Etrian Odyssey

Developer: Lancarse
U.S. Publisher: Atlus
U.S. Release: May 15, 2007
Genre: RPG
Format: Cart

Based on: The grindy challenge of old-school PC RPGs meets the portable compulsiveness of modern handheld games.

Games | Nintendo DS? | Etrian Odyssey

Article by Jeremy Parish? | September 27, 2010

1. Odyssey's Embarcation

Yukiko checked, then double-checked, the straps and fasteners of the light plate armor that girded her abdomen before inspecting her small buckler for excess wear. Under the stresses of battle, a minor crack in the shield fascia could easily expand to a full break. An unacceptable risk; as El Spite’s sole Protector, it fell to her to take the point in combat and protect the welfare of her more lightly armored companions. As El Spite’s de facto guild leader, it fell to her to lead by example. Thus she spent a hour or more each day carefully tending to her equipment, both to defend her charges and, hopefully, inspire them to similar vigilance. Protecting was a sacred trust, and the gravity of the task before her weighed heavy on her shoulders.

The Labyrinth of the World Tree lay before them, and beneath them. The World Tree itself was a tremendous example of arboreal might, perhaps the largest tree to be found on what little remained of the surface world. Its highest branches ascended well out of sight, shrouded by clouds or the haze of photosynthetic respiration even on the clearest day. The air here was startlingly crisp and fresh, as though the mere presence of the tree was drawing impurities from the surroundings. It invigorated Yukiko, filling her with a welcome sense of confidence.

Over the centuries, the Labyrinth had swallowed countless explorers before her -- even entire guilds. Though everyone the world over longed to know what lay at the lowest levels of the maze below the ground, no one in living memory had descended further than the Third Stratum. Well, no one who had returned to tell the tale. Just how deep was the maze? Those who had returned from its furthest extents were silent on the matter, but it was clear that the twisted subterranean corridors reached even further than had been mapped and reported.

Yukiko tested the action of her sheathe, swiftly drawing her blade. No hangups. Good. She’d heard terrifying tales of the creatures that prowled the Labyrinth’s corridors, from surprisingly ferocious vermin and insects that were the death of many an overconfident novice to far more harrowing beasts. Her task was to stand at the vanguard of her guild’s expeditionary teams, a wall of armor and determination between her companions and a swift death at the claws and teeth of the Labyrinth’s vicious denizens.

She’d carefully chosen the initial task force for maximum versatility and survivability. Rose she knew well, having worked with her many times in her formative days with El Spite; the axe-wielding Landsknecht -- an unusual choice of specialization for a female guild member, but one perfectly suited for Rose’s raw strength and fierce temper -- had fought alongside her through countless battles, and the two had developed a potent synthesis. Yukiko’s stoic defense and Rose’s aggressive blade were at once an immovable object and an irresistible force working in perfect harmony.

Perseph she was less certain about. The quiet, bespectacled Alchemist had been with El Spite for quite some time, and others spoke highly of her studious command of the elements, but Yukiko found her dour personality off-putting. Personality clashes weren’t an insurmountable problem for any guild, but El Spite’s leader was mindful of the need for proper teamwork. Like a rotten potato, an unpleasant personality could spoil the rest of the guild through simple contact, undermining the team’s cohesion. Still, Perseph had proven her worth many times over in battle, and Yukiko was willing to take a wait-and-see approach with the sorceress.

Alpha, on the other hand, she had no reservations about. She’d never truly learned to socialize with the guild’s Survivalist, but it wasn’t due to any sort of friction. The lithe blond was simply attuned to nature on a level that Yukiko couldn’t quite understand, but which she greatly respected. She had seen Alpha track quarry by reading signs and spoor that were invisible even to a hound, and as a naturalist she was unsurpassed. The Labyrinth had a reputation for the botanical and wildlife hazards contained within, and Alpha’s extensive knowledge of botany and nature lore could well prove the most important factor in El Spite’s survival of the trials ahead. If the tradeoff was that the Survivalist had a spooky reputation and sometimes seemed to be conversing with plants, well, so be it.

Rounding out the guild’s initial team was...

Here Yukiko pursed her lips in something like dismay. The final member of the exploration group was an essential component of any team, a Medic. But she wasn’t entirely impressed with El Spite’s new hire, a nerdy-looking man named Toasty. Admittedly, her recruitment choices had been limited; Medics in these parts were in high demand, and of the two available for hire, Toasty seemed like a better fit for combat. The other Medic had been a girl who appeared to be barely pubescent and from whom clumsiness radiated in waves -- hardly an ideal trait for someone filling such a vital role in the group. But Toasty was no prize himself. Yukiko had hoped that, as one of the few male Medics she’d ever met, he would aspire to proficiency as a Battle Medic, easing some of the front-line pressure off herself and Rose. But when asked about it, he’d looked slightly queasy and mumbled something about not wanting his glasses to be broken. Perseph had looked disgusted, and for once Yukiko found herself in agreement with the surly Alchemist. But he still seemed a better choice than the alternative, so she’d drafted a contract for him, leaving an easy out in the wording to let El Spite dump him for a superior replacement... just as soon as a superior replacement wandered along.

Yukiko cinched the strap of her buckler tight, securing it firmly to her arm. A quick glance around their rented room at Etria’s inn -- their base camp for the coming weeks -- indicated that everyone else was ready. Rose, bored, was testing the sharpness of her blade by splitting hairs (hairs that she appeared to have yanked from Toasty’s head, if his mopey look and slight bald patch were anything to go by). Perseph was casually skimming her alchemy notes, and Alpha was sitting cross-legged in a light trance.

The guild leader climbed to her feet and lightly placed her right hand on the hilt of her sheathed blade, her armor clashing and clattering quietly with each motion. “It’s time,” she said, and her comrades stood as one, prepared to embark on their journey into the Labyrinth.

RPGs are unique within gaming in that “character-building” can mean two entirely different things. On one hand, you have the traditional meaning, found in the development and maturation of a character through narrative; on the other, there’s the strictly mechanical sense, which sees a character learn new abilities and grow stronger through combat and player-driven choices. While one needn’t come at the expense of the other, the majority of RPGs emphasize either the growth of the player’s characters as fictional constructs or as damage-dealing avatars.

Etrian Odyssey falls directly into the latter camp: It hails from a distinctly classical school of RPG design wherein simply unfurling the mysteries ahead through exploration and combat is story enough to maintain interest. The journey is the destination in this adventure, and EO essentially has no characters to speak of. There are the townsfolk who aid and abet the party between dungeon forays, along with a handful of non-player characters who complicate the journey; yet the player is left to create his own team of warriors who never once speak a word.

The essence of the game is found in the tension between the dungeon, which must be mapped, and the player’s guild, which must be defined. At the outset of the journey, you’re given the digital equivalent of thirty sheets of graph paper, 20 character slots, and a wish for good luck. It can be daunting for console gamers who have come to think of Japanese RPGs as story-heavy bits of fluff that coddle the player from start to finish; EO does not deign to hold your hand, nor does it want you to win. Yet neither does it want you to lose. It’s entirely neutral, a labyrinth riddled with hazards that demand the player’s guild to excel and strategize and really think about how it wants to develop. Failure is met with decisive defeat and daunting setbacks. Success is its own reward; victory brings the means and opportunity to grow even more powerful, forging further into the maze and unraveling the World Tree’s secrets.

EO was deliberately designed to evoke classic PC RPGs like Wizardry, a style of game that’s fallen almost completely into disfavor in the West but maintains a small and loyal fan base in Japan. Like the humble roguelike, the first-person dungeon crawler has been revised and revamped by Japanese developers over the years to take on a unique and idiomatic shape. EO is, quite possibly, the ultimate realization of those decades of effort, and it includes features which could never have been imagined by SirTech all those decades ago.

2. Odyssey's Eventuality

Yukiko sat heavily against the trunk of a tree, pressing her hand to a gaping hole in the left side of her hide armor. Her breath came in ragged, hard-fought gasps, each one sending a searing agony through her abdomen. She could feel the liquid warmth of her blood seeping from her belly wound through the gaps in her gauntlet, and the world around her spun slightly. She blinked twice, struggling to bring her vision back into focus, and took assessment of the damage.

She was hurt, badly, though probably not fatally -- provided the party could make it back to town in time for treatment. The team’s field stocks were empty of anything curative, their last Medica having been used to patch up Toasty in the midst of the last fray. For all the good it did them: The guild’s Medic was unconscious, barely alive, his slumped form dead weight on Yukiko’s shoulders that made each painful step she took all the more brutal. Were he mobile or even conscious, he’d be able to patch up the party’s wounds; without him, Yukiko’s gaping wound was the least of their worries. At least she was capable of standing, at least in short spells. It was hard to say the same for her comrades.

Perseph was awake, but hardly combat-worthy: Her leg had been snapped at the shin and bent at an unnatural angle. Yukiko could see a shard of white bone thrusting through Perseph’s pant leg, shortly above the boot, and the Alchemist was white with shock. Rose was in no better shape. She’d bound the deep cut across her forehead, but it continued to bleed out, blinding the Landsknecht. Her axe-wielding arm was unusable, bitten through to the bone. Alpha had wrapped it with an impromptu field dressing torn from the hem of her own tunic, which would prevent infection, but the group’s powerhouse was out of commission. Her jaw was clenched tight against the pain, and the blood trickling down her face was mingled with sweat.

Only Alpha was in anything like fighting condition, and then only barely. Her long, blonde hair was matted with blood, and a vicious-looking scratch ran the length of her arm. The torn edges of her skin had scabbed over, but the area around the wound was an angry shade of purple -- a tell-tale sign of a poisoned wound. Still, the Survivalist was able to compose herself enough to take stock of the situation. She knelt in the shade of the dense foliage beside the path and examined the underbrush carefully. Yukiko was discouraged to see the Survivalist shake her head in dismay.

“Think we can make it back to Etria?” she asked.

Alpha pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes, studying the ground beneath the forest canopy with care. “I’m not optimistic,” she admitted. “Normally, I’d say no problem. The creatures around here are mostly no match for a team as well-equipped as us. But in our current state....” Her musings trailed into silence, and she shrugged stiffly. “Our wounded are slowing us down -- you’re carrying him, and Perseph can’t walk on her own with that leg. Worse, the scent of blood is in the air. Any carnivore that catches a whiff of us is going to make a beeline straight here. Best to keep moving.”

Yukiko grimaced. “Any good news?”

Alpha gave her guild leader a level gaze. “I suppose that depends on your definition of ‘good.’ We should be thankful that there’s no real air movement here in the Labyrinth, so we don’t have to worry about anything downwind catching our scent. And once we make it back up to the first floor, it’s a straight shot at the exit. Hmm, what else?” She idly brushed a hand against a lock of matted hair, which refused to move out of her face. “Ah. So far, most of the hostile creatures here on the second floor are herbivorous insects -- extremely dangerous with their defensive venom, but not likely to be drawn to the scent of blood.”

With a sigh, Yukiko gazed at the sun-dappled canopy overhead. “How could one creature do this to us? A deer, at that! I can’t believe I let this happen to us. I got cocky and sloppy and we’ve all nearly died for it.” She shook her head and blinked back tears of mixed frustration and pain. “Head of El Spite for all of a week, and look where it got us.”

Alpha’s distant demeanor softened slightly. “Don’t damn yourself for this. You couldn’t have known how powerful that creature was. I’d heard tales, of course, but I never expected to run into something so much deadlier than the other beasts that prowl in this area. Now that I know the telltale signs to watch for, we’ll be more cautious around these out-of-depth monstrosities.”

Yukiko winced. “There are others?”

“Unfortunately, yes. The Labyrinth is notorious for springing such surprise hazards upon explorers. Any seasoned veteran can tell you all about the dangers of F.O.E.s -- I just wish they had told us they lurked so close to the surface.”

“We’ll give the Explorer’s Guild Master a piece of our minds when we get back to Etria,” Yukiko snarled. She stood, ignoring the piercing pain of her belly wound as she hefted Toasty’s unconscious form over her shoulders. “If we get back.”

Alpha smiled for the first time in Yukiko’s memory and gently helped the wounded Alchemist to an upright position. “We’ll make it back.”

Foremost among EO’s innovations is the diabolical F.O.E.

F.O.E.! F.O.E.! Even in this article, F.O.E.!

The subject of anxious song and rueful lore, the F.O.E. -- Field-On Enemy in Japan, Formido Oppungnatura Exsequens in English -- is EO’s definitive addition to the genre: A creature that, unlike the normal enemy mobs that attack randomly and invisibly, is very clearly visible as you explore. Its presence shows up on the portions of map that your party has trod, and it hovers within the labyrinth view as well, a fiery orb of battle aura ready to annihilate your party in a round or two.

In other RPGs, the F.O.E. would be considered an optional boss, or an out-of-depth spawn. In EO, it is neither of these. It is an obstacle, a challenge, a warning. F.O.E.s take on many forms, and they possess many different attributes. But they’re always far more powerful than the random mobs that appear around them, and they’re a test for the party: If you can defeat the F.O.E., your party just might be ready to advance to the next floor of the dungeon.

The F.O.E. changes the nature of exploration. Generally speaking, the journey into EO’s labyrinth is simply an endurance test to see how far you can descend into the maze before your resources run thin and you need to warp back to town. When an F.O.E. appears, it forces you to react to a dynamic threat above and beyond simple random encounters.

Consider Street Fighter II for a moment. Ryu’s hadouken “fireball” is the game’s most iconic move, and also the linchpin of one of its core strategic gambits. By launching a hadouken across the screen, Ryu forces his opponent to react, whether by blocking, jumping away, or pressing the attack; this creates an opening that allows Ryu to follow up and capitalize on the other player’s response. Here, the dungeon is Ryu, you’re the opponent, and the F.O.E. is the fireball-shaped threat that provokes a reaction. You can evade an F.O.E. or face it head-on, but there’s danger in both responses. An F.O.E. may follow you, taking an action for every move your party makes -- whether that action is a step along the map or a round of combat. A glance at the map screen during battle reveals the fact that F.O.E.s continue to prowl while you’re in battle, and many is the journey that’s come to an abrupt end when a melee against a mob of tough foes is replaced (or joined!) by a monster that exceeds their power by an order of magnitude.

Yet the F.O.E. has its place in the Yggdrasil ecology. It prepares you for the threats you’ll face on future floors of the labyrinth, and it rewards the party handsomely with experience and loot upon its defeat. Additionally, a defeated F.O.E. remains downed for a week or two of game time; once you’ve cleared a floor of its visible prowlers, it typically remains a low-hazard zone long enough for you to advance to the point that your next encounter puts you on more even footing. They also evoke a sense of a rite of passage: Besting a Furyhorn is the first major victory your team is likely to experience, and the day that you’re finally powerful enough to take on the terrifying Stalkers on 3F is glorious indeed.

3. Odyssey's Exploration

Alpha held up her left hand, making a quick, curt gesture with the other. “Wait,” she whispered, though it was unnecessary. The rest of the party had already halted, long since having become attuned to their Survivalist’s sudden, instinctual reactions. They waited, slightly anxious, to see what had caught the lithe archer’s attention. Alpha’s brow furrowed as she cocked her head, seemingly listening for sounds far beyond the range of normal hearing.

She relaxed slightly, and so too did her companions. They watched as Alpha stepped toward the wall of trees the bounded the forest path to the south. She stepped nimbly over a pulsing rope of the barbed, toxic vines that appeared to be everywhere in the Labyrinth’s second stratum and pressed her cheek to the trunk of one of the trees that bounded the navigable portions of the area. Her hand hovered at eye height a dozen centimeters from the tree. Yukiko could see the Survivalist’s fingers flex slightly as if trying to grasp the air.

Pulling away from the tree, Alpha faced her companions. “This is great,” she said lightly. “I’ve found a passage. There’s a gap in the trees, and I feel air flowing through it. This will be a useful shortcut.”

Yukiko stepped forward, standing at the periphery of the vines. She’d never quite mastered the art of avoiding their painful barbs; Alpha moved with a nimble step that the Protector was unable to match in her heavy armor, and thorns in the Labyrinth had an uncanny ability to insinuate themselves into the tiniest chinks and cracks in her gear. “Great find, Alpha,” she said. “Let’s clear the passage and see what waits on the other side.” Yukiko gestured to Rose, whose axe was perfectly suited to the task.

To their surprise, Alpha held up her hand again and shook her head. “No, don’t.” She rapped on the living wood with the back of her hand. “I’m not sure we’ll be able to hack through from this side... and, more to the point, I’m not sure we’d want to. There’s something about the air from over there that makes me uncomfortable. It has a different feel from this area. Maybe it’s my imagination, but it’s almost like the other side of this divide circulates air from deeper in the Labyrinth.”

“Probably ain’t your imagination,” muttered Rose. She thumbed the haft of her axe meaningfully. “If what you’re sayin’ is right, it wouldn’t be just the air over there that’s from further down. There’ll be beasts from below there, too. Ain’t no sense gettin’ in over our heads, is what I’m thinkin’.”

Yukiko nodded. “We’ve come this far playing it safe,” she agreed, feeling a pang of guilt as she glimpsed Perseph out of the corner of her eye. The Alchemist still walked with a slight limp from their encounter with that first F.O.E., which had proven to be a valuable lesson. They’d survived, though not unscathed, and their near-death experience had taught them the value of exercising caution as they made their way through the world below Etria. “We’ve nothing to lose by maintaining that sense caution.”

“Mark it,” Perseph said to Toasty in her usual near-whisper. The timid Medic dug into his pack and retrieved a thick sheaf of parchment, thumbing through the stack until he reached the page that corresponded to their current floor. He spread the page across the ground and glanced about for a quick orienteering check, then marked a note in graphite at their current location. Toasty’s propensity for mapmaking had been a pleasant surprise that very nearly made up for his unwillingness to train in the offensive arts; the Medic possessed an unerring sense of direction, and it turned out a surgeon’s steady, meticulous hand was perfectly suited for drafting maps.

With the slight scraping sound of metal plates brushing against one another, Yukiko squatted down beside Toasty and peered over his shoulder at the map. “Where do we go from here?” she asked.

He seemed slightly alarmed to be consulted for advice but recovered quickly enough. “Well,” he mused, “Alpha says she thinks there’s an F.O.E. down here” -- he jabbed at an area south of their current location -- “and we’ve already explored the westward area thoroughly. Looks like the path diverges east of here, so we could try either the north route or south.” He shrugged.

Yukiko looked to the light of early dawn, infusing the haze of the Labyrinth with a warm orange glow. “North,” she said. “North feels lucky today.”

The first-person RPG is as old-school as they come, but EO brings to it a great deal of innovative thinking -- best embodied by the F.O.E., but certainly not limited to that single facet of the adventure. Where EO truly succeeds is in integrating all of its disparate elements into such a harmonic whole.

The heart of EO is actually its map. The entire game consists of a single dungeon, divided into six strata of five floors apiece, and the player’s mission is really to map out the full extent of the labyrinth within the World Tree beneath the town of Etria. Mapping plays out on a sheet of virtual graph paper that dominates the DS’s bottom screen at every moment. It’s meant to be redolent of long-ago days of gaming before the advent of auto-mapping, a fact seemingly lost on many of EO’s critics. Why not just map the game for you, they wonder?

What they fail to recognize is the visceral, physical connection that manually charting out a game’s map creates within the player. There’s a real sense of intimacy that you develop by plotting out every inch of the dungeon, one step at a time. You remember both the useless dead ends and the hard-fought territory claimed from vicious F.O.E.s, and in the process you make the labyrinth your own -- on multiple levels, in fact, since you’re given the freedom to define the details of your map as loosely or obsessively as you wish. In the end, the layout you’ve drawn up is unique to your specific habits and impulses even while the territory it describes is the same as what every other player has experienced.

The flexibility and detail of the mapping system does have its limitations -- supposedly EO bumps up against the absolute maximum size barrier for DS card save RAM. The shifting, one-way floors of the fourth stratum are particularly maddening, since the number of mobile floors well exceeds the number of notations you’re allowed to make on a given level. Still, you’re free to make detailed notes throughout the labyrinth, a feature that remains entirely too rare in RPGs. The Zelda DS games have their map mark-up, but it’s far less comprehensive (and necessary) than in EO; often you’ll encounter something in the course of your exploration that can’t be properly explored or accessed until dozens of hours of play time later. Being able to jot down where and what it was proves to be a huge time-saver in the late game, saving you the hassle of aimless wandering.

Everything about EO revolves around the map. The game incorporates a roguelike movement turn system; for every step you take, the dungeon gets a turn too. F.O.E.s move along their path, and the in-game clock advances. (In an act of mercy, the EO team deliberately declined to track actual play time, choosing instead to track players’ progress with a turn-based calendar: Steps add up to hours, which add up to days, which in turn become months.) Your chances of random encounters grow with every square you advance. The risk of an enemy encounter is displayed with a small icon in the corner of the screen that shifts gradually from green to red as you move, allowing you to gauge your current danger level. This becomes essential in tight pinches. It’s unwise to try slipping past an aggressive pursuit-type F.O.E. with the meter in the red, for example, because you’ll inevitably end up beset by a weak mob that will likely slow you down long enough for the F.O.E. to catch up, game over.

The player’s guild can develop an array of skills designed to make full use of the map, too. The Survivalist class in particular has access to a number of abilities that make dungeon navigation much less daunting: Skills to reveal the whereabouts of F.O.E.s, the power to reduce damage inflicted by treacherous panels of floor, the ability to sneak around without provoking random encounters for a limited time. Though none of these techniques are strictly necessary, all of them can be incredibly effective tools for a well-rounded party.

4. Odyssey's Encounter

The floor of the chamber writhed as if alive. It wasn’t, of course, but the truth was far worse: It was covered in living things. Ants. They swarmed, crawling over one another in their mindless rush to escape the intruders who had invaded their nest. The sight was revolting; Yukiko felt her gorge rising. But this was no time to be squeamish. The masses of tiny insects were no concern, but there was real danger here. She took a deep breath and cleared her head, then turned to face the massive Royalant queen and the pair of Bloodant guards.

The massive guard bugs were chittering excitedly, their mandibles clacking as they turned to face Toasty. Bastards can probably smell fear, thought Yukiko. And sure enough, the Medic’s complexion drained of color as the soldier ants scuttled toward him. She could see his hand snake into his satchel, presumably to clutch curative potions, but it was clear that the bugs could easily tear him from limb to limb with far more efficiency than he could heal himself. She took another deep breath, but this time it wasn’t to brace herself. She held the air in her lungs for a moment, then exhaled it in a bloodcurdling war cry. She held her shield aloft, swung her sword in brisk circles, then brought the two together in a deafening crash.

It did the trick. The Bloodants paused at the onslaught of sound and vibration, then turned to face its source. Yukiko found herself staring into a dozen compound eyes, each of their thousands of facets trained exclusively on her. She could feel her stomach drop, the same as always happened no matter how many times she drew a deadly foe’s attention away from her comrades. The Royalant, too, turned to face her, but didn’t take the bait. It chirped at its servants, which darted forward to attack the offending Protector.

The first Bloodant’s attack came in high, and she parried it neatly with her shield. The creature seemed slightly stunned, but its brood mate suffered no such setbacks and struck from the other direction. Yukiko brought her sword around to block its strike, but it scored a glancing blow with its mandible. It tore through the leather fasteners that bound her gauntlet, tearing a painful gash in her forearm. She gave an angry shout and smashed the creature’s head with the hilt of her sword, forcing it to retreat. The floor made sickening crunching sounds as her shifting weight crushed the bodies of the teeming insect masses beneath her.

From the corner of her eye, she could see the rest of her party moving into action while she drew the attention of the Bloodants. Alpha acted first, firing a special barbed arrow directly into the Royalant’s abdomen. It bellowed with a rasping roar and turned on the Survivalist, who stood unmoving, her attention fixed on the shaft of the arrow buried deep in the queen’s body.

Before the Royalant could strike though, Perseph completed her ritual chant and unleashed her Cocytus formula. A blast of freezing air swirled around the chamber, dropping the air temperature considerably and obscuring everyone’s vision briefly with blue frost. When the air cleared, razor-sharp spears of ice were protruding from the three outsized ants. They writhed in pain, the first Bloodant looking to be largely dead. The second died a moment later as Rose brought the blade of her axe -- practically glowing with a charge of subzero temperature absorbed mystically from the air -- down on its head. The creature’s chitinous shell cracked with the force of the icy blade, and it collapsed onto the floor, which no longer writhed with the fevered activity of tens of thousands of living creatures.

The Royalant leapt into action, scything its powerful jaws at Perseph. The bespectacled Alchemist collapsed, clutching her neck; Yukiko could see blood spraying from beneath the girl’s fingers. She gritted her teeth in frustration that the Royalant hadn’t taken the bait and had instead charged straight for the rear guard, then channeled her rage into a furious shield attack that crushed the brittle abdomen of the already wounded Bloodant that had been dizzily struggling to find an opening. Ichor spattered across the chamber, painting the party’s clothes with droplets of black. The creature made a keening sound and thrashed in agony, distracted by the pain of dying.

Injured but no less deadly, the Royalant stood over Perseph’s huddled form and reared back for the killing blow. It never came. Alpha took careful aim at the ant’s hind legs and fired a perfect shot that severed its leg at the first joint, knocking the creature off-balance. Toasty took this opportunity to scramble over to his companion in the back lines and apply a poultice to Perseph’s neck. The poultice, stitched together with potent herbs scavenged within the Labyrinth, immediately staunched the flow of the wound and numbed its pain. Perseph clutched Toasty’s hand in gratitude as he nudged his shoulder beneath her arm and helped her slowly struggle to her feet.

Meanwhile, the Royalant had shaken off its shock at the loss of a limb and turned ferociously to take down its assailant. This left her vulnerable to the party’s real threat: Rose, who took another swing at the beast. The queen caught the motion in the edges of her compound eyes and ducked just in time to avoid taking the blow right between its mandibles, but Rose’s axe still connected: It severed the Royalant’s antennae. Insane with pain and fury, the queen ant lunged forward and landed a vicious bite on the Landsknecht’s arm. Her armor held, but the bite clearly hurt, and Rose stumbled backward.

Before the queen could go for Rose’s throat, though, Alpha’s special arrow finally finished burrowing its way into the queen’s body. The barbed shaft had insinuated itself beneath the Royalant’s carapace, and having done so, exploded. The queen’s innards were shredded by the shrapnel, and the monster bucked and shuddered once before falling to the ground, dead.

Yukiko could feel the adrenaline subsiding as it became clear that the party had survived its unexpected visit into the lair of the nastiest insect in the Labyrinth. She sat heavily on the ground, ignoring the pulpy crunch from beneath her as she did so. They’d be returning to Etria in short order, and once there they’d have plenty of time for baths. With the exotic plants and insect part they’d be able to gather from the nest, she could probably convince Shilleka to forge an entirely new set of armor for her to replace the ichor-crusted mess she was currently wearing. New gear, a hot bath, and plenty of rest: The perfect reward to a job well done.

“Great teamwork, everyone,” she said, surprised by the weary quality to her voice. “Let’s go home.”

But that’s the great thing about EO: Defining your guild can sometimes be even more dynamic and involving than the act of charting out their adventures. The game’s lack of fixed characters or mandatory techniques makes it possible to create a huge pool of different combatants to draw upon for each situation. The varied types of monsters and hazards across the dungeon’s various strata forces you to change up the composition of your party, so there’s tremendous value in diversity.

In the earliest portions of the dungeon, it’s difficult enough just to survive, so a standard RPG team of Protector (tank), Landsknecht (attacker), Medic (healer), Alchemist (elemental mage), and Survivalist (ranger) is ideal. Once you earn a few levels and begin encountering different types of monsters than the simple wildlife near the labyrinth entrance, you’re forced to reconsider your strategy: On the second floor, you begin to encounter evasive insects capable of poisoning the party. Poison is serious business in EO, so it quickly becomes vital to have a team that can act quickly enough to move before the bugs and deliver sufficient damage to take them out before they spam your heroes with toxins -- a perfect opportunity for a Troubadour (bard) to strut his or her stuff by dishing out speed buffs.

Advanced players have even developed specific strategies around unusual team makeups, and you know you’re destined to become a power-gamer the first time you venture into the labyrinth with a team consisting mostly of low-level Survivalists to farm items from gathering points near the entrance. (True EO fans will never take more than four Survivalists into the dungeon, of course, because there are only four unique portraits per class, and having two identical-looking characters in your guild would spoil the illusion.) This kind of gathering party doesn’t offer much in the way of battle prowess, but it can be the player’s best friend nevertheless since enemies don’t drop cash, and the only way to earn money and unlock better equipment at the in-town shop is to sell off resources found within the labyrinth.

Even late in the game, you’ll find yourself switching out your A-team members for more situationally valuable combatants. Your party may be capable of taking down the final boss without breaking a sweat, but there are still certain random mobs that can wipe the floor with an end-game party before you know it should they get the jump on you. You also gain the ability to add Ronins and Hexers (glass cannons and curse specialists, respectively) late in the adventure. While Ronins are sufficiently complicated that many players never bother with them, the Hexer is so utterly essential to the late game that you almost don’t mind having to train up a newcomer while everyone else is hovering around level 40.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about EO’s class system is that there’s no single “right” way to spec a character. A Medic can be treated simply as a full-time healer, casting cure spells and removing status ailments with high magic power and a full array of protective skills, but many players favor placing their healer in the front lines as a Combat Medic. The Medic class can be trained to use a powerful physical attack, and experience points can be freely distributed to build up his or her endurance and strength rather than spirit and mana points. Many players even train up multiple characters within a single class -- different flavors of Medic, for instance, or three Alchemists who each specialize in single elements. Of course, building up so many different fighters requires a significant time investment, but EO isn’t a game you play casually. As time-consuming as it can be, many players simply shrug and say, “What the hell, might as well go full-bore with this obsession.”

Of course, you can always rest a character, sacrificing ten experience levels in order to free up their entire pool of skill points and respec them to fit the changing demands of the dungeon.The post-game extra floors, the infamous sixth stratum, are so relentlessly brutal that a perfectly-tuned party is mandatory rather than simply a good idea. The devastating foes and very specific hazards present there make something of a lie of the skill system’s freedom... but then, the sixth stratum is wholly optional, so it’s totally justified in demanding high-level play. Until you actually descend beyond the final boss, EO offers a wide array of options and can be conquered through smart play rather than through adherence to a list of prescribed rules.

5. Odyssey's Enquiry

“Is what we’re doing really OK?”

The question caught Yukiko by surprise. Not just for its meaning, but also because of who had posed it. Ellysia, the recently recruited songstress, always seemed entirely too young to be contemplating the morality of the Guild’s quest. Yet despite her claim to be merely 16 (not to mention her appearance, which suggested 12), the pink-haired balladeer wielded cutting insight beneath her disarming innocence. Something about her naïve wisdom really got under Yukiko’s skin... but, as El Spite’s leader, she had to put aside her personal dislikes for the sake of the group’s welfare.

And Ellysia had truly proven to be invaluable down in the Labyrinth’s fourth stratum. She had largely taken over Perseph’s space in the active roster, a fact the Alchemist was perfectly happy with. She’d never completely healed from the team’s first F.O.E. encounter, and she’d seemed increasingly unhappy about accompanying the active party into the dungeon’s lower depths. Perseph had proven to be the group’s most valuable warrior back on the third stratum -- the region’s aquarian life forms were no match for her specialization in thunder elemental formulae -- but she had little place in the sandy drifts and desiccated forests of the fourth stratum.

Ellysia, on the other hand, specialized in spinning ensorcellments that greatly aided the team’s combat efficacy. While she couldn’t deal even a fraction of the damage Perseph was capable of inflicting on an enemy, her songs were more valuable down here; the guild needed the extra endurance and strength her chants could impart. By improving her comrade’s skill in combat, she made it possible for the team to delve ever further into the Labyrinth.

So it was ironic, Yukiko mused, that the very agent of their progress was also the one who was now questioning the morality of the quest. Not that she needed Ellysia to clarify her question; what bothered Yukiko the most was that the child was simply echoing her own uncertainties. Over the long months that El Spite had been using Etria as their base of operations, the guild had grown close to many of the townsfolk and developed a fondness for the town itself. It wasn’t home, precisely, but it was the closest thing to one they all had at the moment. And the question lingered: What would their success mean for Etria?

In recorded memory, few adventurers had advanced as far as El Spite. They’d become the toast of the town, constantly ferrying back rare resources and impressive tales for those who made their living at the Labyinth’s periphery. Everyone seemed impressed, except for the two warriors whose feat exceeded their own: Ren and Tlatchga, the Lord Mayor’s favored Ronin and Hexer. Quite the opposite, in fact. The further El Spite advanced, the darker the cloud hovering over the pair. Yukiko initially chalked it up to professional jealousy, but what she had seen in the fourth stratum gave her cause for doubt. It was increasingly clear that dark secrets were lurking at the heart of the Labyrinth, and that perhaps the reason they hadn’t yet been uncovered was because they weren’t meant to be known.

Most shocking of all had been the forest people, an entire tribe living within the confines of the fourth stratum. They had reacted with hostility to the sight of El Spite -- or perhaps not with hostility so much as contempt and wounded betrayal. They spoke to the guild of an ancient pact, an agreement made ages before in which the forest folk swore to live peaceably within the Labyrinth provided outsiders would never set foot within their lands... an agreement whose terms were violated, unwittingly, by the guild’s incursion into the fourth stratum. Yukiko had attempted to parlay for passage, but the forest dwellers paid her no heed. Their retribution for the guild’s trespass was swift, uncompromising violence. Given no other recourse, Yukiko had given the order to fight back. When the dust settled, the party stood -- bloodied but unbeaten -- while a number of forest folk lay dead. Whatever peace had been forged all those years ago was shattered irrevocably, now.

Yukiko weighed the costs of their journey constantly in her head. Solving the Layrinth’s riddles was the dream of every adventurer in the land, and her thirst for discovery made the prospect of turning back now seem utterly unthinkable. Yet the journey ahead could have terrible repercussions for Etria -- economically, if the puzzles of the World Tree were unraveled and no longer drew explorers the world over, and politically, should the forest folk respond to the guild’s incursions with an invasion force of their own. There was also the grim prospect of facing Ren and Tlatchga -- two deadly, powerful warriors -- should they journey further into the maze. This wasn’t a “what if” or a “may be” but rather an inevitability; the women had made it clear that they intended to put a stop to El Spite’s explorations, one way or another.

In short, there were many compelling reasons to end the journey now, to stop the quest. But she could also see determination in her team’s eyes, and a hunger to learn more of the Labyrinth’s secrets in the faces of the townsfolk every time her companions told tales of defeating a Stalker or Curoller to an eager listener at the Golden Deer. Whatever its dangers, the Labyrinth demanded exploration. And Yukiko existed to explore.

“There’s no turning back,” she said at last. “Right or wrong, this is the path we’ve chosen. Why come so far only to go away empty-handed? The secret of the Labyrinth is close -- I can sense it. Alpha can sense it.” Yukiko turned to her young recruit and regarded her with a level gaze. “Can you sense it?”

Ellysia’s eyes widened, then narrowed in thought. “I can. I just... want to be sure that we belong down here.”

Yukiko smiled and placed her hand lightly on the Troubadour’s shoulder. “Of course we don’t. No one does. This place isn’t meant for humans. The question is, what is it meant for? Finding the answer to that question -- that’s why we’re here.”

Mapping and character speccing provide EO’s primary impetus, yet the game isn’t entirely without some semblance of a plot. With no defined personalities for party members and only a handful of NPCs to interact with, story isn’t precisely the sort of thing to provide a player’s primary impetus for completing the adventure. Still, the narrative thread is a lot more interesting than seems at first blush, offering a distinctly Miyazaki-esque world view and a grey moral dilemma at the core of the quest.

At the heart of the tale is the nature of the World Tree and its labyrinth. The name “Etrian Odyssey” comes from the fact that the guild’s home base is a town called Etria, situated at the mouth of a mysterious maze. The labyrinth itself is the real draw, though; extant from time immemorial, it entices explorers from around the world to delve into its depths in search of treasure and wealth. Yet the labyrinth is a merciless entity, systematically swallowing whole teams of would-be heroes, never to be seen again. Still the adventurers come, and Etria’s entire economy revolves around servicing them.

Yet as the player’s guild pushes further and further into the depth, they find the labyrinth isn’t the only source of resistance to their progress. A pair of veteran warriors deliver increasingly ominous warnings that they should turn back, ultimately resulting in a fatal stand-off which sees the player forced to fight them to the death. Initially, it seems the labyrinth’s guardians are simply concerned with preserving Etria; after all, were the secrets of the dungeon to be laid bare, its depths would no longer possess the same appeal for aspiring warriors, and Etria would wither without the steady stream of revenue provided by itinerant fortune hunters.

Ultimately, though, the labyrinth contains far darker secrets; the guild’s foray into its lower strata violates a sacred pact with a race of indigenous people who long ago promised to avoid the surface world on the grounds that surface dwellers would never enter their territory. In unwittingly breaking a faded promise, the guild is thrust into opposition to a forgotten people and ultimately perform something just this side of genocide.

And yet, even this isn’t the ultimate truth of the labyrinth: Beneath the realm of these indigenous peoples, the team finds the dungeon’s true heart and purpose. The World Tree is a project to preserve humanity in the wake of armageddon, and its trunk thrusts upwards through the heart of Tokyo. In the lowest levels of the World Tree, the guild finds itself exploring the ruins of Shinjuku skyscrapers patrolled by deadly predators specifically engineered to preserve the secrets of humanity’s dead-end past. And beyond these creatures is the tree’s core, which slowly restores the vitality of the world under the watchful eye of Etria’s mayor, who reveals himself as the ageless steward of the earth’s restoration. Tasked with preserving the secrets of the World Tree project, he is forced with regret to silence the guild -- who refused to heed his urgings to turn back, warnings which were delivered both directly and by proxy through his trusted lieutenants -- by destroying them.

6. Odyssey's Epiphany

The Dinolich’s final collapse shook the ground and rattled Yukiko’s teeth. She braced herself against a nearby wall until the tremors subsided. The flooring here in the Labyrinth’s fifth stratum was different than it had been in the levels above. While the World Tree’s passages had always seemed strangely unnatural, with its trees growing in tight clusters to define a natural labyrinth, they had always felt like nature. There was no life to the structures here in the fifth stratum, besides what creeper vines could find purchase on the strange materials comprising the walls.

This area had been constructed by man, no question of that -- but constructed of what, precisely? The walls almost seemed to be made of stone, but a weak and brittle sort. Chipping away the fragile surface revealed a skeleton of metal and age-hardened wood defining the walls’ structure. The ceilings were a low, patchwork grid of rotting and crumbling squares of some strange, soft stone; where the stone had fallen away, there was only darkness.

Yukiko was curious about the emptiness above, but didn’t dare look up there herself. In this area of the Labyrinth, she found the mundane plant and animal life to pose a greater threat than any F.O.E. The team had felled this latest Dinolich with barely a scratch, but they’d been practically slaughtered more than once when they unwittingly stumbled onto a thicket of the flowers that grew in hidden clusters around the stratum. They had a tendency to greet intruders with a cloud of soporific pollen and gleefully set about feasting on stunned victims with carnivorous glee. Her left thigh still ached from where one of the plants had taken a chunk of flesh by biting right through her armor.

Unfortunately, they’d been forced to leave Alpha behind. The Survivalist had regretfully bowed out somewhere midway through the fourth stratum, but she insisted that she was no longer pulling her weight against the deadlier creatures that had begun to appear at these depths. Despite Yukiko’s requests, she’d refused to stand in as a sixth traveller, steadfast in her belief that five was the optimum number for exploration; more than that, Alpha warned, and everyone would simply be getting in one another’s way. The Survivalist promised her services would be available for resource-gathering excursions -- there were plants and minerals to be found in the alien corridors of the fifth stratum that had no one in Etria had ever seen before -- but preferred now to spend her time back at the Inn, compiling notes on her experiences in the World Tree.

In her place, the guild had recruited Miaow, a strange, frail, pale girl who specialized in the extremely rare art of curse-making. Yukiko wasn’t certain that a Hexer would be of much use to El Spite, especially one so unseasoned, but Alpha had insisted that the creatures they were likely to encounter at these depths were bound to be extremely powerful, not to mention hardy. The team’s newest recruits made for a strange pair, but their skills were perfect complements. Ellysia, the vivacious Troubadour, whose power lay in enhancing the party’s combat proficiency, and Miaow, the sullen Hexer, whose affinity for curses could greatly weaken a pack of creatures or even an F.O.E. Together, the girls were capable of tilting the odds in El Spite’s favor, softening up a nasty opponent as they toughened up the party.

The team cleaned and sheathed their weapons, and Toasty reluctantly set about the business of searching their fallen F.O.E. for salvageable body parts or unexpected loot carried about its body. With Alpha out of the active rotation, the task of foraging for valuable parts fell to him. He’d more than proven himself an invaluable member of the team by bringing the party back from the edge of defeat in combat time and again, but Yukiko still assigned him the most unpleasant tasks as a simple matter of principle. She watched as he sank his arms into a deep gash in the monster’s side and probed about its innards, not even trying to disguise the look of disgust on his face. His revulsion quickly brightened, though, and Yukiko saw him begin tugging on something out of sight, heedless of the way his exertions sent effluvia flying. She heard a wet crack and the Medic triumphantly produced his prize: a lengthy rib bone.

“A Sword Rib!” he exclaimed. “Never gotten one of these intact before. Shilleka said they’d be able to forge this into a wicked nasty sword for Rose.” Rose, unimpressed, crossed her arms and leaned against a nearby wall. “Bah, swords,” she muttered. He looked slightly crestfallen.

“Good work,” said Yukiko. “I’m sure if Rose doesn’t want it, the blade would fit just as neatly in my scabbard.” She secured her sword belt and scanned the chamber -- more of a room, really -- for other hazards. Nothing presented itself, so she walked to the opposite end of the chamber and examined the curious door embedded in the wall. It had no handles or hinges that she could see; instead, it was simply smooth metal. According to the map, there was a similar door directly above. Surely they were connected somehow, but even if the party could determine how to open the portals there was the question of how they were connected. She’d never seen stairs that doubled back on themselves, so there must be some other link. Another of the Labyrinth’s mysteries to be solved.

The team fell into formation behind Yukiko and slowly began wending its way through the claustrophobic hallways that would hopefully lead them downward. Caution was the rule of the day as they deliberately avoided the vicious creatures and bloodthirsty flora that nested in these dim recesses of the Labyrinth; at this depth, the party battled only what it couldn’t evade, and wouldn’t even consider confronting an F.O.E. unless it was a known quantity.

Eventually, the group had completely mapped the westernmost portion of the current floor, leaving only the mysterious, featureless portals and a single normal door facing east, which they now stood before. With one hand on the hilt of her sword, Yukiko slowly pushed the door open.

What greeted her on the other side caused her to gasp. Ever vigilant, her companions rushed forward to face whatever their leader had encountered through the door. Then they, too, were stopped short by the sight that awaited them.

Through the door was a bridge high in the sky, encased on both sides and above by thick plates of glass. The floor below was solid, and felt more durable than the normal footholds afforded on the fifth stratum, but below them was -- nothing. The party peered through the vast glass panels at the gloomy Labyrinth depths below. The ground was obscured by haze, but it was at least 25 meters away, possibly further. The sights below were alien, and it was difficult to grasp the actual depth and scale of the structures on the ground.

It appeared to be a city, but one quite unlike Etria. Everything here was made of glass and steel and concrete rather than wood and stone. Age tarnished the visible surfaces, but it was clear that they stood high above what was once a vast city, desolate in its abandoned stillness. As she studied the ground below, Yukiko realized that what she initially took to be a system of even footpaths were in fact far wider, broad enough for half a dozen caravans to travel abreast. These roads merged together in an intricate network that spanned as far as she could see, eventually vanishing into the twilight gloom of this buried world.

The glass-enclosed bridge itself stretched between two vast towers, each plated in blank squares of glass bound by a lattice of steel. The area the team had just mapped was the interior of a vast building, far larger than Etria’s Radha Hall, which until now had been the largest man-made structure Yukiko had ever witnessed. But one of these towers could easily envelop every building in Etria... and the horizon was choked with similar buildings. Colossal towers of glass and metal thrust upward toward the strata above, mighty buildings crowded together as far as the eye could see in ever direction.

“What is this place?” whispered Ellysia. “Is this the World Tree? It seems so... alien, so un-alive.”

“These structures appear to have been constructed by people,” Miaow said in her usual monotone. “But by what people, and for what purpose, I cannot begin to guess.” She frowned more deeply than her normal dour expression. “It all seems so ancient. As though the world we know has buried the ruins of some long-dead civilization. And one far more advanced than our own.”

The altitude and scale of the spectacle outside began to make Yukiko feel dizzy. She blinked hard and looked toward the unmapped tower to the east. As ever, any hope of answers lay ahead, and downward.

The final showdown and all the in-dungeon encounters that lead to it make for an interesting story, but they also highlight one of the game’s more disappointing shortcomings. For all that Etrian Odyssey is about forging a path, defining the dungeon in your own unique way, and building a highly customized crew, there’s distressingly little choice when it comes to the story. The player’s guild forges inexorably onward according to the mandates of the plot -- even when that mandate forces them to battle their way through situations that might be ideally resolved through other means.

The truth of the World Tree is unexpected and perhaps unfortunate, but it’s hard to say that the project is evil, precisely. On the other hand, the destruction of the labyrinth’s natives at the hand of the guild smacks of genocide. Their plight is redolent of that of other disenfranchised indigenous peoples like the Native Americans and the Ainu, yet your guild is never given the option of making peace with them. The game demands you reach the bottom of the labyrinth, and so you fight ahead, even at the cost of destroying an entire race and, eventually, the germ of humanity’s hope for the future. In that light, an insatiable thirst for discovery doesn’t seem like an especially defensible motivation. It’s nice to get to the bottom of the mystery (quite literally), but the cost of that quest seems a bit steep.

Then again, maybe that’s the entire point. EO is a very deliberately designed game, if not quite perfectly balanced, and the adventure’s measured pace and gradual escalation of challenge suggests the work of designers who put a lot of thought into their creation. It’s not unreasonable to assume they put just as much consideration into the story, and just maybe the player was meant to question the merit of the linear plot mechanics of RPGs, the justification of advancement at any cost. EO isn’t exactly BioShock in that regard, but their narratives seem to share a common thread: Does the end of finishing a game and seeing the ending justify the deeds you commit along the way?

Much like the original manga of Nausicäa, which clearly served as a strong inspiration for the final plot twist, EO ends on something of a hollow note. Even Yuzo Koshiro’s triumphant ending theme doesn’t entirely mask the sense of unease left in the wake of the World Tree’s demise. And in its way, the game metes out punishment for your pyrrhic victory: Beneath the fifth stratum is a deeper, subterranean layer of the labyrinth filled with impossible challenges -- a very literal hell for your guild of sinners.

It’s fitting, in a way. EO begins with an unrelenting difficulty level, and it makes no concessions to players who have come to expect RPGs to be toothless, plot-driven, hand-holding affairs. Those who persist and see the quest through to its end are left with the nagging sensation that they’ve done something horribly wrong, and an additional task that daunts even the most enduring veteran. Etrian Odyssey was designed to put a modern twist on the classic first-person dungeon crawl formula. The feature it most effectively emulates? The emotional masochism of being an old-school RPG. It’s cruel, yeah... but deliciously so. After all, cruelty is the whole point, isn’t it?

7. Odyssey's End

No one in El Spite had taken pleasure in their conflict with Etria’s Chieftain, but he had refused to let them leave the Labyrinth’s heart peaceably. No one felt good about the fact that their own survival had forced them to destroy the city’s mayor and the legacy his work hoped to preserve and someday restore. The team made a pact, there in the shadow of the defeated Etreant: The five of them would never speak of the Labyrinth’s true purpose to another soul. Not even their fellow guild members who waited for them back at the Golden Deer pub. So far as anyone else was concerned, the heart of the Labyrinth was an impenetrable fortress, and its mysteries would never be solved.

And it wasn’t a complete lie. There was another mystery yet in the World Tree: The sixth stratum, the path to which was revealed upon Etreant’s demise. But a brief foray into this final subterranean world yielded nasty surprises: Mobs of foes almost as deadly as any F.O.E., and F.O.E.s as vicious as the Etreant.

“Perhaps it’s best to cut our losses,” Yukiko suggested, voicing the thought on everyone’s mind. Alpha, Toasty, Ellysia, and Miaow nodded. Their battle against the World Tree’s guardian hadn’t killed the tree itself, and who was to say if its existence was right or wrong? So long as there were riddles to be solved in the Labyrinth’s depths, Etria would always enchant eager adventurers with its siren song of discovery and wealth.

Besides, Yukiko had heard whispers of a faraway town called Lagaard, tales of a lost castle in the sky above another tree whose branches reached to the heavens....