Etrian Odyssey

In light of many modern role-playing games with contemporary mechanisms and constant evolution, even within the same series, there always exists the temptation for developers to create “old-school” titles that are throwbacks to the earliest generations of RPGs. One such title is Atlus’s Labyrinth of the World Tree for the Nintendo DS, which their American branch translated with the Artifact Title Etrian Odyssey, which makes for a decent old-school experience in spite of its flaws.

Upon starting a new game, the player can create several characters of different classes, with up to five able to participate in dungeon exploration and combat at a time, each class having their own strengths and weaknesses. In the Yggdrasil Labyrinth, a colored circle gradually turns from blue to red to indicate how close the player is to encountering enemies, alleviating some of the frustration associated with traditional random battles, although the rate is often high without items to increase or decrease it. Outside fights, furthermore, the player can put their party into one or two formations, three frontline and two backline characters, or two frontline and three backline characters.

Upon encountering enemies, players go to a separate screen, with the player able to input one of several commands for their characters, among them being normal attacks, with frontline characters dealing more damage while taking more damage, and backline characters dealing less damage but taking less damage. Characters can use Tech Point-consuming abilities as well as consumable items, each able to attempt to escape, too, and while the option doesn’t always work, the player has a maximum of five tries to do so if they wish not to fight encountered enemies.

Each character, furthermore, has a Boost gauge that gradually fills up when they take damage, with characters able to activate Boost mode for one turn, in which case their attacks and abilities contain more power than normal, although this function is hardly the difference between victory and defeat. Upon winning a battle, each character that is still alive receives experience for occasional level-ups, in which instance the leveling character acquires a skill point that the player can invest into the diverse skills each character class has, with each skill having a maximum of ten levels, and many skills requiring the player to invest a certain amount of points into other skills; the player acquires money by selling items that enemies frequently drop at the shop in town, which occasionally unlocks buyable items.

The main advantage of battle is the sheer agility of fights, with most normal encounters lasting no more than half a minute, and somewhat compensating for the frequency of encounters. Boss fights (not to mention battles against visible wandering antagonists known as FOEs), on the other hand, tend to be more brutal affairs, with victory more depending upon skills than levels, and in many cases, the player needs to tread through a Stratum’s starting point through several floors to reach bosses in the first place, although there are occasional shortcuts the player can discover within each floor. All in all, the battle system has more going for it, such as the quickness of fights, although it has some things going against it such as the brutality of bosses.

The primary gimmick of Etrian Odyssey is that while the game automatically indicates which square in a dungeon’s floor the player has visited, it’s up to the player to use the stylus to detail these maps, drawing walls and using one of several icons to indicate certain elements of the dungeon, such as upward and downward stairways. The player’s mileage may vary with this particular aspect, since other titles such as a few Megami Tensei games manage to do everything automatically in terms of automaps, although it’s by no means a bad element, and the rest of interaction is generally favorable, although before purchasing new equipment, the player must go into the menus to see current equipment and remember how much prospected gear will increase or decrease stats. Still, the game generally interfaces well with the player.

As is expectant of a game where the player has total control over the type of playable characters, the plot is mostly lacking in terms of character development, although the Yggdrasil Labyrinth has decent backstory, and there is a pair of recurring characters the player regularly visits during their adventure. The localization, as is expectant of Atlus, is well above average, though an in-game pronunciation guide, given occasional odd names, would have been welcome.

Among the strongest aspects of Etrian Odyssey is its soundtrack by Yuzo Koshiro, who has prior worked on other games such as the Sonic the Hedgehog series and ActRaiser. The town themes are generally peaceful, with the themes for each Stratum of the Yggdrasil Labyrinth containing a mysterious feel, along with several solid battle themes. The sound effects are decent as well, although there is a slight technical issue with the Stratum music, which restarts from the beginning after battles, and in many instances, given the frequent enemy encounters, players won’t usually hear the Stratum themes to completion without standing still. Still, a great-sounding game.

The visuals don’t contain as much polish, however, although the Stratum environments in three dimensions generally look nice, as does the static character and enemy art. Battles, however, contain a complete first-person perspective, with the player’s characters invisible during their actions, and enemies having no movement whatsoever, simply flashing whenever their actions come. Ultimately, the game visuals could have used more polish.

Finally, although the main quest lasts for twenty-five floors, it can take several hours to proceed further down the Yggdrasil Labyrinth, with an approximate playing time of somewhere from forty to sixty hours, along with plenty lasting appeal in the form of the endless party combinations the player can attempt with subsequent playthroughs, not to mention post-game content such as five extra floors and completing the main town’s enemy and item compendium.

Overall, Etrian Odyssey is a nice start for the series, with plenty going for it such as the quick and enjoyable old-school mechanics not to mention its solid soundtrack and lasting appeal. Granted, the brutal difficulty of certain bosses as well as the constant manual mapping of the Yggdrasil Labyrinth and largely unengaging story certainly won’t appeal to everyone. Despite its hiccups, the game would receive several sequels, none of which, ironically, actually take place in the land of Etria, making baffling the decision by Atlus’s North American branch to call the franchise Etrian Odyssey in the first place.

The Good:
+Solid old-school mechanics with quick battles.
+Great soundtrack.
+Plenty replay value.

The Bad:
-Bosses can be grueling.
-Weak story.
-Graphics could have used more polish.

The Bottom Line:
Enjoyable old-school RPG experience.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo DS
Game Mechanics: 7/10
Controls: 7/10
Story: 5/10
Music/Sound: 8/10
Graphics: 6/10
Localization: 9/10
Lasting Appeal: 10/10
Difficulty: Hard
Playing Time: 40-60 Hours

Overall: 7.5/10

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