Trite, moot, end-of-year thing #2: Etrian Odyssey

If nothing else, 2007 was at least the year that I finally extricated myself from the JRPG blinkers I’d been wearing for a decade and reminded myself why western role-playing games were so popular back in the day. Mass Effect‘s sci-fi patina helped quite a bit, since I still find the high fantasy settings most western RPGS use to be agonizingly uninteresting. (Yes, I know… except for Fallout and Planescape — they’re on my list.) But I took baby steps first, beginning with Final Fantasy XII, an inspired mash-up of many opposites, including Western and Japanese design sensibilities. But the true hero was a game that most people didn’t even notice, and even fewer liked.

But those who like it, love it. That game, of course, is:

Etrian Odyssey
Atlus | Nintendo DS | RPG

In metaphorical musical terms, Etrian Odyssey is a Beatles tribute band. Yeah, a few of the Beatles are still around, but they’re more or less self-parodies at this point. But this group gets back to the spirit of their original, groundbreaking recordings, reproduces them flawlessly, and throws in a few neat studio tricks to make those old tunes feel relevant and modern again.

Etrian Odyssey is a pretty incredible game, really. Incredible, because it means someone said, “Wouldn’t it be awesome to create an RPG that blows off 25 years of genre evolution and basically recaptures the core gameplay of the old Wizardry PC games?” Incredible because someone green-lighted it. Incredible because an American publisher said, “We should bring this indescribably niche game to Americans!” And most incredible of all? The fact that it all worked out beautifully.

Etrian Odyssey (“Yggdrasil Labyrinth” in Japan, and presumably changed for the U.S. because it arrived right on the heels of Atlus’ Yggdra Union) is unapologetically limited in scope, unabashedly geared toward hardcore gamers, unrelentingly difficult, and unrepentantly addictive. Although its gameplay is wholly based on exploration punctuated by random encounters, it strikes a very deliberate balance and pacing. It’s a slow game, but not because you move at a pokey pace, or because random counters happen every few steps. On the contrary, you cruise through the labyrinth pretty quickly, and enemy attacks are measured in their frequency. In fact, you can generally predict when each new encounter will happen thanks to a simple threat indicator in the corner of the screen — it slowly transitions from green to red, giving you plenty of time to brace yourself, heal up and prepare.

No, the deliberate nature of Etrian Odyssey comes in its character advancement. Level-ups aren’t handed out like candy as they are in most JRPGs; you have to fight through quite a few battles to reach your next experience level. But those advances mean a lot — nothing so dramatic as Tactics Ogre, where a single level is the difference between “overwhelmed” and “overpowered,” but nevertheless significant, because each new level grants a few skill points that allow your warriors to boost their stats, skills and specializations.

As with all the best RPGs, Etrian’s strength is the sense of ownership it gives you. It has no real story to speak of, so instead the role-playing element takes the guise of character-building. Each player’s party is radically different than the next’s; one might choose to go with a fairly standard spread of classes and min-max each warrior’s abilities to balance one another’s weaknesses, while another might go with an unconventional crew of largely defensive front-row characters and a back row emphasizing buffs and debuffs. Or the “battle medic,” a healer whose makes use of the class’ hidden potential for advanced offensive skills. Or whatever. You even get to choose from four different cosmetic variants per class — which isn’t as superfluous as you might think, since your party of five is drawn from a guild that can consist of quite a few potential participants. A popular strategy in the early going is to create a team of rangers specializing in resource hunting whose role is to do nothing more than venture to a gathering point near the entrance to the labyrinth and collect salable goods. And while classes whose trade is primarily in status effects aren’t much good in the first few strata, where raw survival is the most important consideration, they’re indispensable further along.

In other words, Etrian Odyssey offers plenty of strategic options — but whatever strategy you choose, you’d better make damn good use of it.

That’s nice and all, but ultimately there are two factors that keep Etrian from being a mere dungeon hack. The first is the deadly F.O.E. — no mere random encounter, F.O.E.s are incredibly powerful monsters that lurk at specific points on the map, roaming and patrolling and often reacting to the party’s presence with swift violence. You can see them on the map, and in fact you can see them in the 3D exploration view as well, although at that point you’re likely doomed. Taking down F.O.E.s becomes progressively more challenging as the game advances, especially once they begin operating in tandem. Oh, and it’s always a good idea to make sure your random encounter meter is low when a F.O.E. is around since F.O.E.s move a space on the map for every round of combat… and often right toward the party. Nothing is worse than a random fight against fairly low-level creatures that turns into a desperate fight for survival because you didn’t finish quickly enough and a F.O.E. joined the battle. Reaching a new level of the labyrinth is a satisfying experience, sure, but besting all the F.O.E.s in that floor is when you know you’ve really made it.

Secondly, and most importantly in my book, is the mapping system. Someone at Atlus had the brilliant inspiration to use the DS’s bottom screen as virtual graph paper, transporting us back to the days when video games were grids and no serious player went on an adventure without a stack of graph paper by his side. Back in the NES days, I had a ream of maps — screen-by-screen breakdowns of Metroid, The Goonies II, The Guardian Legend — and Etrian captured that fantastic sense of progress by minimizing the scope of the automap and forcing players to mark out the details themselves. It might seem a small thing, but watching as your empty grid becomes 25 “sheets” of fully-detailed dungeon layouts gives the adventure a sense of fulfillment that even a poweful party of high-level warriors can’t match.

My only regret is that the whole “objectivity” thing meant I couldn’t review it myself. (The lead localization editor is a good friend and former roommate, so you can see the potential for conflict of interest, no?) EGM gave it a wildly varied spread of scores (ranging from 4.0 to 8.0, I think). And that’s fair, because Etrian definitely is a love-it-or-hate kind of thing. But it meant I didn’t really have a venue for commenting about the game until now, when it’s pretty much sold out everywhere and my comments do nothing to help it. But hey, at least there’s the sequel to look forward to, right?

24 thoughts on “Trite, moot, end-of-year thing #2: Etrian Odyssey

  1. I’ve been looking for this now for a couple of months and cannot seem to find an affordable new copy of the game. I should have picked up the used copy I saw in December.

  2. Alright. You convinced me. I bought it today and am quite pleased that I did. Thanks again for your attempts to bankrupt the community by whoring out the goods. We get it; you’re a good salesman.

  3. unfortunately (or fortunately?) this game seems to have reached “cult hit” status. Amazon shows on-line sellers asking 40+ for this game, and e-bay isn’t much better :/

    If only atlus could sell direct.

    or! if only there was an official flashcart from Nintendo, and you could buy these obscure games through the wii shop channel? and then load them onto your nds? along with nes/snes maybe even some TG-16 or even N64 roms!! wouldn’t that be cool?

    a man can dream…

  4. Atlus does sell direct, but our supply is pretty limited and we usually sell out as fast as any other online retailer.

  5. What are the chances we will actually see the sequel in the U.S.? I can think of more than a few instances where Atlus decided not to localize promising sequels.

  6. I think these days just about everything Atlus produces internally ends up published in the U.S. There could be exceptions but given that Etrian Odyssey has sold out without reaching the bargain bin (which I assume means it was profitable, making it a success by Atlus’ conservative standards) I can’t imagine the sequel not coming over. (Note that I’m basing this on my own observations, not inside info, as I make it a policy not to grill Nich about OOH OOH WHAT’S NEXT)

  7. This game is still sitting on my shelf…part of my huge backlog of games to play eventually.

  8. Speaking of FFXII, are any other JRPGs going to try the more tangible, intuitive, RTS-ish approach of FFXII’s gameplay? That was my favorite aspect of that game, and one of 2006’s best examples that Japanese game companies aren’t simply becoming cutscene houses.

  9. … I was pretty satisfied with my Etrian Odyssey-less life until now. If/when the sequel finds its way over here, I’ll have to buy it.

  10. I wouldn’t say FFXII was so much trying to mash up “opposites” as trying to find parallels, and with games like it and Etrian that are progressing out of the “status-quo” of the glut of RPGs, the line between the so-called “Eastern” and “Western” design philosophies grows ever non-existant.

  11. Uh, well, looking at that eight year-old girl’s breasts up there I’d say there’s still a long ways to go in terms of uh… cleavage… philosophy.

  12. ‘ “Yggdrasil Labyrinth” in Japan ‘ Man, what is it with Japan’s fascination with the World Tree of Norse mythology!?

  13. Man, with other games of theirs like Contact still out there, I didn’t see this coming for such a left-field game. I eagerly await the next printing. There will be one, won’t there?

  14. I suggest trying to find it online somewhere. It’s not too late to pay reasonable prices yet, but if you sit around hoping for a second printing, it will be.

  15. I finally got ahold of this game for Christmas, and it easily hit my list of favorite DS games so far. I was hooked right in the start, when I discovered that not only did I get to name my characters, but I got to choose classes and pictures to go with them. I got my friends hooked too, by letting them create characters of themselves. (One of my friends abandoned the game she was playing in order to watch me!)

    It took a long time for me to get to the point where I could confidently know that I had enough money to not only pay for a night at the inn, but also actually BUY items. That was a great accomplishment…as was beating one of those F.O.E.s. I can’t wait to beat it – even more so, now that I know there’s the possibility of a sequel!

  16. I wasn’t sure about Etrian at first, since what I was hearing was from people who really liked it, but made it sound like the sort of thing I might not tolerate. I ended up getting it when I had the chance, and got to play it on my brother’s DS for a while. Within the first half hour I knew I had to get my own so I could keep playing it when he went back out of town.

    Certainly, the gameplay is compelling and addictive, as it’s based firmly in the genre’s most time-tested concepts. I’m sure I wouldn’t enjoy the game nearly as much without the modern sensibilities and presentation, though. The interface is friendly. The art is great and the entire game looks wonderful (especially on a Lite…playing this game was my first contrast between the two models’ screens, and wow, it’s a huge difference). The writing is spare, but feels so perfect. And finally there’s the music, which is unique and always fitting. The sounds themselves are straight from the past (sparing it from being brought down by the DS’ speakers) but the compositions themselves feature a lot of mood changes and intricacies that make them still interesting to listen to even after so many repetitions.

    This game made #3 on my own favorite games of last year, after having played only a bit, and that may not even say that much since it’s out of approximately 9 games total I played last year. The sequel is absolutely my most anticipated game of this year, however; I’m thinking of importing it, and will of course buy the american release, unless it manages to not come out. I’m excited about some other games too, but aside from No More Heroes none of them even have release dates so calling them in 2008 (especially in english) seems premature to me.

  17. I’m glad to see Etrian Odyssey getting some love. It’s my favorite DS game, and it’s a toss-up between it and Mass Effect for my 2007 GOTY, so it was disappointing to see it pretty much ignored in all the end-of-year articles.

    I don’t have too much to add to your assessment. The balance that the game strikes between trying to explore a little deeper and knowing that you could die at any time is too rare in today’s gaming landscape, and the FOEs and mapping system were great touches as well.

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