ron, Aug-02 2007

Etrian Odyssey

Don't you just love truly region-free games machines?
*hugs DS*
*gestures inappropriately towards NoE*

Etrian Odyssey is dangerous to us. Its use of the now rare first-person (first-party?), grid-based exploration perspective, allowing only 90 degree turns and fixed steps, immediately evokes those fond memories of western RPGs of yore: Dungeon Master, Eye Of The Beholder, Lands Of Lore et al. In terms of actual game mechanics, it is closest to Wizardry though. Namely the game is strictly turn-based, i.e. nothing happens in the game world if you don't move. Most enemies pop up in random encounters. In addition to that old-FF type of encounter, there are some special (powerful, bossy, etc) enemies that are visible on the exploration map, roaming around, but again, they don't move unless you do. That type works just like Might & Magic 3 to 5 did actually.

Combat itself is more like … Golden Sun. No, wait, Dragon Quest. Is there a difference? In any case it's still turn based, you enter your battle commands for all your (up to five) party members before the round starts, and then they duke it out in order of agility stat or somesuch. It's a good mix. The available classes seem well-balanced, perhaps making Etrian Odyssey actually replayable. Also the loot/economy system where you unlock new equipment by gathering and selling off specific amounts of specific enemy drops is really nice. And of course the whole mapping aspect of it is just lovely.

But even though it seems to have us hooked, Etrian Odyssey has a number of problems where we can't help but wonder what the good folks at Atlus were thinking. First off, its primitive inventory.
Items do not stack, and you are limited to carrying sixty things at once. With two or three items coming out of your average combat, that space will fill up fast and you'll have to discard stuff regularly. That's kind of annoying, because of the aforementioned economy twist. How do you really know if there might not be a great item coming up if you sell another fifty small fangs?
The real WTF here is that you must operate on single items. Thankfully that's only for discarding. When selling stuff, we found out that pressing the Y button instead of A lets us sell every item of the selected type at once. Phew.

The other, more tangible issue we have with the game is the sheer distance between, err, "way points", to borrow language from Diablo, a game that is otherwise very unlike Etrian Odyssey.
The whole game revolves around this mysterious labyrinth that has – gasp! – suddenly appeared under a city. So clearly you're going in, for quests and just for kicks, and regularly you'll be coming back out to heal up, sell your loot, pick up your quest reward and upgrade your gear. The problem is that even though you can eventually buy items that will instantly take you back into the town, there's no matching easy way to return to your previous position. You must walk back into the maze to continue your adventure. If you're on the fifth floor, decide you must bail out and then intend to continue your exploration, that means you'll walk a few hundred steps through levels one to four, and twice over fill up your inventory with enemy drops from all the random encounters before you're even back where you left off. It's an enormous chore.

It's not really a solution to throw all loot away and just stay down there. Ignoring optional quests, you must go through the main-story quests to progress, otherwise areas will simply be closed off. Another problem with that strategy is that even though you can have a healer along to fix yourself up, mana nor health do not regenerate, and there will come the point where your resources are simply spent. That's particularly nasty when you face enemies that you can only defeat with elemental magic, or attack skills that likewise consume precious mana.
In the case of the aforementioned fifth floor, you can take a stroll back to the third floor, because there's someone there that can replenish health and mana. Doesn't fix the loot problem, of course.

And neither does it fix the third problem: you can only save in town, in the inn. Don't want to redo the entire floor in case the boss kills you? Sure, go save, but then you'll have to walk all the way down again. So silly.

If you do beat the fifth floor though, you'll of course reach the sixth floor, and the game will give you a teleport between that spot and the town. But really, it should hand them out much more frequently, or at least allow saving in the labyrinth. We wouldn't complain if loading a save game threw us back to the start of that level. In fact we'd think anything better would be too easy to exploit. Even gimped like that it would be a million times more sane than restarting in town and backtracking through four whole levels.

For all that, we hate Etrian Odyssey. Maybe a sequel (or a competitive rip-off) could be arranged that fixes these problems. Otherwise it has been pleasant so far. It's very light on story, so do not expect anything epic in that regard. It's just a well-balanced dungeon crawl that lifted elements from so many different (ancient) games that it actually feels unique and fresh. Delicious strangeness.

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