When Etrian Odyssey debuted on the Nintendo DS in 2007 it, like other Atlus titles
, became notorious for its deep leveling system and punishing difficulty. It seems the company has adopted the teaching method of Catholic nuns -- smacking players with a ruler for every misstep. Etrian Odyssey III: The Drowned City continues that tradition. This first-person dungeon crawler RPG (sounds complicated, but it isn't) is one of those games you'll either love or despise, depending on your patience level.
If you've played either of the first two games you'll immediately feel at home in the third. Once again you're in a city with a beautiful yet extremely dangerous labyrinth that many have tried to conquer but none have survived. Like the elusive ends of a double rainbow, what lies at the conclusion of this labyrinth is a mystery. This formerly-underwater maze was found in the city of Armoroad and you lead a novice guild hoping to endure the risky journey throughout 25 levels across six Stratums. Determined to be the first group to solve it, you'll explore the dungeon, slay creatures, harvest goods and complete quests.
Channeling the days of pen and paper RPGs, Etrian Odyssey also utilizes a grid-based map on the lower DS screen for you to track your progress. Unfortunately this game adopts such a "hardcore means not explaining anything" mindset that it doesn't teach you how to use the map – the most important tool at your disposal. Sure, there's a basic intro, but the legend is never explained and there are some pretty random icons included (a hand? Scissors? The letter "E"? What does it all mean?!).
Despite the vague tutorial, the gameplay is extremely simple. You can create up to 30 separate characters for your team, but only five can join your party at a time. The group can be fleshed out as you like with up to 10 different character classes (two are unlocked later in the game) to choose from. I graced my guild with the awesome title "Puppies" and then hired a group of explorers (Wildling, Ninja, Monk, Zodiac, Farmer) named after myself and my coworkers.
After checking in at all the various locations (an inn for healing & saving, a shop with items and equipment, a bar to find quests, etc.) my crew was ready to brave the labyrinth. Several hours later and I was so sleepy that it took all my strength to keep my eyes open. Exploring the maze was tiresome, especially since (by design) almost everything looks the same. Add in random battles with powerful enemies and it's no surprise that I died frequently. Thankfully, when you perish you retain your map information so not all is lost.
That change still doesn't excuse the fact that each level contains one high-powered enemy type that seems to pop up as soon as you enter the area, meaning instant death for those who can't flee in time. Until you level up properly, you can expect to run away (or die trying) a lot in Etrian Odyssey. Once you make it through the first area you'll be introduced to F.O.E.s , which I like to imagine stands for "Freaking (or another expletive that starts with "F") Overpowered Enemies." Just like boss battles, these enemies, which are represented by giant orange dots on your screen, are extremely tough to conquer. Until you're leveled up enough and feeling ballsy, it's best to avoid them.
Level grinding is a tedious action, but can also be enjoyable if there's already a conditioned Pavlovian response. That's the basis for the gameplay in Etrian Odyssey: level grind, build out a decent skill set, level grind, add more skills, level grind, etc. In addition, you'll be grinding for money, as it's difficult to come by unless you focus on harvesting goods found in specific locations.
Battles are the easiest way to gain experience points, but the basic turn-based system does little to keep you engaged in the action. The bare-bones battle animations make for more of a snooze-fest than an epic fight. I get that the point is to mimic old-school RPGS, but would adding animations really be that offensive? It's a shame really, because the colorful monster and character designs are interesting and it would be great to see them in motion instead of a lifeless drawing.
I like RPGs, I like leveling up and I like adding to my team's repertoire of skills, but this game didn't click with me for one major reason: a lackluster story. For the most part, the narrative doesn't come into play until much later in the game, but even with its three different endings, the effort is too little too late. There's no motivation to level grind besides the fact that you'll die immediately and constantly if you don't, and that's not good enough for me. I'd rather just play an RPG that tells an epic tale.
Although all Etrian Odyssey games take place in a labyrinth, The Drowned City also adds a sea component. From the town you can choose to explore Armoroad's adjacent body of water and all nearby islands or just go fishing to make some cash. There are quests to complete and battles to fight, but the mode is an excuse to explore more something other than the labyrinth. Though vessel traveling isn't flawed in any major way, I found it easy to ignore.
Etrian Odyssey invokes feelings of hatred instead of happiness for me. In fact, I don't think I've ever wanted to throw my DS across the room more in my life. Still, this franchise was made with uber-hardcore audiences in mind, and it does deliver a challenging experience for players that choose to partake in the grind-fest.
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