A recent trend that I have seen coming from Japanese role playing games has been to look back at early computer and console RPGs and mimic or reimagine their gameplay style. One group picked up Wizardry (or maybe the original Bard’s Tale) and saw the classic grid based maps that the gameplay centered around. Someone in that group had an epiphany and realized how they could apply it to the Nintendo DS. The end result: Etrian Odyssey. At its heart, it is a dungeon crawl. Lets see if the game’s unique features stack up.
One of the main reasons I picked up this game was the character and art design. Great care was put into the various sprites used for both NPCs, party members, and nonsters. The various characters are colorful and well detailed. Each Guild memeber that you create can have one of four pictures, so that the two Landsknecht in your party can still look unique from each other.
Monsters are also decently detailed, although they suffer somewhat from the classic palette swapped colors later on. ‘No, we swear you’ve never fought this monster before. It’s eyes are pink. Its a new breed altogether!’ *SWIPE* The monsters also have no animations aside from some color shifting to indicate they are attacking.
Backgrounds and the world of the Labrynth also end up being very colorful. The Labrynth is displayed in a first person perspective on the upper screen, and to the DS’ credit, looks pretty good. You can see some pop-up in long hallways, but it doesn’t distract from playing the game.(Bonus points for those who spotted the Trauma Center cameo in the game before reading this review.)
The game is pretty average in the sound and music department. Making use of several fantasy style themes in town and in the various parts of the Labrynth that seem to wander about as much as you do. I eventually just stopped turning the volume up during my gameplay. The sound effects accompany your actions in battle, and walking around the maze. Again, not much to write home about on these and once you’ve heard most of the tunes from an area you can turn down the volume.
The top display of the DS is your interface with the world of Etrian Odyssey. Displaying character information, the Labrynth, and the various shops in town, it switches frequently depending on what you need to do. The D-pad and buttons are used to walk around, or select items from menus. It is a very streamlined control system, and there is a very short learning curve.
The touch screen on the DS becomes your tool for knowing what is going on in the Labrynth. Throughout the course of the game, the only thing displayed here is your map. Nothing else ever appears on this display. You use the stylus to draw the floor tiles, walls, doors, and other special events that you wish to note on the map. You can have the game auto-map a tile for you every time you take a step into unknown territory, but that is the only thing it will do for you in this way. You don’t *have* to map any of the other details, but then how will you know where you found special events, or shortcuts through the labrynth?
Mysterious forest dungeon? Check! Small town on the edge of forest? Check! Band of plucky adventurers? Check! Looks like we have Classic Fantasy Adventure Story number 4. Okay, so that part I made up on my own, but this game doesn’t stretch story or script writing in any form. In fact, it is pretty much up to you to provide ‘the story’ or backgrounds for any of your characters. Your mission is to get through the Labrynth and find out what is at the bottom.
You start by forming a guild and creating the characters you wish to take with you. Choosing from 9 different classes (2 must be unlocked in the Labrynth) consisting intially of Protector (classic Paladin), Landsknecht (Armsman/Warrior), Suvivalist (Ranger/Hunter), Alchemist (Black Mage), Dark Hunter, Medic, Troubadour (Bard), you assemble a Guild of adventurers that you then choose five at a time to journey into the Labrynth.
Character advancement is handled through levelling up and spending skill points on various abilities. You can build the characters in various ways, making a Landsknecht have a very high HP by spending skill points on HP Up, or increasing his/her sword skill to have them hit harder. Each character class has about twenty skills for you to spend points on which helps make them unique. One Dark Hunter can advance all of her Bind attacks to give her team an advantage in difficult fights while another might go for pure damage.
Once your party is put together and the initial skill points are spent, it is time to head into the forest. One thing I learned quickly is that this game is not forgiving. Take supplies with you, as meager as they may be in the beginning of the game. This is not a game with frequent resting between fights, or a lot of money for winning. It is about exploring the Labrynth. Each time a new level is found, the level of difficulty ramps up another notch, and you can expect to make runs back to town on a regular basis to heal up and get more supplies.
Two game mechanics make this more interesting than it sounds. The first is the geomagnetic field. Every so many levels, you will find one and it functions as a town / Labrynth warp, allowing you to skip ahead through levels that should now be inconsiquential to you. The other nice mechanic to the game relates to the items that monsters drop, such as stingers and horns and more. Shilkia’s shop in the town only has a few items initially, but the more items from the Labrynth that you bring her, the more she is able to make for you. Sell ten leather hides, and she will make hide armor available or a hide shield in the shop for you to purchase. Armor is class based, but as of yet, I have not seen any that is level based. By simply playing the game and collecting items from the dungeon, you actually make it easier for your new characters if you choose to start over with your party.
Starting with Labrynth level 2, you begin to encounter a special class of enemy called a F.O.E. (which translates to some latin name I can’t remember). FOEs are the closest thing to ‘Boss’ characters in the Labrynth (though I have not yet seen a ‘Load Bearing Boss’ yet.) Interestingly enough, if three days pass after one is defeated, it will respawn to wander the Labrynth again. FOEs appear on your map, if you have explored the area they are in, and follow a fixed path. Some FOEs will follow you if they ‘see’ you and others will only engage you if you get in their way. They are a challenge, but also a source of nice items and experience.
This title is pretty open ended, and is geared around you spending time exploring and levelling up characters. Once your Guild has reached various points in the Labrynth, or unlocked geomagnetic fields, all members can access them, no matter which level the party is. I am many levels down on in the Labrynth, and there are still doors on level 1 that I have not yet found out how to unlock.
The downside to the replay value is that the maps are not randomized in any form, which means that you will eventually hit a point where you are just done with the game (regardless if you have completed it.)