Old School dungeon crawlers. It has been a long time since we’ve seen these types of games properly released. Veteran Roleplaying players should remember Eye of the Beholder, the Bard’s Tale, Might & Magic, Wizardry and other series, released upon different non-console platforms: DOS, Commodore 64, Amiga, … These games all used to have a few things in common, as explained in the Roleplaying Concepts article. The most intersting gameplay mechanic is without a doubt the “dungeon crawling” principle. Enter a tomb, defeat lots of bad guys, loot items, get to the next level, defeat lots of bad guys, rest, loot items, get to the next level, and so on.
Lately, several attempts have been made to bring the genre to Handheld systems. For instance, the Mazes of Fate Gameboy Advance game. Atlus decided to give it a go too, thanks to the growing popularity of the Nintendo DS. Etrian Odyssey is a First Person Dungeon Crawler, with heavy japanese RPG influence (which was originally influenced by the above listed games!). Can people who enjoy Wizardry also love this game? Read on, you’re about to find out.
First and foremost: Atlus, the American publisher, is known for releasing heavily japanese flavoured games. If you for some reason can’t stand the look of “anime” characters and art, be prepared to run far, far away. If this reduces your fear somewhat: only the character (your party and the enemy) art is drawn in anime style. The game world itself is rendered in fluid 3D and the town (yes, no plural!) background art looks okay. Just as the classic dungeon delvers, by entering an inn you’ll encounter the bartender who talks a bit about the situation. There is no interaction at all, you see a very old-school menu “talk/buy/sell/…”, the character portrait of the bartender and a text balloon. No animation, nothing. Etrian Odyssey is very restrictive, it does not try to implement fancy stuff.
While we’re at it: by “basic”, I mean… very basic. There are a wide variety of skills present, but all entries are accessible via the same menu, which does not makes things easy to navigate. Battling can be done via another menu: attack, defend, skill, item or run. You cannot set your prefered actions for each team member, and you’ll have to mash the button again and again, it’s fully turn based. While there is a boost bar present, to dish out som extra damage on very much needed times, all core strategy lies within skill selection. I wouldn’t say “development” since pumping a skill point you acquire per level into a certain skill simply unlocks others. Navigating in the dungeon (yes, no plural again. There’s one enormous forest to explore, with 10+ levels) is done via the D-pad. Although navigation is very smooth thanks to the 60 frames per second, the map is still divided into individual squares, just like the classic games.
What’s different in Etrian Odyssey? You draw the dungeon map yourself using the DS stylus. You can create notes, add waypoints, trap notifications etc to the lower screen map as much as you’d like. It’s a very nice addition to the core game, but individually navigating with the map is very clumsy. Instead of providing a way to scroll up/down or left/right, you have to tap 1⁄2 or A/B, treasure chart index style. Touch input has been restricted to map drawing only, all menu’s are activated via the buttons. Meaning a stylus and another hand is needed, there could have been a option to at least skip conversations by pressing the touch screen. There is no treasure to collect in the dungeon, only mere monster parts. Bring and sell them back to the shop if you get out of the forest alive, and the shop will magically restock with better equipment. I can think of better ways to implement forging.
Apart from the easy battle system, the game itself is ridiculously hard. By hard, I mean insanely difficult. My tank, equpiped with the best starting armor and shield, died in my very first battle, before I could even hit any enemy. Is that annoying or what. You think “no problem, run back to town, revive your party members and whack away!”. Indeed, this is correct. If you can make it back to town, without a very high level portal spell. Backtracking to town sometimes can be ver harsh, especially with the difficulty. All monsters appear randomly, by the way. WHAT? Yup. It’s a japanese RPG thing. You’ll hate it. A blue orb indicates whether a new ambush is awaiting you a few steps further by blinking green or red. If it’s red, and you need to revive your tank, prepare to throw the DS out of the window. The run option doesn’t always trigger when needed.
Aside from those frustrating moments, the game is beautiful. Apart from the anime paperdolls. And mostly enjoying, because of the classic throwback. But considering all of Etrian Odyssey’s strong and weak points together, Wizardry and other “recent classic RPG” games perform much, much better. If you’re dying to play a classic FP RPG dungeon crawler, I’d recommend to take a look at Might & Magic VI, VII, Wizardry 8 and others. That is, if you did not play those yet.
Review-Cat says: Let me rephrase that: If you’re dying to play a dungeon crawler on your handheld, Etrian Odyssey certainly is worthy. The game is very unforgiving and has a lot of flaws compared to other dungeon crawlers. Be prepared, I cannot recommend the game for everyone.