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Review: Etrian Odyssey

Posted Jan-18 2008 by ron, created under common review policies
For Nintendo DS


Back in the good old days, when apples were still flat hexagons, many western developers produced first-person RPGs that allowed players to control a whole party of adventurers, and not just one lone wolf, as is customary in current western RPGs. We will never fully understand the reasons, but the many venerable RPG series in that style, the Bard's Tales, the Dungeon Masters, the Eye Of The Beholders, Might&Magics, Lands Of Lores, the Wizardrys, they all died or lost their ways more or less spectacularly, and for a few years it seemed as if the art had been forgotten. But has it really?
Etrian Odyssey picks up seamlessly where we left off so many years ago, and transplants the classic formula of grid-based first-person-plural dungeon romping onto the DS.

The game starts you out in a town with an unusual problem: there's some kind of forest under the city, a forest that spans many levels and calls for exploration. So you start out assembling a crew of up to five characters from a wide choice of character classes, shop for a short while, and plunge into the depths for your first mission: make a map of the first floor.
Etrian Odyssey's levels are all carved out of a square grid, which means your party can move only in precisely grid-sized steps and only make 90° turns, though the movement transitions are smoothly animated.
As you explore, the game will automatically fill out a map of the current level. All you have to do is draw the walls and mark more special squares, such as doors, traps or treasure chests. There are also spaces where resources can be harvested, and occasionally story events take place when you first pass a specific spot in the labyrinth.

Battles

Etrian Odyssey wouldn't be much of an RPG if it lacked combat, and unsurprisingly, it does not. As the party travels, there is a certain chance at each step that a random encounter will happen. The likelihood for this is actually displayed as an orb that changes color from blue (no danger) over green and yellow to dark red (an encounter is imminent). Combat is strictly turn-based: at the start of each combat turn you enter commands for all your characters, and then the enemies and your guys start acting in and order determined by their initiative, which is determined by stats and class.
A second, significant way to get caught up in an encounter is what the game calls "FOEs": rarer, more challenging enemies that are already visible in the exploration perspective and can follow the party around. The game is strictly turn-based even outside of combat, so that nothing ever happens without the player acting first. This means a FOE will only get to move another step after you took one step, so you can take your time to plan your moves to dodge (or deliberately catch) them. If you get caught in a random (non-FOE) encounter, nearby FOEs can close in on you for every combat turn, and eventually join the battle if you don't manage to end it before they arrive at your position.

While random encounters can happen anywhere, and you can never clear an area of enemies, FOEs will be gone for a while. They only respawn a week or two after you killed them.
The game simulates a day-and-night cycle, and there are some enemies that only appear, or are more likely to appear, at certain times of day.

Many trips

Standard attacks are free, but using any more advanced attack skills or spells uses up limited mana. That, running out of restorative items, or having filled your pack with loot are all fine reasons to return to town. You can revive dead allies, trade for new equipment, rest at the inn, or even swap out party members if you find yourself in need of a different class for a specific task.
Speaking of tasks, there are also optional quests available, such as defeating a certain monster, recovering a lost trinket from the labyrinth, or just spending three (simulated) days on a certain floor.
Of course the primary goal of the game is to reach the deepest depths, and that too is formalized through a series of mandatory quests, which of course involve getting past a particularly nasty boss enemy that guards the entrance to the next set of levels, but also bring in a bit of narrative and characterization.

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