Etrian Odyssey is a weird one, because I played a review ROM before it ever came out, conquering most of the first stratum before handing it over to someone else to review — I recused myself from the formal review because the lead localization editor was a friend. I also avoided reviewing Persona games for the same reason. These days, I’m a bit more lax about it because (1) I work with a vastly smaller staff than back in 2007 when Etrian Odyssey came out and tackling such a massive game is a huge imposition on the time of people who need to be working on games and franchises they know better and (2) anyone who thinks I’m taking some sort of moneyhat after I wrote this frigging 20,000-word essay on Etrian Odyssey of my own volition is so far up their own ass they’ll never be able to climb out in time to complain.
Naw, for whatever reason, Etrian Odyssey just clicked with me right away. So I put it away, painfully, and had to start over on the retail version once it launched. I was a little reluctant to begin in earnest, though, because it’s such a demanding, time-intensive adventure, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to finish it before someone else came along and ate my free time. I was right, of course. I made it to the middle of the second stratum before E3 arrived and new reviews landed and so on and so forth. My adventure came to an abrupt ending.
It seemed a shame, too; I had such kismet in my Etrian experience. The day I began my fresh save file, I’d gone with my wife (then girlfriend) to a wooded lake in Napa so she could do some photography. While she was off shooting, I sat at a picnic table at the edge of the water. While dodging Ragelopes with my feeble level-2 party, I looked up and nearly freaked out when I realized that a deer had walked up to me from my blind spot, evidently unaware of my presence since I was so engrossed in the game. I don’t know which of us was more startled to realize the other was sitting about three feet away from the other, me or the deer, but thankfully it scurried into the woods instead of going on the offensive, Ragelope style, because that would have been a total party kill for sure. But no. Alas, eventually reality settled upon me with all its dull, dread weight and I retired my Etrian party.
I didn’t pick up the game again for a year and a half, when I traveled to visit family for the Christmas break in 2008. I brought a few DS cards along for the ride, including Etrian Odyssey on a total whim, and at some point I decided to give it another shot. I plugged it in, expecting to be totally lost and give up after an hour or two. A week later, though, I found myself well into the third stratum, and totally hooked. Etrian Odyssey remained in my DS after the holidays ended, slugging away at each floor, mapping increasingly arcane dungeon challenges, braving ever more daunting FOEs, until finally I watched the credits roll.
While my Etrian playthrough spanned the better part of two years, the sensation I remember most from the first game was the sensation of falling back into the groove against every expectation as I chilled out with my family over the holidays. Everything about the game, from the enticing sprawl of its dungeons to its quirkily unique font, evoked such an intoxicating sensation of a work out of a time: An ancient and overlooked game recast as a portable RPG. While I like the more contemporary feel and look and mechanics of the more recent games, there was something wonderful about the balance the original struck between the old and the new.