Etrian Odyssey is an adventure questing game for the Nintendo DS. A strange labyrinth has been discovered below the town of Etria, and adventurers have come from far and wide to explore it, forming into loose guilds to work together. You are the head of one such group, and your first stop is at the Guildhouse where you can recruit a set of adventurers from various basic classes and then form them into a party. Once you have your initial party of five you can venture around town and then on to explore the forest.
From here it is a standard adventure game. The forest contains random encounters with monsters, wandering bosses (called FOES) and environmental dangers like pits or poison floors. As you progress down through the sets of levels (called strata) they become progressively stranger in a fashion that almost reminded me of the original Diablo.
You gain money by killing monsters and getting items and then selling the items to Shileka at the armoury. She uses these as raw materials, so the more items you bring her of different types, the more inventory will become available. Early in the game money is difficult to get hold of, althought by the later stages you should have plenty. There are also quests handed out, usually at the tavern, where individuals require certain items and will give you a reward.
The game’s most distinctive feature is the mapping system. As you travel around the dungeon the gameplay take place entirely on the top screen, and actions are controlled by buttons. The lower screen is used for mapping, as you have to draw out the map for the dungeon as you explore it. Two of the main tasks you are given involve mapping areas of the labyrinth for the town council, and fortunately the system is easy to get the hang of. As well as drawing the map you can drag preset terrain features into place, and use the memo feature to make a small note (30 characters or so) about anything distinctive.
The graphics are fairly basic. A throwback to an older style of RPG, the top screen shows a first person view as you move round the dungeon, and in combat you face a sprite of your opponent. Combat is strictly turn-based, with standard attacks and a range of special skills and magic available to characters. Enemies are not animated, and most attacks share the same animation. The sound is good, although I tended to play with it off in order to concentrate. There are no voices, and it is purely text-based.
It can be difficult, particularly in the early stages. Limited opportunities to save increase the challenge; rather than save and save often, it is a case of save whenever the game lets you, which is only once every five floors and in town. The enemies can be rather hard and every now and then the game’s difficulty level jumps, forcing you to re-equip and level to defeat bosses.
There are a couple of issues with the game. First the one that must be mentioned is the level grind. Large sections of the game involve wandering around and battling monsters until you are strong enough to progress. Certain quests are even compulsory grind “Spend X days in this part of the forest”. Unfortunately it has no save point in that area, and the greatest challenge if you have already levelled up can be overcoming the player’s boredom threshold!
Another issue is with quests. The people who assign quests will often only tell you the full requirements once, and every time afterwards give you a summary which lacks the relevant information. If you have not used the map’s memo feature to record the details, you may end up lost and unable to complete the quest without an FAQ. Also certain quests trigger only when certain events have been completed, and others require you to make and level up a brand new character, which can seem like yet more grind.
I was disappointed on starting a second playthough to find out that the dungeons are not randomly generated. As the layout was precise I had suspects as much, but it does limit the games’ replay value.
However, as an adventure game it plays solidly despite its issues, and can be hard to put down. There is a distinct satisfaction in drawing in the last part of the map for an area, or discovering something new somewhere that you thought you had completed. Hidden passages, locked doors and other puzzles keep areas that you thought you knew fresh each time you visit.
Despite the fact that you create your party from scratch, and they never speak or interact as characters, it is quite possible to get rather attached to them. As they kill monsters and gain experience they get additional points to allow you to customise their skills, and they can get new equipment in town to match the skills you give them. This allows you to tailor the party to your playing style.
All in all, this is one that players of adventure games such as Diablo or Wizardry:Tales of the Foresaken Land would enjoy, and fans of dungeon-crawls really should not miss this! It is in many ways a throwback to older style RPGs and quest games with the mapping mechanism added on.
For those with patience, and a love of dungeon crawls this game has a lot of hours of play available to enjoy, and once you complete it a new strata unlocks to explore, allowing you to continue. For other players it may be rather frustrating, but overall I would say it’s worth a look.