Map a Labyrinth; Lose Your Friends

After two years of intermittent, intense play, I think I’ve finally experienced enough of Etrian Odyssey 2 to tell you guys what I think of it.

Doesn’t that sound silly? If you read any of my other posts about video games you’ll probably know that I really love this series and actually have a strong affinity for the whole “dungeon crawler” sub-genre of RPGs. In fact, you might expect me to heap scorn upon those who clearly didn’t understand the game or just generally wrote twaddle about how it wasn’t what they expect from a game made in 2007. I have a habit of liking games that, for example, Game Informer hates. I really, really liked Nightmare of Druaga, and I still consider it the best example of the Japanese take on the Roguelike (I haven’t played Shiren 3; I don’t have a Wii) that developer Chun Soft has been tooling with for years. I also used that review as an opportunity to heap scorn on the reviewers who didn’t get it. Mistakes were made, and I can admit that. I can also admit that you probably already know what I think about Etrian Odyssey.

Talking about Etrian Odyssey 2 will sound remarkably like talking about its predecessor; the differences between the two are so slight. Etrian Odyssey sees the player’s guild of adventurers traversing a thirty tiered labyrinth buried deep in the earth. Its sequel actually has the guild travelling up the equivalent of the Yggdrasil. The first game involves a meter that builds in battle which will allow the characters to boost their stats for one turn when full, while the second has a similar meter, but it allows for the use of a special skill when full. Otherwise the games are the very much the same in terms of how they really play.

You’ve got a group of adventurers whose classes you decide, and a labyrinth that you chart on the DS’ touch screen. That sums up the majority of the game. This series is part of a sort of Renaissance among Japanese developers that’s happened almost entirely on the handhelds. Quite unlike the majority of the gaming journalists (professional and amateur) out there, I think that RPG development in Japan is actually healthier, more varied, and more interesting than what’s going on here in the west, owing to renewed appreciation for classic gameplay tailored to contemporary tastes. Etrian Odyssey and its sequel capture the sense of danger that made older computer role playing games so addicting by not holding the player’s hand. You have to be careful; you don’t know when a super-powered enemy (called FOE’s in Etrian Odyssey) will pop out and chase your party down. Planning, character development and party build are all vital aspects that are fun in and of themselves. If you don’t like these elements, you don’t really like genre. But at the same time, each game rewards players for experimentation. None of the classes are useless if one keeps in mind how they will work with the other members of the party.
But what’s so fun about graphing a map on the DS? I don’t know. It’s not even nostalgia, since I didn’t play Bard’s Tale or Wizardry on the Apple II. Yet there’s something about marking down progress that really motivates me to play. More so than in games that either display a map in full or auto map in detail, the manual cartography in Etrian Odyssey actually adds to the sense of having conquered a section of the labyrinth. A lot is often made of the idea of exploration in RPGs and how it is important to creating a sense of progress, a sense of how far the characters have gone from their usually quaint origins at the beginning of the game. But exploration usually means so little in JRPGs that when Sting did away with it for Riviera: The Promised Land, the result was actually a much smoother game than it might otherwise have been. Creating a customized map actually makes the process more interesting, particularly when the layouts are as complicated as those in these games, and more personally rewarding.
I think it’s more than just pretend cartography that made EO into a cult property. Etrian Odyssey and its sequel boast music by fan favorite Yuzo Koshiro. The graphics are well rendered and the character designs are probably somebody’s idea of cute, although I think most of them are weird looking and a few border on creepy (the shop keeper in the second game is a full on moe-blob with simpering dialogue to match). But those things are incidental to the series’ success. Simple mechanics triumph, particularly when the games are balanced in the player’s favor. There are challenging aspects (including post-game content) but Etrian Odyssey is really quite easy to figure out.
The DS brims with role playing games of every possible variety, and most of them try to stroke the nostalgia that resonates so strongly with video gamers. Etrian Odyssey hearkens back further than any of them (The Dark Spire excepted), with no angst ridden teenage heroes or malevolent planet-sized evil that became de rigueur on the SNES and (especially) the Playstation, and no item creation systems or dating simulation segments. It doesn’t need those things to entrance the player with its promise of further progression. People think that Japanese RPGs are games designed to be interactive stories, because the term “JRPG” has come to mean Dragon Quest/Final Fantasy 7 clone. But with both Etrian Odyssey and its sequel, the game is the game (and for the record, the earliest Japanese language RPG, The Black Onyx, is a first person dungeon crawler). The medium has freed itself of the message -- a relief after suffering through so many stories about spiky haired teenagers saving the world from some analog for the Christian God or Catholic Church.
The upcoming Etrian Odyssey 3: The Drowned City looks to be even more intimidating, including a customizable ship for seafaring and character classes with even more specialized abilities, which will make party formation that much more critical. But it also looks to have the same inviting, colorful art direction, and the same promise of simple gameplay done right. Some people don’t like that, but there are plenty of games for them on the consoles.
I also have to express my gratitude that neither game records the hours spent playing, as my cumulative time in hours easily reaches into the hundreds.

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