The idea of searching dungeons for treasure seems to be having a bit of a resurgence lately, with all sorts of brawlers, slashers and crawlers making their way to various systems. This is the first of the Etrian games to make it to 3DS but the series has been mining the vein of dungeon exploration for some time now. With an experienced and knowledgeable team working in a fairly niche area it was always likely this was going to turn out well, what is perhaps unexpected is how accessible this is for newcomers to the series.
In most JRPG’s the plot is one of two things and as we aren’t questing to save a princess it means it’s time to try and reach that good old life giving Yggdrasil tree. It’s all familiar hokum but there’s certainly a comfort to it in a game such as this. Aside from the story the style of game will be anything but familiar to many a modern gamer.
Etrian breaks itself into three main parts. To start with you have the town which is represented through a glorified menu screen. Different places allow you to save, get equipment, heal and get new quests. This is done via 2D art and speech bubbles and is both functional and very clearly explained.
Your first task in town will be to set up your guild of adventurers. You have seven different classes to choose from and will then need to pick five heroes to arrange across the front and back row consisting of six spaces. Essentially you put fighters and shields at the front and medics and mages at the back but there are some cross-over characters to add variety.
As the game progresses a ton of different skills are unlockable for each character and it leads to pleasingly deep amount of thought and strategy that can be applied to your team. Levelling up does not happen quickly and when you do you get a single skill point to add to your character. This means you need to choose the skills and magic they are going to use carefully. It also means that a certain amount of grinding is par for the course so take that as a warning before going in.
Once your team is set it’s time to venture into a dungeon. Here we have a mix of styles at work. The game is presented from a first person view as you walk around a grid based labyrinth. While doing this you’ll need to use the lower part of the 3DS screen to draw a map of where you are. The map drawing is easy and will soon become an obsession for the more OCD adventurers among us. There are also a host of handy symbols such as doors and water available just to drag and drop onto the grid styled area.
While dungeons are seen from the first person perspective this is not a real time combat game like Eye of the Beholder. Combat is initiated via random events in the same way as many an RPG and then plays out in the standard turn based fashion. There are large enemies that are visible in the game world who will chase you around but for the most part you have to rely on checking the handy danger meter to know when you’re about to be attacked.
Combat is tough and you’ll always have to have your wits about you to make it through a dungeon. If your party is wiped out its game over and you can normally only save in towns or at a portal. There are items that evacuate you from dungeons but they can only be used outside combat. For newcomers there is a casual difficulty setting which tones things down a bit, moves you back to town when you die and lets you set certain items to unlimited use. Even with these changes enemies present a danger, but careful progress can be made by all level of player.
The final part of the game takes place on a larger world map and has our heroes exploring the land in a blimp. Here you can search for treasure and recover food for the town. It also serves as your transport to new dungeons (although once a dungeon has been found it can be teleported to from the town). Even here you have to be careful as big monsters stalk the land looking for you. At least these are visible and there are no random battles while flying in the blimp.
Etrian Odyssey evokes memories of top down Amiga Dungeons and Dragons games, only played out in a new 3D landscape. There’s just something magical about it that allows you play it for long periods at a time. Drawing the map really works and all the system are near flawless. If ever there is a highly accessible hard core RPG then this is it. There really isn’t much we can fault with it and it achieves what it has set out to do excellently. If you’re not a fan of the genre then this may do little to change your mind but for those looking for some old school swords and sorcery style action we can’t think of anything to better it.