Review: Etrian Odyssey III: The Drowned City (Nintendo DS)

Etrian Odyssey III: The Drowned City
Genre: Dungeon Crawling RPG
Developer: Atlus
Publisher: Atlus
Release Date: 09/21/10

I would call myself a fan of the dungeon crawling RPG genre without hesitation. I generally love the genre when the game is done well, and in the past few years, the DS has given me more than a few games to enjoy in the genre. The Dark Spire was a love letter to the games of days gone by, with its often oppressive difficulty and optional EGA graphics options, and Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey spent more time in my DS than any game this year has and probably will. The first Etrian Odyssey was something of an interesting take on the genre, in that it incorporated elements of old-school dungeon crawlers, but added in its own unique and interesting elements, like hostile high powered enemies called FOEs that you would have to avoid to progress, drawing your own map, and other such things that made the game interesting. The core experience didn’t quite feel right though, like the developers had an idea of where to go with the game, but hadn’t actually played one before. Assumptions that the series would improve as the developers got a hang of the genre were somewhat squashed when Etrian Odyssey II came out back in 2008, as the game was essentially the exact same thing with a couple new classes and some… annoying changes, to say the least. Well, they say that the third time’s the charm, so here we are with Etrian Odyssey III, and the question is, is this indeed the charm, or like mighty Casey, has Atlus managed to strike out?

Well, third verse, same as the first, as once again, there’s a mysterious Labyrinth, and once again, you have to make a guild and go explore it. Once again, the Labyrinth is called the Yggdrasil Labyrinth. Once again, the town has a different name (in this case, Amroad). Once again, your goal is to get to the bottom of the dungeon or die trying. Your characters are essentially the random grunts you create in service of the guild you represent, and as such, they’re not really ever referenced by name or anything; the game just basically talks to “you” whenever decisions need to be made or storyline bits need to be explained. Volume-wise, there’s about as much story as there was in the prior game, though there are branching storyline paths you can follow this time around, as well as a bunch of little incidental bits of flavor here and there to add to the experience. The story is still a backdrop for the experience, and as such is generally inoffensive to the person looking to spend hours grinding away. It’s a good bit more interesting this time around, if nothing else. There’s also a side-story associated with the port in Amroad, which involves your guild going out to see to re-establish trade routes and wage war on monsters and such, which is also fine enough for what it is, if ultimately also adequate. It does nothing to inspire you to progress along its narrative path, but is also inoffensive and does nothing to dissuade you from completing it. As such, it does its job fine.

Etrian Odyssey III basically follows in its predecessors’ footsteps visually, meaning that it replicates the visuals of the first two games, but changes the artwork and visual design of the dungeon. The environments are as pretty as ever, especially for a DS title, the menus are clean and uncluttered, and the artwork is all really nice and well done all around. On the other hand, the monsters and enemies still aren’t animated in any notable capacity, and the attack animations still come down to a cutting animation appearing over the enemy instead of an actual attack animation of someone doing something. Now, as has been noted previously, this is hardly uncommon, as the aforementioned games like The Dark Spire and Strange Journey did the same things, but as this is the third game in the Etrian Odyssey series, at this point this is no longer impressive and one would expect SOME sort of effort to be made in this respect.

Aurally, the music is still as solid as ever, what with each Stratum having its own appropriate ambient track that works well with the theme of the area, and the battle tracks are powerful, driving tunes that get you into combat nicely (which is to be expected, thanks to Mr. Yuzo Koshiro of Streets of Rage music fame). The sound effects are still only above average, on the other hand. They’re standard RPG fare, they work, and you never get confused about what’s going on, IE swords sound like swords, books sound like books, and so on, but they’re not anything exciting or special.

Etrian Odyssey III, as with its predecessors, isn’t really about its presentation so much as it’s about its gameplay, so it’s good to know that in most respects the gameplay is still pretty solid. Once you start the game, you’re taken off to the Explorer’s Guild to create a party of characters from whatever classes you see fit. The classes in Etrian Odyssey III, though they bear more than a passing resemblance to those of the prior games, have been completely redone, so you won’t simply be jumping into the same game as before and working with the same classes. There are ten classes immediately available, such as the Hoplite (tanks), the Gladiator (warriors who use swords and clubs), the Monk (white mage with punching power), the Zodiac (black mage), and so on. You can also unlock two additional classes, the Yggdroid and the Shogun, based on choices you make in the story, so you’ll have to complete the game twice to earn both classes. In theory, any combination of characters is as equally viable as any other. In practice, however, a team of five Monks will probably get slaughtered a million and five times, while a team that makes proper use of the strengths and weaknesses of the classes and builds a properly balanced party will own all. You’re offered six slots in your party screen, five of which may contain characters (as you can summon things into the sixth slot, like animals and shadow clones), allowing you to build front and back rows as needed.

For those who care, I went in with a Hoplite, a Gladiator, a Ninja, a Monk and a Zodiac. This would be because I am boring and this is the closest approximation of the previous team I used in Etrian Odyssey II, at least until I unlocked the Shogun, but it was a perfectly viable team, as it turns out.

Anyway, the town of Amroad proper offers several places for your guildmembers to visit, each with its own useful functions. The Explorer’s Guild allows you to recruit new members and dismiss (fire) useless members as you see fit, as well as two other functions: Rest (which drops your character five levels in return for you being able to reassign their skills) and Retire (which sends off a member of level thirty or higher in exchange for an improved recruit of half their level, up to level thirty, with improved stats and more points to devote to skills, though these improvements don’t stack on multiple retirements). Napier’s Firm allows you to sell things you acquire for En (the currency in the game) as well as buy new equipment. As you bring items from the labyrinth to be sold, new weapons, armor, accessories and items will be available for purchase and, in a nice touch, items that are partially researched will show up grayed out, along with the items you need to complete the recipe. The Inn revives the dead and lets you sleep until morning or evening, replenishing your health and magic and allowing you to enter the labyrinth during day or night time, as some dungeons/quests can only be completed at certain times of day. The Butterfly Bistro lets you take on quests for the people of the town as you progress further up the labyrinth, each with its own reward, as well as canvas the locals for information. The Via Senatus is the home of Senator Flowdia, the ruling body who dispenses quests as needed and catalogs your discoveries into different records (one for monsters and one for items dropped by enemies). Oh, and the Labyrinth takes you to the entrance of the labyrinth itself, which can be entered either from the bottom floor of a Stratum or from poles found every four floors, more or less. All of the locations in town are accessed by a simple text menu, as are the various choices you can make from each of these locations, making town navigation a breeze, fortunately enough.

Upon entering the labyrinth, you’re given a first-person perspective of the floor you’re on in the top screen, while the bottom screen displays the map, and from here is where Etrian Odyssey III begins to take shape. Unlike most standard RPG’s that map the dungeons for you, Etrian Odyssey III allows you to map the dungeon yourself using various tools and icons provided on the touch screen. You can set the dungeon to map each square you step on, which, if you’re lazy, may be tolerable enough, but the idea is to fill in the various squares on the floors you traverse, draw lines around the paths, mark important areas and monster paths, color the floors differently for poisoned traps, and so on. Much like if you were mapping a dungeon using graph paper. So, in other words, it’s REALLY an homage to old gaming experiences. This is a VERY important element of the game, as you can mark all sorts of useful points, like traps, treasure boxes, resource gathering spots, boss monsters, and so on, so as to allow you to return to them later (In case you die, the game allows you to save your map data for just such an occurrence) or to allow you to remember where they are as needed. This is, I cannot stress enough, a huge part of the appeal of the game. Drawing your own map is neat, as is using your drawn map to find hidden paths and avoid dangerous monsters. The game also allows for auto-mapping this time around, though it only maps the squares you step on, not doors, stairwells, walls and so on, making mapping out the game world a must.

Going back to the previous point, as with the prior games, there ARE dangerous monsters in Etrian Odyssey III. Now, this being a dungeon crawling RPG, you will get into your normal random encounters (a small light in the bottom right of the top screen will indicate how close you are to being ambushed, thus allowing you to prepare as needed), and most of these battles will be expected, but as in its predecessors, you will also encounter monsters known as FOEs. FOEs are monsters that are more powerful than anything else on the floor, and as such, will often overpower your party upon first confronting them. They come in several different flavors as you progress through the labyrinth. Orange FOEs are normal FOEs that can probably be defeated with enough effort, red FOEs are WAY overpowered for the floor they’re on and will probably smite you for a good, long while, gold FOEs can cross barriers and are generally flying monsters, black FOEs are Stratum guardians, and so on. Generally, FOEs follow specific patterns and are MEANT to be avoided, as they are no joke, though an enterprising (or high level) party can defeat one if properly prepared. This time around, FOE’s offer both experience points and rare drops that are worth nice payouts at Napier’s (and can be used to make good equipment), making them worth hunting down and killing as soon as possible. FOEs in Etrian Odyssey III are generally about as manageable as they were in Etrian Odyssey II. The orange FOEs tend to be easy to smite by the time one has ascended to the top of the Stratum they inhabit, if not earlier, and most FOEs can be avoided with relative ease, though some are easier to dodge than others. Some quests actually make it a point to MAKE you avoid the FOEs, either by making them one-hit kill monsters until you grind up a bazillion levels or by telling you to avoid killing the monster or face failure, but in most cases, you can kill them without issue. The vast majority of FOEs, bosses included, respawn in less than a week after you kill them, meaning farming them for items and EXP is entirely viable, but until you can do so in one or two turns, they can be scary propositions. The experience provided by boss monsters is also somewhat nerfed when compared to the prior game, making exploiting bosses for easy levels somewhat less viable than it was before.

As you meander about the labyrinth, you’ll encounter all sorts of novelties in design and gameplay that make the game interesting in its own right, both for fans of the series and for newcomers. As you level, you earn Skill Points (one per level) which can be devoted to all sorts of skills, from the generic boosting of statistics to more interesting skills specific to each class or generalized across several classes (IE Zodiacs can learn different elemental spells, Hoplites can develop their Shield and Spear skills and learn to protect their allies, Monks can boost their healing abilities and the ability to make something stop living with their fists, and so on). Force abilities have also been replaced by Limit Skills, which can be solo or group skills that allow you to start off a turn with any one of a number of different actions, from an attack or defense boost to a powerful attack to a healing spell and beyond, making them less conditional to characters and an easy way to turn the tide of battle. As an added bonus, they act IN ADDITION TO your regular actions, so you can consider them a free action once they’re charged. Every class also has the ability to collect plunder from various harvesting points. Unlike the prior games where each class was potentially limited to one type of harvest point, everyone can buy skills to pick from any point, and Farmers get some special skills that allow you to claim from all points. Harvest points come in Chop, Take and Mine flavors and dispense the expected materials (IE Mining gives out metals and gems, Take collects fruits and leaves, and Chop dispenses roots and wood), but watch out, as monsters can attack while you’re mining. This time around, the game offers a risk/reward system for the possibility of attack, by telling you that you MIGHT get extra-cool stuff if you keep harvesting, and if you elect to do so, you either get great stuff or a monster in the face. The monsters who attack at these points are usually not as bad as they were in Etrian Odyssey II, making this more of a nuisance than anything else, but it’s a neat risk/reward system if nothing else. You’ll also find various Submagnetic Poles as you scale the tower, which act as waypoints that can be teleported back to upon leaving the dungeon, making the tedious climbing of multiple floors to get back to your prior location much more bearable (since it’s only three floors and not thirteen). You’ll also find numerous quests that bring you to the labyrinth in search of items or people to keep you going when killing monsters and making progress aren’t on your mind.

This concludes the recap portion of the review. Let’s talk about what’s new.

Now, as noted, there are all new jobs and FOE’s give up experience again. The game also breaks down your skills into class-specific skills, which are relative to the class, and general skills, which are the same for everyone. General skills include the harvesting skills, increases in health and TP, the ability to earn more EXP per battle and so on, and anyone can buy these regardless of job. The most exciting aspect of the character building system, however, has to be the subclass system, which essentially allows you to allow your characters to take on a second job, which can potentially compliment their primary job. You could, for instance, sub the support-based Prince class onto your Monk, allowing them to have awesome healing and support skills as needed, or you could sub the less than battle practical but functionally interesting Farmer class onto one of your back row characters, or whatever. This allows you to really customize your characters based on what you want them to do, and allows you to really build a character that could be useful to you in a number of different situations. You can also customize your gear with the Forge option, which allows you to use various hammers on weapons to add effects to open slots, at a financial cost and the use of some of the items you bring back from the dungeon. The mechanic is simplistic, to be sure, but it’s a needed addition in a lot of respects. The game also has the Inver Port, which allows you to take a boat out, at a cost, to explore the sea. You can improve the boat with better rations and upgrades, allowing it to move further or generate better fishing or what have you, but the scenario will always be the same: you have a set number of turns to explore the ocean, find cool stuff, catch fish and otherwise try to progress the plot of the port and, to a lesser extent, the game. This is on top of the branching plotlines, multiple ending paths, and post-game content pieces that allow you take your buffed-out party into battle against bonus monsters for the sake of basically ruining the game all around, so you’ve got plenty to do if you’re interested.

That all said, there are issues with the experience, as there were with the prior games, and once again, the biggest one is the archaic nature of the experience. Now, the problem with Etrian Odyssey as a franchise is that it’s straddling this very fine line between old-school and modern conventions, trying to be an homage to various older PC RPG’s while being modernized so as not to be COMPLETELY archaic, but the problem is that it’s hard to look at the games and say “this is something someone will want to play”. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I like the game well enough, but aside from genre fans, I’m still at a loss as to who this is made for. Gamers looking for that old-school feel are going to be annoyed by the concessions the game makes to reasonable challenge and modern concepts, while modern gamers are going to wonder why they have to spend time leveling up to avoid dying at all. Someone looking for a challenge will love this, certainly, but a lot of gamers won’t be looking for a game where being ambushed by a monster who confuses the entire party equals instant death, for instance.

That aside, the game has some notable and awkward issues all its own. The developers seem like they were trying to really rebalance things, and this shows in many positive ways. Reducing the experience given by bosses and giving major experience rewards for the quests associated with those bosses, reducing the prices of items at the shop, adding FOE experience back in, these all contribute nicely to making the experience feel more balanced. This positive feeling is then flushed down the crapper the exact second you meet a random encounter monster on the second floor that one-shots half your party in three turns. I get that the developers were trying to encourage players to traverse the dungeon at night, but if I’m massively over-leveled for that particular point (like, when you get to the second Strata), there’s no reason that same enemy should be inflicting noticeable damage to your team, especially for the piddling EXP it dishes out. This happens a few times, honestly; the game throws an enemy onto a floor that is rough to fight and hurts a lot, makes said enemy somewhat unrewarding to face, then throws said enemy at you constantly. It reinforces the “grinding” aspect of the game a lot more than it should and it’s honestly not well thought out. It’s nice that the bosses are less spotty, and the FOE’s are reasonable enough after a few levels of grinding, but the random encounters are more frequent, and conversely, more annoying. The game also has somewhat of a poor pace to its grinding, as you can find yourself grinding MILDLY to get to the top floor of a Strata, then spending a couple hours grinding just to get through the boss because all of the grinding you did to GET there didn’t make you powerful enough to face him down. Grinding is a part of these sorts of games, no doubt, but Strange Journey incorporated the grinding in a way that felt more organic and less forced, something Etrian Odyssey III fails to do, which makes the grind far more obvious, and less interesting.

Further, the whole sailing gimmick is just that: a gimmick. As gimmicks go, it’s a less than exciting one, as well, and considering it’s a gimmick that seems to have had some significant effort devoted to it, that’s kind of a shame. It’s basically heavy on the puzzle solving, what with having to figure out ways to get to locations with the limited amount of turns available and the risks that pop up, which is fine, but it doesn’t do anything to make the player NEED to bother with it. This mode does unlock multiplayer missions, if you want to take on bosses with a friend, but the items and weapons unlocked through this mode aren’t super exciting until the end of the mode, and the time spent working on this mode could have been better spent working on, say, another Strata or something that didn’t feel like fluff. It also bears noting that the redesigned classes are primarily redesigned in name only. The Hoplite is the Protector with a spear, the Gladiator is the Landsknecht with clubs instead of axes, the Zodiac is the Alchemist with a new gimmick, and so on. The Farmer is neat, sure, but you could have thrown him and the Prince in with the original cast of characters and accomplished the same thing. This change seems to have been made to attempt to convince the player that the game is in some way different from its predecessors, but Etrian Odyssey III is, save for the rebalancing changes and the boat sections, the same game. Refining your game until you get it right is admirable, certainly, but you get no points for originality for sticking a boat puzzle game and a subclass system into the same game you released two years ago. Sorry guys. It’s also disheartening that Etrian Odyssey III didn’t continue the trend from the first game of allowing the player to pass along a password to reward players who have bought all of the games in the series, something the prior game did without an issue.

The bottom line here is that Etrian Odyssey III is a fine enough dungeon crawling experience, but after having spent time with its predecessors, The Dark Spire and Strange Journey, it is no longer the special flower it once was, forcing the game to stand on its own merits, which are not as strong as they were. The story is acceptable overall, and better than that of its predecessors, and the game is still nice looking and sounding. The sprites still don’t animate, it’s still oddly paced and has odd balance issues, the game still forces you to spend a fair amount of time grinding, so if this is not something you want to do, Etrian Odyssey III probably isn’t for you. If you DO want to do this thing, however, and you haven’t had your fill with Strange Journey this year, this game is a solid addition to your library so long as you’re not expecting a massive overhaul of the prior games. If you’re hankering for the old days of wandering into a dungeon with your faceless allies and hacking apart everything that moves with the intention of grinding until you can survive more than ten steps, and you haven’t had your fill on the DS as of yet, Etrian Odyssey III does a fine job of scratching that itch, but between its minimal innovations and the recent competition in the genre on the DS, it’s no longer as special as it once was.

The Scores:
Story: ABOVE AVERAGE
Graphics: ABOVE AVERAGE
Sound: GOOD
Control/Gameplay: GOOD
Replayability: ABOVE AVERAGE
Balance: MEDIOCRE
Originality: DREADFUL
Addictiveness: MEDIOCRE
Appeal: MEDIOCRE
Miscellaneous: MEDIOCRE

Final Score: DECENT GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Etrian Odyssey III is basically a more finely tuned version of its predecessors, offering some added elements and depth for those who like the series, but between the expanded genre offerings on the DS in the past couple years and the lack of any significant innovations to the game, the game ends up being less impressive than its predecessors as a result. Those who loved the prior games will once again love this one, even if it’s more of the same, between the “new” character classes, rebalanced skills, rebalanced experience point distribution, and subclass options, and the same overall oppressing difficulty. Those who hated the first two games won’t find anything to love about this game, however, as all of the same problems continue to plague the game, the balance is more awkward, and it’s still as oppressive as ever. Further, anyone who has spent time with the other games and is looking for more from this will come away disappointed, as aside from the subclass system, it’s basically the same game, as the “new” classes are often remaps of old classes, and the sailing mini-game is an unexciting gimmick in most respects. If you’re still hankering for some dungeon crawling action or you’ve been looking forward to another trip into the labyrinth, Etrian Odyssey III is a fine choice, but between its lack of innovation and its odd balance issues, and the fact that other, better examples of the genre exist on the console, it’s a hard game to recommend to anyone but genre fans.

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