I’ve played games that love me and want to help me at every turn. And I’ve played games that hate me – I compare my repeated attempts to play Monster Hunter in single player to an abusive relationship that I just can’t seem to leave behind. But playing Etrian Odyssey III is the first time that I spent a fair amount of a game convinced that the game didn’t care one way or the other about my success or failure. It wasn’t going to get in my way, but it wasn’t going to help me move forward, either, even by explaining its own gameplay mechanics to me. And after finishing my playthrough, I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.
Etrian Odyssey III features exploration of both land and sea. The two gameplay elements rarely, if ever, meet, so I’d like to tackle them separately here as well. Let’s start with the less complex of the two: sailing. When you stop in at the port for the first time, you’re given the task to sail the… two seas in order to find other cities and open trade routes to the game’s home city of Armoroad. When you locate those cities and other landmarks, you are given two or three sentences describing the place you’ve found, but that is the extent of the sea-related story. You are free to sail wherever you want, but you do so with nothing driving you but curiosity and no real reward but the satisfaction of that curiosity. Well, that might be exaggerating things just a bit: you earn money by catching fish. Also, there are two full screens of ocean, and if you reach every landmark, you unlock a trio of extremely difficult post-game bosses down in the dungeon.
Your sea journeys are restricted in three ways: the supplies you take with you, the number of equipment slots on your ship, and the fact that each journey has a cost based on the supplies and equipment you’re taking. Initially, you are extremely limited – you’ll only be able to travel six squares on the board and carry just one piece of equipment at a time, and that equipment’s sole effect is to make more fish appear. However, locating certain landmarks grants you access to new supplies that allow you to travel farther, and as you progress downward in the dungeon, new equipment and equipment slots will be unlocked for your ship. By the end, you will be able to sail extremely long distances, carrying a cannon to fight pirates as well as special hull plating that allows you to sail over the top of seaweed and reefs. For a price, of course.
For me, the fun part of exploring the ocean was trying to get as far as I could with the resources I had available to me, usually as a break from dungeon crawling. The frustrating part was that I had to work out everything in the previous two paragraphs by myself. The game gave me no hints as to when or how I would get better equipment – every so often, I could just tell that I had reached a point where, until the game chose to give me better equipment, I had gotten as far as I was going to. Of course, since you’ve read this review, you won’t have the same problem I did. Regardless, the sea exploration is completely optional, so if you don’t enjoy it, you can spend all of your time in the dungeon instead.
The dungeon, of course, is where the meat of Etrian Odyssey III’s gameplay is found. It is where you battle monsters, gain XP, and do all of the other fun things we love to do in RPGs. It’s also where the game’s story progresses. Previous games in this series have been criticized for a lack of story, and this entry makes progress in that regard, although it’s still very slow to start. You arrive in Armoroad as the game begins, eager to join the ranks of the adventurers who have delved the depths of the Yggdrasil labyrinth beneath the city in search of treasure, and you’ll travel several floors deep in that labyrinth before the story starts moving.
Thankfully, the story actually does start moving, and as the game progresses, you learn the mysteries of the labyrinth and the larger role it plays in keeping the world safe from evil. Furthermore, about halfway down, you have to make a choice between two factions that determines the game’s ending as well as which bosses you’ll fight from then on. Sadly, the choice is far from clear, and not in a cool, morally ambiguous way. In my first playthrough, I made the choice that I thought was taking the “good” path, but it was not long before the dialogue led me to believe that I had actually taken the “bad” path. And even having finished the game both ways, I’m not sure – both endings seem to be somewhat “bad,” with no third alternative clearly available. It’s possible that a third choice is unlocked by completing both paths, but the game doesn’t give any real reason to expect that.
Of course, the story may not be what matters most to you, and if so, that’s OK, because I’ve got plenty of gameplay to talk about. I’d like to preface this section by saying that if you enjoyed the previous Etrian Odyssey games, go ahead and buy this one. It’s my first time with the series, but from everything I’ve read, it follows the standard formula, while improving on it in a number of ways you’ll probably appreciate.
In basic terms, Etrian Odyssey III is a turn-based RPG where you play as a party of up to five player-defined characters. As you walk through the dungeon, an on-screen icon shifts from blue to red as you approach your next random encounter, which helps build tension, especially if you’re in trouble health-wise. You get XP for each battle, divided equally among everyone in your party, so a party of one or two will level much more quickly than a party of five. Handy if you’ve decided to bring someone new into the group.
And you may decide to do that. There are 10 classes to choose from initially, and two more that are unlocked when you make the choice I mentioned earlier – one class is unlocked per side, so you’ll have to play twice to unlock them both. I found nearly all of the classes to be useful, and at least two to be indispensable: the Monk (the healer class) and the Prince (who has skills that can restore HP to the whole team at the end of each turn, at the end of each battle, and at every step outside of battle). Rumor has it that the series’ designer(s) chose a party size of five specifically to make players feel that they were one slot shy of being able to build a balanced team, and whether that is true or not, it is certainly the feeling one gets when trying to build a team.
That feeling is greatly alleviated just before the dungeon’s halfway point. At that point, you unlock the ability to assign each character a second class. From that point on, when the character levels up, you can assign their skill points to any skill from either class, although the character’s stat progression continues to be governed by their original class. It’s such a big change that it may drive you to completely rethink your party formation strategy. I mention this because I understand that it is a big change from the way the previous game handled subclasses, and I think it’s a big improvement.
Even with its gameplay advancements, Etrian Odyssey III still has a very retro feel. In town, everything you do is handled via menus, but they’re straightforward even for those who have never played the series before – enough so that I have only one complaint with the game’s menus: the selection of “Custom” is a very unintuitive word for the place where you assign unused skill points and limit break skills. The dungeon is a first-person affair, laid out on a grid, and the DS touch screen is used entirely as your place to map it out. The mapping tools are easy to use, and include plenty of icons that you can use as you see fit (although some are clearly intended to represent certain things, like secret passages), as well as the ability to attach a player-defined comment to any map square. The map is crucial to your success, so if your DS has any trouble with its touch screen, this is not the game for you. Even if your touch screen is fine, you can be your own worst enemy – on one occasion, I made a mistake on my map that cost me hours of pointless wandering and frustration.
On the other hand, the map also includes a feature that saved me countless hours: auto-pilot. You can lay down a path wherever you like on the map and follow it automatically, be it a path to the stairs down to the dungeon’s next level or just a loop that you can follow for an infinite number of random encounters. This feature is outstanding, and really relieved the pain of grinding for XP. I would set up an auto-pilot loop, put my DS on my desk, and lay my phone on the A button. When a battle came along, my team just did basic attacks over and over until they won. I had to pick up the phone at the end of each battle and put it back down again, but that was the extent of my involvement. All in all, I’d guess that my phone played at least 20 hours of this game, and I really appreciated that, even though it made me a little sad to think that the game didn’t really need me to play it. It was nearly self-sufficient.
Here at RPGFan, we had an unusual opportunity for a pre-release game with Etrian Odyssey III: the developers were so adamant that we try multi-player that they sent two copies (more on that later). My wife, Amy, played the second copy, and she ran into the same issue I did with her map: she drew a wall where there was none, and lost a lot of time as a result. She also ran into a problem that I didn’t have: on every floor of the dungeon, there is an assortment of regular enemies, some stronger than others. On the very first floor, Amy ran into a much higher percentage of the strong enemies than I did, and she just kept barely surviving and having to run back to town for an HP and mana-restoring stay at the inn. Trouble is, a stay at the inn costs money – more and more every time you level up – and the items you get from beating enemies on the first floor don’t earn you very much money. It was a huge struggle, the kind where someone playing for fun might simply give up on the game, but where a reviewer feels obligated to keep trying. (I know: “Boo hoo, you got to play a game before it came out.”) It was just consistently bad luck, but I considered it a mark against the game that bad luck could be such a strong factor and last for so long.
Admittedly, my fellow writers have informed me that this series is known for being difficult. For the most part, this is an issue that can be taken care of with a bit of level grinding, but there is a limit to how far that will take you. Namely, level 70, the highest you can get to. The first time I got to the end boss, I was at level 70, and had no chance whatsoever to win the fight. The game allows you to “rest” a character, which knocks them down five levels, but returns all of their skill points for redistribution, or “retire” a character, which gives you a brand new character with enhanced stats. Thankfully, that brand new character doesn’t start from level 1 – a level 70 character who retires gives you a level 30 character to start over with. I retired my entire team, set a few of my new characters to slightly different class combinations than I used the first time, and then put my phone in grinding mode.
As my characters leveled up, I took care to eliminate the wasted skill points of my first go-round and focus specifically on the skills that would help me in the final battle. The game also allows you to use the items that enemies drop to enhance your weapons to cause status ailments, so I maxed out my weapons with the kind of statuses that I knew would affect that fight. And it paid off – the second time around, thanks to having planned everything specifically for that fight, I was able to win without too much trouble. The moral of the story is this: the game is hard at times, but it can be beaten. The question is one of how long you’re willing to put into the preparations for just one battle, because if you choose to fight the post-end-game bosses, you’ll probably have to “rest” or “retire” your team and build them up all over again for each boss.
As I mentioned, this game includes local multiplayer as well. However, it is extremely limited. Playing with friends in Etrian Odyssey III means each of you – up to four players total – taking just one character from your team into one “sea quest” at a time. All sea quests include between one and three NPCs, so if you take two players into a quest with just one NPC, you’ll be fighting short-handed. Each sea quest consists of one or two battles against a fixed set of opponents. Win the battle, and you get a piece of equipment or occasionally a new limit break ability. The thing is, if I was strong enough to beat the quest, I almost always had better equipment already. And the restriction to only bring one character per player means that if you’ve only got one friend with this game, you’re essentially limited to only playing a third of the available quests. Amy and I played a few times, but didn’t find it compelling enough to play any more than that. However, you can take on the same quests alone, using as many of your own characters as are needed to fill out a five-man roster, and I played quite a few of the quests that way just to see what rewards I’d get.
Moving on to other matters, this isn’t an incredibly graphics-intensive game. There are no cut-scenes or character/enemy animations at all. There are character portraits for NPCs, player characters, and enemies, and they are varied and drawn well. There are a few palette-swapped enemies, but they are the exception, rather than the rule. Instead, as you progress down through the levels of the dungeon, the available enemies change a bit every level, and both the enemies and the environments change completely every four levels. The environments have a small amount of animation, which is nice, because they are essentially all you will see through your entire time playing the game. Visually, it’s a lonely, solitary gameplay experience.
That same feeling carries over to the game’s sound. There is no voice acting, although I admit that I am surprised when a DS game has any, and with so many hours of grinding, I spent most of my play time listening to other music. Or, you know – working while my phone played the game. But when I did listen to my DS, it sounded just fine. As was the case in the previous game in this series, the music and sound effects get the job done and match the tone of the game well, but are unlikely to thrill players.
Usually, I can write up a review pretty quickly, and I’ve got an idea of what score a game will get after just a few hours of playing it. This game was different, because it’s a very niche title, that will appeal to some gamers a lot, and to others, not at all. To give you an indication of how difficult it was for me to score this game, I have to tell you that I’ve been working on this review for over a week now. Not the game playing part – the writing part. As I mentioned, Etrian Odyssey III was my first time playing this series, but I’ve done my homework, and I can definitely recommend it to those who enjoyed either of the first two games, or those who thought they were lacking just that little extra “something” to make them great. I never found a good place to mention this, but I think veterans will want to know that the classic F.O.E.s (“F***ing Overpowered Enemies”) are back, and you get XP each time you beat them. The same goes for bosses, although there’s a delay before a boss begins respawning. The amount of XP you gain is not excessive, though, so I think they’ve finally worked out a good balance there.
If you haven’t played the previous games, then your mileage will vary greatly depending on how you like your games. If you want something fast and full of action, this probably isn’t the game for you. However, if you like turn-based games that reward you for putting a lot of thought into your skill choices and are willing to put up with a significant amount of (game-assisted) level grinding, it’s likely that you’ll appreciate Etrian Odyssey III.