. Analogue movement through dungeons feels loose and digital control is only marginally tighter. Walking speed can be altered via the menu, which is nice since dashing is more trouble than it’s worth. Dashing feels a little bit like the pull-back toy car dashing in early Wild ARMs games. It’s really fast, but choppy and imprecise. Dashing also quickly exhausts FP (Fatigue Points), which already diminish as you traipse longer and longer through dungeons. Once your designated leader runs out of FP, their HP slowly drains unless you find FP-replenishing squares, eat some food (like bread), or designate a new leader with fresh FP.
The interface is also lacking. Menus look more cluttered than they really are and layouts are unintuitive due to navigation being arbitrarily split between two screens and some fonts being too small. Pulling up various field menus uses awkward button combinations rather than the touch screen. Having multiple icons in the touchscreen to bring up submenus with the stylus would have been a better ergonomic choice, like in Etrian Odyssey III: The Drowned City. No matter how long I played the game, I could never get used to the menu interface. It felt more awkward than a nerdy boy trying to ask the head cheerleader to prom while the quarterback is around the corner. Even using the stylus for menu navigation is sluggish — it feels like the game is turning up its nose at the touchscreen.
Fans of dungeon crawlers would likely say that graphics aren’t as important to them, and I certainly don’t expect Dragon Age: Inquisition caliber visuals in a Mystery Dungeon game, but I still think this game is ugly. The dungeons have bright color palettes, but the color combinations are often clashing and garish, leading to eyestrain in some dungeons. Environments are also quite busy, and it’s often difficult to tell if something shiny is an item waiting to be picked up or a sundry decorative detail. The monsters lack the creative flair of Etrian Odyssey’s lushly drawn monsters, and the character models look like blobs. The monsters that look the best are the bosses, but even they don’t have the style and flair of those from canon Etrian Odyssey games.
Within the town hub, the art style is inconsistent. Some character portraits for NPCs in town are lovely, detailed and maturely designed anime portraits, like that of innkeeper Kasumi. Others, like the lady who runs the restaurant, have a cuter and more childish art style. The aforementioned restauranteur looks almost like an anime version of Lilo from Disney’s Lilo & Stitch. The portrait art for player characters is even more “cutesy” and “chibi” in design. All this, plus the more childlike font for the title, scream that this game is a harmless snack, like a Marshmallow Peep, not something meaty that Mystery Dungeon and Etrian Odyssey faithful can really sink their teeth into.
In the end, Etrian Mystery Dungeon is neither a particularly good Etrian game nor a good Mystery Dungeon game. The dungeons are not as lush, inspired, or encompassing as those in Etrian. As far as Mystery Dungeon games go, the Pokémon and Shiren games were more fleshed out, enjoyable, and had a panache that this one lacks. I could spend hours in an Etrian Odyssey Untold dungeon, and felt that a combination of it and Mystery Dungeon could potentially be awesome, but it ultimately fell flat. I could barely bring myself to play this game for more than 15-20 minutes at a time and found myself bored, disengaged, and unmotivated to play. I understand the often grindy and repetitive nature of these RPG subgenres, but other Etrian Odyssey and Mystery Dungeon games do a better job of making the repetitive grind less of a chore. I particularly enjoyed the Etrian Odyssey Untold games and Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Gates to Infinity, and would recommend that fans of either or both series play one of those games over the tepid mash-up that is Etrian Mystery Dungeon.