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:
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?