The brainchild of one Kazuya Niinou, previously responsible for the Trauma Center series, Etrian Odyssey is a hark back to classic first-person computer RPGs. Its sparse narrative and heavy emphasis on careful exploration rewards patience and strategy, while its simple graphical style and authentic FM-chip soundtrack create a nostalgic and eerily beautiful atmosphere.
Title: Etrian Odyssey
Platform: Nintendo DS
Release Date: May 15th, 2007
Known as Sekaiju no Meikyuu in Japan, the game's begins in the small township of Etria, located on the border of a deep forest. Adventurers from all over are drawn to Etria by tales of the "Yggdrasil Labyrinth," a perilous dungeon that extends deep below the forest. It is the player's role to form a party, explore and chart the labyrinth, and uncover the mysteries held within. Ultimately, this narrative stays in the background for most of the game, with small but poignant clues laid down at key points. This simple, no-frills setting is quite telling of Etrian Odyssey's aim to recapture the feel of the classic dungeon crawler.
Rather than focusing on the development of characters, the game is centred around the player's relationship with the labyrinth itself. The top screen of the DS provides a first-person view of the labyrinth and access to menus, while the touch screen below it acts as a dedicated grid-based map display. This map system is the heart and soul of Etrian Odyssey. While the game automatically fills in steps taken by default, it is the player's responsibility to chart their own map with the icons and drawing tools provided. Walls, treasure chests, resource points, enemy spawns, points of interest - all of these can and must be plotted manually if your journey is to be a fruitful one. Here lies the first point of division - for people with an adventurous spirit and an eye for detail, drawing one's own map is a fulfilling experience. Players more accustomed to having complete maps readily available, however, will likely find the game's insistence on self-sufficiency to be quite a bother.
This carry-over from old-school RPG design is matched with remarkably high difficulty. Regular mobs on the first level of the labyrinth are more than capable of wiping out a poorly planned or ill-equipped party in a matter of seconds. Choosing to rest in a quiet field or pick an appetizing fruit from a tree can lead to a lost chunk of HP at best, or an ambush by a new, frightening enemy at worst. As if that were not enough, another of the game's selling features is the FOE system (Field On Enemy for Japan, or Formido Oppugnatura Exsequens for the West). Appearing in the labyrinth as vibrant orange and red orbs of light, FOEs are powerful and extremely aggressive versions of normal enemies that are visible on the map. They keep moving with every turn, even when the party is engaged in battle, and often make an effort to join a battle if they are nearby. Thankfully, FOEs can be avoided for the most part, however they remain a constant, often terrifying threat throughout the game. Truly, the labyrinth is a formidable place, and will mercilessly break and torment players who tear through its halls with careless abandon.
Party management is another important aspect of Etrian Odyssey, and players that ignore or devalue it will find it hard to progress later in the game. Parties are five members strong, and are made up of traditional roles with rather untraditional names - one will come to refer to landsknechts, survivalists, and alchemists rather than knights, rangers and sorcerers. Each character's growth is measured in classic fashion as well, with attributes like strength and vitality growing with every experience level gained. The player's hand comes into play with the Skills system, a list of abilities and buffs that differs for each character class. Each character begins with three skill points, and gains an additional point with every level. Only a handful of Skills are available starting out, while others require pre-requisite skills in order to be learned. Skills are a key factor in developing a balanced party, and care must be taken to develop characters in ways that complement the party as a whole. A heavy-hitting party left open to debuffs and status ailments isn't going to last long, nor a magic-focused party with no muscle.
Graphically, the game is low-res, but charming. The 3D dungeon view is often quite bare aside from doors and occasional points of interest, yet it gets across the feeling of a dense, lush forest quite well. Draw distance and pixelated textures are obvious issues, unavoidable due to the limitations of the DS hardware. Battle scenes are static, with well-illustrated enemy sprites and simple visual effects taking the forefront. Character art is provided by artist Yuji Himukai, and while the style may be an acquired taste, it succeeds in adding to Etrian Odyssey's unique flair. Players used to more visually engaging games may turn up their noses at the simple interface and menu-driven gameplay. Others, however, will find just enough fuel for the imagination to fill in the blanks.
The visuals are accompanied by a score composed by game music legend, Yuzo Koshiro. Composed exclusively with FM synthesis - the defining sound of Japanese arcade and computer games in the '80s and '90s - the soundtrack is the defining element of Etrian Odyssey's identity. While most pieces are short in length, the music never seems to wear on the nerves, and will likely stay with the player long after the game is over. Together, the audio and visuals combine to fashion an atmosphere that is perfect for dungeon crawling: often haunting, often beautiful.
Etrian Odyssey is a straight-forward, charming, hard-as-nails dungeon crawler that demands strategy, focus, and patience. Players that enjoy pushing (or punishing) themselves will revel in its hours of challenging, merciless content, and will be moved by the eerily beautiful tone set by the simple, yet evocative graphics and FM-synth soundtrack. Those more accustomed to more contemporary or action-oriented games, however, will likely have a hard time coming to terms with its bold-faced dedication to "old-school" dungeon crawl gameplay.