I’ll admit, I still haven’t quite finished Chrono Trigger, despite how much I like it. The reason for this minor tragedy is Atlus RPG Etrian Odyssey, published here in Europe by Nintendo in June of last year (Over a year after the US release). It’s proving to be quite the time sink.
Etrian Odyssey is an RPG of the first person dungeon-crawler variety, in which you lead your band of adventurers down into a mysterious underground forest, to get items needed up top and to figure out why on earth the forest, dubbed the Yggdrasil Labyrinth (The “which-religion-shall-we-steal-from” wheel of fortune Japanese developers all seem to have this time apparently landing on Old Norse), is even there. Other than that, so far there’s no real story to speak of, which I don’t really regard as a bad thing in this case. I am content to be a delivery boy, fetching Holy Water for an old man who can’t really venture into the labyrinth anymore. It’s kind of refreshing not to be expected to save the world.
The lack of any substantial story extends to your characters as well. You choose everything about your party, including their names, classes, attributes and character portraits. This gives a real sense of attachment to your group, and I felt some real discomfort watching my dorkily named avatars fall one by one to one of the super-hard enemies, or F.O.E.s that litter the forest. And believe me, this happens a lot. Etrian Odyssey is old school hard, which works well, as the only barrier to how far you can venture into the dungeon is whether or not you can actually survive, so there’s an amazing sense of accomplishment as you hack your way into a part of the dungeon through monsters who vastly out-level you, and gain some amazing loot and experience in return.
Graphics are serviceable, if not amazing, with some nice character portraits and backgrounds. The battle system is simple, but quite deep. If you’ve played Dragon Quest, you’ll know exactly how it works. A little unoriginal, sure, but DQ is certainly not a bad place to steal from. Music is very good. It’s written by Yuzo Koshiro, the composer for Ys 1&2, the Streets of Rage games, and Act Raiser 1&2, so I expected quality, and it’s certainly present.
Perhaps the most strikingly new feature of Etrian Odyssey is the mapping system. Your bottom screen is a grid, not unlike graph paper, where you are expected to map out the entire labyrinth. Spaces you have been are automatically painted onto the map, so it’s not impossibly difficult or fiddly, but placement of walls, treasure, traps and F.O.E.s is up to the player. This is one of the strongest points of Etrian Odyssey. It’s incredibly satisfying to see a dungeon floor entirely mapped out, and know that it was down to your effort. In fact, “satisfying” describes pretty much all of this game. Everything is extremely tight, and it all adds up to one of the best RPGs the Nintendo DS has seen.