The separation is in the preparation
I find it hard to fathom, but I’ve been playing Etrian Odyssey games for nearly a decade now—and, at this point, I’ve got their absurdly deliberate first-person dungeon exploration down to a science. I’ve also played a ton of Spike Chunsoft’s Mystery Dungeon and its various spin-offs over the years and totally understand the punishing nature of roguelikes, so I hardly thought I was going into Etrian Mystery Dungeon—a mashup of the two concepts on the 3DS—unprepared.
But Etrian Mystery Dungeon didn’t really start to click for me until I left my preconceptions behind and embraced two simple, critically important truths: Etrian Odyssey is all about exploration. Etrian Mystery Dungeon is all about preparation.
Yeah, I know it hardly sounds appealing to boil the enjoyment down into essentially packing for a camping trip in RPG form, but there’s a certain satisfaction that comes with knowing that you survived everything a game could throw at you because you properly planned ahead—it’s a similar sense of accomplishment to the mainline series, but it feels different enough that Etrian Mystery Dungeon offers a truly novel experience for fans of hardcore dungeon-crawlers.
Like Etrian Odyssey, the game unfolds in a hub town—in this case, you’ll find an inn, a shop, a gossip- and quest-giving restaurant, a guild, a lab (complete with the requisite brilliant scientist who looks like a teenage Japanese girl), and a mansion that’s home to the town provost (who, in equal-opportunity gender exploitation, looks like a J-pop pretty boy). From there, you form a party, get outfitted with various swords, staves, and scepters, and then attack a series of treacherous labyrinths—this time from a third-person perspective instead of Etrian Odyssey’s intimate, plodding (in a good way!) first-person exploration.
One other critical difference here, though, is the inability to purchase Ariadne Threads, indispensable items that allow you to warp back to town instantly. Instead, you find them randomly scattered around the dungeons, but even then, they’re pretty rare. I think an abundance of Ariadne Threads would’ve eliminated much of the challenge, though, so I actually welcome the change. Etrian Odyssey is all about carefully mapping as much of the dungeon as you can with the touchscreen and stylus before zipping back to town, while the randomized nature of the labyrinths in Etrian Mystery Dungeon means that it’s about surviving, not a sense of wonder (and the game automaps everything on the touchscreen, which means you can leave the stylus in the holster and focus on combat).
Another wrinkle is that your party leader can only take so many steps in the dungeon before succumbing to hunger and collapsing—which is annoying in the first couple of hours but never really bothered me once I acquired powers and items that could easily mitigate its effects. Still, it further illustrates that the point clearly isn’t to stop and smell the roses…or explore every babbling brook, soothing spring, or hidden trail between two trees. In Etrian Odyssey, you must—pretty much literally—leave no stone unturned. In Etrian Mystery Dungeon, you need to get in and out of the dungeon with as little drama as possible, or you will die—and, in typical roguelike fashion, lose all of your items, money, and a decent chunk of your equipment.
Thankfully, the game recognizes this as a hefty challenge and gives you 10 diverse classes to play around with pretty much from the start. Most jobs are lifted directly from Etrian Odyssey, though the game also includes the Wanderer class in a nice little nod to Shiren, one of the OGs of Japanese roguelikes. This means that you can experiment early on with different party formations and strategies—unlike some Etrian Odyssey titles that spring new classes on you halfway through the adventure. You can also stick guildmembers you’re not using into forts you can build throughout the game’s various dungeons, where they’ll level up even when they’re not fighting. These bulwarks are expensive, but they also provide handy warp points back into town—and they’re the only real defense against the game’s menacing, nearly unstoppable foes known as DOEs.
Unlike Etrian Odyssey’s FOEs—also known as Formido Oppugnatura Exsequens—these vile beasts don’t come with a cool Latin alias, but to be honest, they don’t really need one to be intimidating. They also don’t stay on one floor of a labyrinth. Instead, they’re relentless, making a beeline for the top of the dungeon—and, if you don’t stop them, they’ll run roughshod all over town, leaving prohibitive damage in their wake. I only experienced this shame once, but I don’t recommend it, even if you’re morbidly curious.
I love the sense of dread that DOEs impart on the game—it’s really an appropriate Etrian twist on the roguelike formula—but I have a couple of issues with how these rampaging horrors are handled. One, the penalty for failing to defend the town is just too punitive, as you’ll possibly be hundreds of thousands in debt if a DOE has its way with the denizens of Aslarga. The debt gradually goes down automatically and the damage gets repaired after you make enough subsequent trips to the labyrinth, but the process is just too slow.
And two, defeating DOEs requires properly executing status effects—and that means that having a Hexer among your comrades is practically a must (if there’s an alternate solution, I wasn’t able to find it), which kind of goes against the typical Etrian philosophy of having the freedom to explore and battle with your party as you see fit. Considering the flexibility the game offers in so many other areas, it’s frustrating and unnecessary to more or less demand the use of a specific class to accomplish such an important task.
But, again, this isn’t Etrian Odyssey, and nowhere is that more obvious than when exploring the dungeons themselves—in this case, however, I can’t simply excuse it for being “different.” It’s part real-time combat, part turn-based strategy, but it never totally came together for me. Maybe it’s the fact that the game uses 3D character models instead of 2D sprites, but I’ve played plenty of Japanese roguelikes with a similar bent—Shiren the Wanderer, the Izuna: Legend of the Unemployed Ninja games, and Torneko’s Dragon Quest–themed Mystery Dungeon spin-offs, among others—and I don’t recall movement feeling quite as clunky or the aiming and turning as frustrating as it is here.
Countless times, I turned toward an enemy to attack and then made one more unwanted step forward, wasting my turn and giving the enemy a free shot. Outside of DOEs, the foes are rarely so overwhelmingly challenging that this results in failure, but even after spending tens of hours with the game, I still never felt totally comfortable with the controls or movement. I learned to tolerate it, but it’s definitely one of Etrian Mystery Dungeon’s consistently negative elements.
Even Yuzo Koshiro, the legendary composer who’s done some of his best work on the Etrian Odyssey franchise, feels a little off here. There’s none of the subtlety found in his sublime mainline Etrian work, some of the finest RPG soundtracks of the past decade. The music starts out on a solid note, but once the DOEs become part of the picture a few hours in, it’s a continuous cacophony of foreboding, bombastic, oppressive orchestral flourishes that sound more like the soundtrack to a frantic Dragon Quest battle than the normally thoughtful, heavily melodic fare you’d expect from Etrian Odyssey. It’s not necessarily bad for what it’s trying to do—Koshiro pretty much never is—but for the first time in an Etrian game, I often had to turn down the volume and just put on a baseball game or a podcast so I’d have some more relaxing background noise.
And those issues are sort of emblematic of Etrian Mystery Dungeon as a whole—it’s not that it’s unenjoyable or that the challenge overwhelms or feels unfair. The formula works perfectly well, but the little issues pile up to prevent Etrian Mystery Dungeon from becoming all it could’ve been.
In that sense, it feels a bit like the original Etrian Odyssey—it’s clearly feeling out a formula that it hasn’t quite nailed just yet. At the same time, it’s certainly a recommended, refreshing change of pace for Etrian Odyssey players. Usually after playing an entry in that series, I don’t want to touch another one for six months to a year—but after this, I really don’t feel burned out at all. And that, I think, is the biggest compliment I can give the game. It may not be as finely tuned as mainline Etrian Odyssey has become and has a slate of nagging issues, but it’s a welcome diversion that truly sets itself apart and offers a challenge that feels all its own. And with Etrian Odyssey 2 Untold: The Fafnir Knight coming the summer, it says something that I’m still looking forward to it with anticipation, not dread.
|Developer: Spike Chunsoft • Publisher: Atlus • ESRB: E10+ • Release Date: 04.07.2015|
Etrian Mystery Dungeon provides a refreshing change of pace for Etrian Odyssey fans by infusing the dungeon-crawler with challenging elements from Spike Chunsoft’s venerable Mystery Dungeon franchise. Unfortunately, some clunky controls and curious design decisions prevent this roguelike from reaching the greatest heights of the genre.
|The Good||Brings together the distinct challenges of Etrian Odyssey and Mystery Dungeon in a surprisingly effective way.|
|The Bad||So many menus, not nearly enough clear, concise explanations.|
|The Ugly||Sorry, Atlus, but that logo looks like an intern slapped it together in five minutes.|
|Etrian Mystery Dungeon is a 3DS exclusive. Review code was provided by Atlus for the benefit of this review.|