Review: Etrian Odyssey (Nintendo DS)

Etrian Odyssey
Publisher: Atlus
Developer: Atlus
Genre: First Person Turn Based RPG (AKA Dungeon Crawl)
Release Date: 5/16/2007

Etrian Odyssey is a throwback to the oldest days of video game RPG’s. When games came on things called “floppy discs.” When the PC was the only way to play RPG’s. When Electronic Arts made actual quality video games. When a company called SSI was considered to be one of the best publishers around. When games like Ultima IV, Eye of the Beholder, and Wizardy were considered the best the industry had seen, regardless of genre. When graph paper was a perquisite for both tabletop and video RPGs alike.

Let’s get one thing straight. Etrian Odyssey is a Wizardry clone in every way possible. It’s a first person RPG. The battles are turn based. You can have a horde of characters waiting at camp and switch them out whenever you choose. The town in the game is an afterthought that allows you to get quests and heal. 95% of the game is dungeon crawling and the last 5 percent has some semblance of a plot. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The original Wizardry is still considered one of the best RPG’s ever made. Hell, the main reason I originally bought the PS2 was because Atlus released Curse of the Forsaken Land to US games in 2001. The only thing that really separates the games is that Wizardry has alignment and race classifications/restrictions where EO does not. EO does have a “map the level” aspect that interfaces with the DS touch screen.

Wizardry: Curse of the Forsaken Land sold miserably and is one of those games that people either loved or loathed depending mainly on their age and familiarity with the RPG genre. With Etrian Odyssey being the spiritual successor to one of the oldest and most popular RPG franchises of all time, the questions remains whether or not a game like this that actively seeks to punish gamers can find a niche in today’s world of 3-D graphics, wonky camera angles and with gamers bred on a far lesser degree of difficulty than EO will inflict upon them.

Let’s Review

1. Story

To be honest, Etrian Odyssey has even less story than most platformers. There’s a big impenetrable multi-level maze called the Yggdrasil Labyrinth. The characters you make are here to explore the Labyrinth. That’s it. That is the plot. Your characters have no personality or back story. They are two-dimensional killing machines. Yes, there is a reason for why the Labyrinth is there. Yes there is a bit of exposition. However any plot advancement is a grand total of five minutes of the game interspersed from beginning to end. This isn’t a game you play for a story. It’s game you play if you’re a hack N’ slash gamer.

For most of the game the only story impetus you’ll receive are guild quests. Even then it’s “get these items, kill this monster, come back to the guild and get your reward. If you are a RPG fan that plays primarily for the story, you might find yourself frustrated or bored with no apparent reason d’etre. If you’re an old school RPG fan or a fan of battling, then you’ll be right at home. Regardless, it’s been a long time since an RPG was released with this little depth of story. Even the PS2 Wizardry had some strong story elements.

Story Rating: 3/10

2. Graphics

Etrian Odyssey is a very pretty game. The backgrounds are stunning and look very realistic. Well, as realistic as a fantasy based labyrinth of plant life can be. The character and monster designs alike are charming and well done. The fact you can customize what your character looks like in their status screen is nice, but that’s really the only time you’re going to see their physical appearance.
As pretty as the game is, it has one big problem: There is no actual animation in the game. It’s static graphics just like we’d have back in an 1981 RPG. Now I understand this is an homage/direct rip-off to Wizardry, but even the last game in that series has SOME animation to it. Even Pokemon has attack graphics and the critters twitch when you release them from the Pokeball. Here? Nothing ever moves, unless you want to count the Alchemists spells.

As nice as the game looks, I can’t give it too high of a score here simply because EO takes the easy way out and does palette swaps for monsters, which is really sad considering this game could easily be done on the SNES or Genesis (save for the exact way the mapping occurs here). There’s a little bit of laziness there. With a little more animation and variety to the nice pictures thrown at us, the game could have easily gotten an 8 or higher here. Instead, it gets dragged down to merely “decent.”

Graphics Rating: 6/10

3. Sound

Not much to write home about here. The music is your generic RPG styling. Nothing that will stick in your head, but nothing distracting, out of place or annoying either. It’s just token background tunes.

There is no voice acting or sound effects to speak of. It’s just music playing while you run around killing things. I WISH I could elaborate more but there’s nothing really here. Middle of the road in all respects.

Sound Rating: 5/10

4. Control and Gameplay

This is pretty much the heart and soul of the game. You’re either going to love it or hate it, but either way, the actual engine is solid. It’s supposedly built of the SMT: Nocturne Maniacs engine, but honestly, it just feels like Wizardry to me.

The entire game is in a first person perspective. That is, you’ll be seeing the game just like one of your characters would. The D pad allows you to traverse the dungeon and the buttons help you select actions. It’s a standard RPG in this manner.

The real crux of the action comes from the mapping of the dungeons. Each level is pretty big, and if you don’t map, you’re sure to get lost and die. Considering you can only save the game in town or in a geometric sphere, if you don’t map you will die a lot, and thus lose all your hard earned data. You can set the game to auto map, but that doesn’t include borders or any special events. You’ll still have to fill those in. I really enjoyed mapping the dungeons as it brought back some heavy nostalgia, but it also helps immerse you in the game. It creates a sense of escapism where you’re actually in the Labyrinth slaughtering monsters and selling their body parts. The entire game is played through the eyes of your characters and map making helps to fill in the gaps where the story is sparse at best. It’s pretty easy to get the hang of how to do it, and although it may be a gimmick at best, it’s a fun one.

The other aspect is character creating and team building. There are nine character classes, although only seven can be selected at first. As you have a maximum party of five characters at once, that means some are sitting out. No problem though as you can always mix and match your characters. You can zip through the game with the same five characters or you can do a very slow crawl through, having multiples of each character and leveling them up equally and spreading out skill points to see what’s the best possible combination with each character class. This can be engrossing and also frustrating depending on what you put points into.

The game also takes a page from Disgaea in that at anytime you can retire a veteran character and when you do so, you can make a level 1 character with a ton of bonus points. This is a nice touch to really help you build an uber character, but much like reincarnation in Disgaea, only stats junkies or completists will really go this route. The majority of gamers will just whip through the game. There is also the option to rest a character. When you do this, your character will lose ten levels but you can also totally adjust your skill points. You’ll have to decide for yourself if this is a worthwhile gamble or not.

In all, the controls are intuitive, the engine is solid, and if gameplay is the be all and end all of which your gaming world revolves, then you’ll be quite happy picking this up. It’s modeling classic gameplay that has been nearly untouched for 26 years. There’s a reason for that.

Control & Gameplay Rating: 9/10

5. Replayability

This is an odd duck here. Etrian Odyssey is set up so that you only need to ever play once. The point is to make the best characters possible and get them as far down in the dungeon as you can. No point in starting a game over. Just make new characters and send them down. You can delete your old guys, reincarnate them, or just take them off the team for the time being simply because you can. Nothing wrong with this and in fact the game practically encourages this instead of starting a new game. This means that the game is as infinite as you want it to be.

At the same time the game is pretty repetitive. It’s a very slow burn in terms of advancement, reaching new levels and pretty much discovering anything new and nifty. Only the most hardcore or old school RPG gamers are going to concern themselves with the options allowed to you in terms of resetting your team. When it will take you days and to oh say, Level 10-12 to even so much as make it past the second dungeon level, that’s really going to put a cramp in people wanting to pick up this game again after they’ve already beaten it.

Only a niche portion of people who pick up this game will avail themselves of all the options presented. The rest will either enjoy the game but play it once, or go mad from the challenge and length presented here.

Replayability Rating: 5/10

6. Balance

You will learn to hate FOES. You will learn to swear loudly and consistently when they appear. FOES are the equivalent of bosses in this game. Unlike normal monsters, they aren’t randomly occurring. They are in specific places in a dungeon and have a set movement pattern. They are also about ten times tougher than anything else on that level, if not harder. FOES will impede your progress, causing you to stay longer on a floor than you otherwise would need to, and make you intentionally or unintentionally munchkin your characters up in order to get past them if you don’t sneak around them.

This created a double whammy for balance. Not only are FOES crazy powerful compared to what else you find on that same dungeon level, but by the time you get by them, anything else on the level is a cakewalk, not to mention everything on the next level EXCEPT for the foes. This really screws up the overall feeling with the game. Usually with a dungeon crawl it’s just straight up hard and you feel proud just to make it to the next level. Here it’s an oft-kilter mix of really easy or really difficult with no rhyme or reason.

The best way around this, and only the most insane people will take me up on this recommendation is to slaughter the FOES with a particular team, then retire your guys and use the new ones with the bonus skill points. Once a FOE is beaten, it stays dead permanently. This will let you proceed through the dungeon somewhat close to how these games are supposed to be rather than the weird seesaw difficulty the game ends up having. However this strategy will make playing through the game even longer and it’s already at Dragon Quest VII levels of “When does this end?”

I won’t lie. This game is 1980’s levels of difficult. Most games today by comparison are so easy a retarded comatose monkey could beat them. Remember this is patterned after Wizardry, the series which is universally considered the hardest gaming franchise ever made. Trust me on this. There is no harder video game in existence than Wizardry IV, and this is not up for debate. It’s a universally accepted fact. Because the past three generations of console games have been given challenges that are pabulum compared to these types of games, I’ll wager half of the people that pick up this game shall give it up in less than a week of playing it due to the challenges, the slow wading through the dungeon and the crazy hard enemies you will come across. It’s not that the game is outdated, simply that most gamers have forgotten what it’s like to deal with a real challenge. This is the same public that thought the Xbox version of Ninja Gaiden was crazy excruciatingly insane levels of pain when really it was simply watching a pretty poorly designed AI go through its consistent patterns and then countering. In the later stages of Etrian Odyssey, you will know frustration in its truest form. It’s why I like this game so much: beating it is an accomplishment. Sadly for most, it will simply be a doorway to madness or quitting.

Balance Rating: 4/10

7. Originality

Well this is easy. EO is basically Wizardry with a new map making feature. It might as well be a Wizardry title with a sidebar proclaiming, “Now with cuter graphics and monsters!” I can’t in good conscience give this a good score here because it’s really on the border between homage and blatant rip-off. I enjoy the game, but I also enjoy Street Fighter 3: Third Strike, and no way in hell it would be getting higher than the bottom of the barrel in this category either. EO is lucky it had the map feature or it’d be pulling a 1 or 2 here.

Originality Rating: 3/10

8. Addictiveness

Etrian Odyssey is just as likely to make you put the game down in annoyance as it is likely to make you play for hours on end, hoping to God that your DS’ battery doesn’t die. It’s really going to come down to what kind of gamer you are. Dungeon crawls, even two decades ago caused that sort of extreme reaction, and they still do today. Look at Pokemon Mystery Dungeon as a perfect example. People either liked it a lot and preferred it to the main RPG series of the franchise, or they found it repetitive and boring. If you played that game, you’re pretty much going to have that same reaction to EO.

Etrian Odyssey is a game you can easily lose yourself in if you like exploring and long term planning. It’s not a game for the quick 15 minute fix gamers or people who want something that will help them relax after a long stressful day. EO is likely to cause stress.

I’m personally a fan of this genre and even I at times was sighing at the amount of battles or how I had to get so many pieces of a type of wood and that whenever I chopped, I usually got anything BUT that type. I think because of the massive lack of plot it just didn’t draw me in as much as other modern versions of this gameplay style. I like story and I’m not a fan of static graphics. Wizardy games are still fun because they evolved massively with each one. While playing EO I found myself (and obviously still am) comparing it to Wizardry constantly. You really can’t help it. In the end, EO is trying to be a 1981 game in 2007. That doesn’t make it a bad game. In fact, I quite enjoyed it, but the game also feels like it’s trying to hard to be nostalgic from this era by leaving in the things that would be considered flaws even back then, thus making them even worse today because there have been 25 years of improvements.

Addictiveness Rating: 5/10

9. Appeal Factor

I enjoyed EO, but just because I had fun with it doesn’t mean everyone will. In fact, most gamers will hate it. That’s why we have appeal factor. The best games can be enjoyed by everyone. A niche game may be really good for a small select group of gamers, but the worst thing a reviewer can do is to let his own emotional opinion influence his critique of something.

EO is a game for MY type of gamer. The people who love complex games. The type of gamer who love crazy hard battles, be they RPG, shooters, or whatever. The type of gamer who loves the really old school RPG’s that had a definite 1st edition AD&D influence on them. But I’m very much a retrogamer and most of the genres I love aren’t too popular with the majority of gamers these days. How many people thought Gradius V was a GOTY contender? How many think Shining Force 2 is one of the ten best RPG’s ever made. Fuck, how many of today’s gaming public have even PLAYED SF2? Not bloody many.

And that’s the thing. If you’ve played this specific RPG variant before, you’ll know if you like it or not. Most gamers? Will not. It’s long, it’s hard, there’s little reward of advancement except in your own state of mind, and there’s no no flash or style to the game.

Most of you reading this have read me for months, and possibly even years. A lot of people read me, not because they agree with me, but because they know I can divorce myself from my own likes and dislikes and grade a game fairly and honestly. Most of you know to ignore the score and read the words I have printed. I like this game? Do you generally agree with my tastes? Then you’ll probably really enjoy this? If not, there’s a shiny PS3 out there with your name on it.

Like most Atlus titles, this is going to appeal to a minority of gamers, but that minority will be quite happy with this indeed.

Appeal Factor: 4/10

10. Miscellaneous

For the consummate gamer, EO is worth picking up because it is a great look at how different gaming was way back when, but more importantly it shows that the old conventions can still be used and appreciated today. It was really hard reviewing this game because I wanted to talk about the different character classes and the best skill point allocations for each classes and things that would be better suited for an FAQ because I enjoyed this game that much. At the same time over the weekend two friends of mine who really haven’t enjoyed gaming since the 16 bit era gave EO a whirl and quickly handed it back saying, “Yuck.” Different strokes for different folks.

What’s important is that EO is a wonderful homage to Wizardry. It manages to remind anyone who even looks at the game of it, and yet has a few things to help it stand on its own. The game can be as deep or as shallow as you want it to be, it all just depends on how obsessed you get with the game or if you just want to run through it. As tough as the game is, the focus really is about character creation and evolution. It’s a very different form of RPG’ing than we’re used to these days. It doesn’t make it bad. It just reminds us that there’s always a way to make something old new again.

Miscellaneous Rating: 7/10

The Score

Story: 3/10
Graphics: 6/10
Sound: 5/10
Control & Gameplay: 9/10
Replayability: 5/10
Balance: 4/10
Originality: 3/10
Addictiveness: 5/10
Appeal Factor: 4/10
Miscellaneous: 7/10
Total Score: 51/100
Final Score: 5/10

The Inside Pulse: Etrian Odyssey is a nice taste of old school gaming, Unfortunately, it tries so hard to be old school, it latches onto the negatives of the genre as much as it does the positives. The lack of story really hurts the game, and I find that I need to suggest Curse of the Forsaken Land over this. The PS2 Wizardry game has an excellent plot, a great concept like the Reaper, and offers some great rewards. EO isn’t bad, it’s just flawed and won’t capture the attention of most gamers. I personally really enjoy it, even with the flaws being all too apparent to me. EO is going to be one of the hardest games of the year, so if you’re up for a challenge, snag this while you can.