IGN Review of Etrian Odyssey
Games have gone through an incredible evolution over the years. If you somehow were able to tell gamers in the 80's what the industry has become over 20 years later, they'd think you were nuts, as we've seen evolution from text-based RPG's into three-color pixel art, and now progressing into the HD era of gaming. Things change, and it's a natural progression from system to system, and generation to generation. Every once in a while though, you get a company or development team that sets out to create an experience that lives to be a throwback to an older generation, and while not everyone will understand that decision, those who do will truly appreciate the gesture. Etrian Odyssey is one of those titles, as there's no denying its aged style and border-line masochistic nature, but there's no denying what the team behind it was attempting to do, and whether it was a success or not.
Etrian Odyssey is brought to us by publisher Atlus. Responsible for games like Super Robot Taisen and Trauma Center: Under the Knife, the Japan-based company has always targeted the niche audience, and it may have outdone itself this time around. Whether you're a fan of these quirky titles or not is going to directly influence what type of experience you have with Etrian Odyssey, as the game plays like a pre-sprite art throwback and makes literally no excuses for its difficulty, style, or player expectations. This one is entirely niche, and it embraces it.
Etrian Odyssey acts like countless classic RPG games in the past, focusing mainly on the lost art of player cartography. Like old school games the caliber of Wizardry from decades ago, Etrian Odyssey focuses on player map making, so as you explore vast dungeons and caves you'll be charting your own progress via the bottom touch screen. As for the setup, Etrian Odyssey wastes little time, throwing you into the position of a young adventurer that sets up a guild in hopes of gaining fame and fortune through the exploration of an enchanted and cursed forest. You'll kick the game off by wandering the town (all of which is handled with menu navigation and artistic backdrops, similar to the age-old Neo Pocket title Biomotor Unitron), and work to put together your own guild of fighters to explore the depths of the cursed dungeon.
As mentioned though, the game entirely embraces the old arts, so your boundaries are far less "user friendly" than expected, but also more freeform because of it. You can create as many characters as you want for your guild by simply going to the guild hall and making them, but you'll later realize that there isn't enough cash to go around (especially if you go nuts on making your guild), and since groups can only depart with five or less members, you'll want to revolve around no more than seven or eight characters until you get the feel of the game. It's a great feeling to be as free as you are in the game, but more inexperienced gamers may actually find themselves saving into a trap, and since cash is needed for resurrecting each character individually, careless play can result in a seriously dire situation.
Going along the same freeform design, you need to equip, level up, and gain skills or abilities to your own liking, as nothing is handled via level up without the player's direct participation. You play the role of a guild leader, and that's what you'll be expected to do step for step. Again, this is a good thing for experienced gamers, but some players may need at least a little guidance to enjoy the game, and for the most part it isn't there.
Once in the dungeon, the game starts to show its true colors. You'll journey through uncharted (literally) areas, drawing your map with the touch screen all the while. Everything from walls, traps, stairs, points of interest, FOES (basically the game's boss characters), and puzzles can be marked on the zoom-able touch map by drawing on the screen or sliding icons into place, but no landmarks - aside from a basic blue panel showing you walked on that grid space - will be put on the map without you personally doing it. In that way, it's not just about you exploring every inch of a known area; it's literally you discovering and charting your progress step for step. Do a poor job of charting your progress, suffer the consequences. This comes into play in a huge way when dealing with returning to town, as there's no way to save when in a dungeon, and getting back the safety of the village can be a nail-biting adventure in and of itself.
As for the actual exploration aspect, the game plays out like countless RPG's before it, as you navigate the dungeon mazes step by step. The top screen constantly shows off a first-person 3D world based on your travel, and each time the d-pad is pressed you'll take one step (or turn). The game embraces the classic random battle mechanic as well, so every step you take means attributes change, the internal clock fluctuates, unseen enemies move, and battles draw nearer. Once engaged, you'll play out turn-based fights like Dragon Warrior, keeping the ever-apparent first-person view for battles and exploration alike. Your five-person team consists of a front and back row, each with a unique attribute flux to it. The combination of character class and position adds some solid variety and strategy to the game, though if you're not into turn-based battles you'll definitely want to shy away, as this is about as traditional as it gets.
When it comes to the overall immersion factor of Etrian Odyssey, the game does a solid job, though its lower production value does shine through at times. The game has very little animation to it, so instead presentation draws from menu interface, character portraits, and painting-like backgrounds. It's visually pleasant to look at, but there is a definite (and noticeable) lack of movement in the game throughout. On the audio side, the game makes decent use of a few inspiring tracks, while still using the same "thwack!" sound effects of dozens upon dozens of RPGs before it. So while the audio and visual package of Etrian Odyssey is a bit on the lighter side (though still strong enough to not bog down the experience), it's going to be the gameplay that makes or breaks the package.
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