As a remake/retreading/reimagining (take your pick) of the 2008 original, Etrian Odyssey comes with an actual preset story instead of the absolute hardcore focus on dungeon crawling (though that is also an option via Classic mode here), with predetermined classes and characters. You play the Highlander visiting the city of Etria, a town hub that rests next to the Labyrinth, a giant maze of dark forests, mythical earthen lands and strange technology hubs that serve the majority of the setting. Soon enough you stumble upon a group of allies, one of which is the titular Millennium Girl, an amnesia stricken girl with an affinity for technology. Insert obligatory JRPG clichés here: an amnesiac girl, a rising threat, a scholarly medic, the reckless pyrotechnic, the battle hardened commander, it’s all been done before. Thankfully the cast is made up of likeable characters, and their brief interludes between exploring and combat are a nice touch. Despite the likeability of the characters, their arcs are simple and obvious and originate from the oldest RPG stereotypes in the book.
Etrian Odyssey isn’t anything spectacular to look at, but it presents itself serviceably well. The dungeon layouts are repetitive which can lead to confusion as to where to go, but I suppose the limitations of the 3DS combined with the robust map system can make this a forgiving flaw. There’s nothing quite like looking at a complete map, one that you have done yourself without the help or the handholding from the game and it’s a remarkably satisfying feeling.
Cutscenes look great and the enemy types all look unique, which is refreshing after looking at the same dungeon layouts for hours. The menu system is a bit simplistic and cluttered but it’s all serviceable. Overall the presentation is nothing special; the cutscenes and characters all look nice, but repetitive dungeon layouts and clunky text brings it down.
Etrian Odyssey employs a unique combination of typical turn based combat and cartography that makes up the bulk of the gameplay. When entering a dungeon for the first time, you are presented with a blank slate, and it’s up to you to chart your progress by marking doors, items of interest and the general layout itself. It’s an immensely satisfying and intricate process, utilizing the touchscreen via your stylus to draw these maps. The dungeon exploration is done via a first person view, systematically moving through environmental blocks whilst fighting enemies. There is an inventory limit which is quite harsh given the high drop rate of monsters, forcing you to go back to town to sell your items. This isn’t really a fault, since the combat is so challenging and tough that you’ll be running back to town to heal up anyway.
When it comes to the combat, Etrian Odyssey uses the classic turn based system, with your five characters using a mixture of defense and attack skills in order to beat the enemy, and it boasts a surprisingly deep roster of skills. You can study your enemy, exploit weaknesses and turn the tide of a losing battle with smart tactics. The skill sheets for every character is broad and a joy to scroll through, figuring out which points you should use to boost which skill path. Your Highlander character is an offensive fighter with abilities to sacrifice health for broad attacks; it’s up to you how to tackle the next skillset once you level up, should you boost health skill points to counter the sacrifice, or do you boost your attack to make each skill even more deadly? And that’s on a surface level: Etrian Odyssey boasts an impressive repertoire of skills and playstyles. It should be noted that the Story Mode locks each character into a predesignated class, whilst Classic Mode gives you free rein to choose between all 11. While Story Mode gives you five equal and solid classes, there’s always room to experiment and choose your own in Classic.
The game is no picnic either; Formido Oppugnatura Exsequens roam the dungeons, and these F.O.E’s are some of the games most dangerous opponents. Encountering one in a dungeon is tough enough, but the game quickly throws 3 or 4 at you in a row bringing the frustration levels high enough to risk damage to the Nintendo handheld. These fights are immensely satisfying to succeed in and reward the player with rare materials and big EXP boosts. Even the titular Picnic named difficulty level is tough, and the highest difficulty only giving you one life for the entire game. Only hardcore JRPG players apply.
And in case you weren’t having enough fun with the skill systems, enemy analysis and turn based combat, this reiteration throws in Grimoire Stones: rare items that open up your class to different skills and boosting your original ones. Unfortunately these Stones are mostly random unless you sell rare materials and buy even more expensive items in order to unlock set ones, and while you can combine two to form a stronger Stone (at the expense of a third), it feels more like luck than skill and it’s a system you could potentially ignore.
But tough difficulty should never be looked as a negative, and Etrian Odyssey manages to make the challenges feel incredibly tough whilst completely rewarding. It’s not unfair or cheap (though those F.O.E encounters can be crippling when done several times in a row, there’s always an option to retreat, hide and avoid and run back to town to heal up) and it just feels satisfying, with huge rewards to back it up.
On the downside, despite this being a remake to assumedly give players an easier starting point, this is still a hardcore JRPG, to the fault. Materials are never really explained, you have to work out most of the skills and enemy tactics yourself and the map system is very intimidating at first, with heavy dumps of screen text attempting to explain the system but not doing it in a way that sticks. These are all hurdles that can be overcome within hours, but if you’re looking for a game you can simply jump in every now and then with your 3DS, then this is not it.