Without question, Etrian Odyssey is the most polarizing role playing game I’ve played on the Nintendo DS. On one hand, it is apple pie simple: a pen-and-paper type romp through a 30 floor dungeon with only minimal skills and weapons; on the other, it is easily the most difficult RPG I’ve played in the post 16-bit era and will likely turn off anyone who started playing RPGs after the release of Final Fantasy VII. As a result of this complex dynamic inherent within the game, I advise you to read my review with trepidation. I absolutely loved Etrian Odyssey, but there’s no guarantee that you will.
Because gameplay is easily the most interesting part of the game, it is prudent to first delve into the meat of it. In summation, Etrian Odyssey is an intense dungeon hack that evokes memories of games such as Wizardry, Ultima, Shining in the Darkness, and the original Phantasy Star. I vividly remember having to visit the local drug store in order to buy graph paper back then, so that I could map out the dungeons in the games. In Etrian Odyssey, instead of paper, Atlus brilliantly turned the bottom screen on the Nintendo DS into a virtual graph sheet and the stylus into your pen. The screen allows you to do basic mapping, and even includes some nice features such as the abilities to quickly indicate pits, treasure chests, and event squares. With the mapping also comes the function of using the memo feature on any part of the map so that you can quickly jot down notes that you can read at any time. This can be especially useful when encountering a crystal blocking your path or a place that might allow for full healing. This mapping system is the highlight of the amazing gameplay and fully utilizes the bottom touch screen in a way I’ve yet to see properly executed on a Nintendo DS RPG.
Even though the mapping is brilliant, the solid gameplay does not stop with this singular feature. The game consists of a five member party, and each member of the party is made at a guild hall. These members are drawn from a selection of nine different classes, which range from the Protector (a paladin type warrior who also has the ability to use light white magic) to the unique Survivalist (a woodsman who has the ability to provide multiple statistical advantages). While only five can be in a party at once, the game allows you to have different party members in reserve, so that you can take different party members with you depending on what goal you are trying to accomplish. Even though these characters are classic archtypes, as an old school gamer, these didn’t bother me. Instead, I was thrilled to try out all of the various combinations until I felt ready to delve into the depths of The Labyrinth.
Atlus should be praised for the way in which each of the classes brought unique skills to the table. Instead of having a way for every character to learn fire magic for example, you had to rely upon the Alchemist. Get into a battle where you need to have intense healing magic? Well then you better have a high level Cleric at your side or you might be in trouble. Keeping a selection of well defined characters, each with their own high skill sets was the best way to reach the bottom of the dungeon. When levels are gained, skill points can be placed in various categories. Choose wisely, however, or you’ll find yourself with high hit points and no defense, or a lack of a critical attack skill.
Another interesting gameplay feature, if it can be called one, is the way in which money and the procurement of high quality items remained difficult throughout the quest. When grinding (and yes there is a lot of it), monsters do not drop money, but instead leave behind reminants of their skins, horns, or stingers that can be traded at the Etria store. Different items, weapons, and armor open up and become available after a certain amount of various monster skins are sold to the shop. When they are revealed to the player, they are often too expensive to even procure, and even resting at the inn at the beginning of the game bleeds the wallet dry. Like a person who bought a house at the wrong time in a plummeting real estate market, a non fiscally aware player can find themselves going into video game bankruptcy real quick.
Battle itself is about as nuts and bolts as it gets. The game features standard turn based action with minimal animations for spells and special attacks. But that doesn’t mean it’s simple. Rather, you’d better be ready to either beef up your characters, or be ready to see that “Game Over” screen time and time again. This becomes especially true when running into FOEs (Foedus Obrepit Errabundus, Latin for “the vile, wandering one sneaks up”). FOEs have the ability to join into battle when other monsters are already engaged with you and can make quick work of your party in a hurry. On many occasions, I found myself attacking a group of monsters lackadaisically and ultimately paid the price. This is the beauty of the Etrian Odyssey battle system: it is fun, challenging, and doesn’t allow for ADD to set in.
What holds Etrian Odyssey back from being an instant classic is that it doesn’t incorporate a compelling narrative into the amazing dungeon experience. Instead of the recent Digital Devil Saga series and Persona 3, which beautifully intertwine an intense dungeon(s) and a dynamic plot, Etrian Odyssey almost feels incomplete on this end. The game opens in the town of Etria, a peaceful village on the edge of a daunting forest, almost akin to Nottingham Forest. While many of the villagers are scared to enter the forest, many of the village leaders put together teams of travellers to enter it and bring back their findings. This, in shorthand, is your job when assuming the main quest of the game. You bring back chronicles of your journey, whether they be in the form of monsters encountered or items procured. Yes, there are are moments of finding people in the forest, or special assignments of hunting down wolves or the like, but these do not drive the casual player to enter The Labyrinth. The only travellers that will finish the game will do so because they love the mapping and challenge Etrian Odyssey provides.
The accompanying aspects of the game hold together quite nicely but don’t change the gameplay experience too much. Yuzo Koshiro, who has had quite an extensive career, was responsible for the music in the game, and it has a good FM quality to it. It seemed properly paced for the particular battle (whether it be a standard monster, FOE, or actual boss) and is at its height when actually walking through the dungeon. To make a long story short, I was never once sick of it, which is crucial for a game where you spend so much time exploring.
The graphics were not the best I’ve seen on the DS console, but they certainly weren’t the worst either. While there were no dramatic CG cutscenes, I didn’t think there should have been either, because of the nature of and audience for the game. A lot of the monsters and wallpapers for the dungeon were simple color swaps, but I really didn’t mind this at all. It is worth noting that the opening sequence for the game is quite beautiful.
The controls for the game were quite good. Unlike Luminous Arc, Lost Magic, and other games that utilized the touch screen so extensively yet had quirks, the mapping feature was spot on and never became gimmicky. The game could be picked up and played immediately and I liked how the touch screen remained out of the battle system. I thought Atlus did a great job of combining the stylus with buttons on this one. Color me satisfied.
Some people will read this review and think that my scores are way too high and that Etrian Odyssey is one of the worst games to ever reach the Nintendo DS console. Some may read my review and think that I weighed story as too much of a factor and think that Etrian Odyssey is one of the most revolutionary RPGs ever to grace a handheld. Whatever the sentiment, it is clear that Etrian Odyssey is a niche game that is sure to find the hearts of some and draw the ire of others.