Hey, you got your Etrian Odyssey in my Mystery Dungeon!
The folks at Atlus certainly have been busy when it comes to bringing 3DS owners into the adventure-filled realm of Etria. With Etrian Odyssey IV: Legends of the Titan and Etrian Odyssey Untold: The Millennium Girl still fresh on the minds of role playing gamers, along with the upcoming Etrian Odyssey Untold 2: The Fafnir Knight on the horizon, owners of Nintendo’s dual-screened handheld have plenty of JRPG salve to soothe that dungeon-delving cartographer’s itch. However, while Atlus’ challenging turn-based, dungeon-mapping epics have always been enjoyable affairs, their blend of rigid exploration and deliberate pacing isn’t for everybody. Sometimes you just want to dive deep underground, smacking monsters about the head with a massive war hammer while gathering mountains of shimmering gold, epic loot, and even bigger war hammers to bring down even bigger baddies.
Enter Etrian Mystery Dungeon. Developed by Spike Chunsoft, the studio behind Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward and Conception II: Children of the Seven Stars, this new adventure sheds the series’ familiar first-person dungeon crawling RPG skin in favor bringing players a challenging roguelike adventure set against the vibrant backdrop of Etria. As the founder of a new guild of budding adventurers looking to make a name for themselves, players will explore dangerous subterranean ruins in search of adventure as they unravel the secrets surrounding the mountainside town of Aslarga and the mysterious Yggdrasil tree that looms in the mountains above.
If you’ve ever played Pokemon Mystery Dungeon, Shiren the Wanderer or the recent The Awakened Fate Ultimatum you’ll know what to expect from Etrian Mystery Dungeon. Played from a top-down perspective, players are tasked with guiding their party of adventurers ever downward to the bottom of of shifting, procedurally generated dungeon. For every step your charming super-deformed avatar takes, the enemies on the floor take one as well, creating an almost chess-like flow to the game’s encounters. When exploring the game’s dungeons players will assume the role of the party’s designated leader, but are able to snap to any of the team’s four available characters on the fly to issue commands. However, the A.I. for your computer-controlled compatriots is quite solid, so you can typically trust them to perform admirably while you scour the sprawling labyrinths in search of gold, gear, and the inevitable boss fight waiting on the bottom floor of each dungeon.
While most Mystery Dungeon titles have been largely solo affairs, having a party at your side in Etrian Mystery Dungeon is a very welcome addition, and a huge help when battling the hordes of monsters you’ll encounter when working your way to the fabled Yggdrasil tree. Familiar classes from the Etrian games such as the Landsknecht, Hexer, Dancer, Runemaster, and many more join the ranks of your guild. Customizing a balanced party for the task at hand is of the utmost importance too, because in typical roguelike fashion death comes with serious consequences. My go-to method for success was to bring a heavily-armored Protector class into battle at all times, who would pull enemies in with her taunts as my Runemasters and Gunners whittled down their health from a safe distance. Of course, you could always bring a Dancer into the fray to buff your party’s stats with their smooth support dance moves, or maybe forgo support abilities in favor of battle skills instead, turning your rhythmic warrior into a twirling storm of blades as they sword dance into a gang of enemies, leaving nothing but piles of loot in their wake. The number of available classes is honestly somewhat staggering, and each class has its own distinct and customizable skill tree, giving players a tremendous amount of freedom for experimentation as they attempt to put together the perfect squad for any situation.
When your party meets the reaper – and they most certainly will, as EMD‘s monsters take no prisoners – you’ll be stripped of all of your wealth, recently gained levels, consumables, and a good portion of your equipped gear, leaving you especially vulnerable your next trek into the mystery dungeons. That said, it’s always wise to keep a healthy supply of spare equipment in Aslarga’s inn to help mitigate your losses when you inevitably fall in battle. There’s nothing more disheartening than being separated from an especially hard to find weapon or item, and it can be frustrating watching tens of thousands of gold thrown in the garbage after a chance encounter with an especially powerful enemy reduces your party to sticky red stains on the dungeon floor. However, the bitter sting of defeat encourages you to play smarter next time, and the overwhelming odds make your hard-fought successes all the more sweet when you’ve toppled one of the dungeon’s screen-filling bosses.
In addition to upgrading your party member’s gear and weapons, it also pays dividends to invest a large chunk of change into developing the town of Aslarga itself. Investing in the market district means shops will carry a wider variety of goods and services, such as the ability to craft and augment more powerful equipment, whereas pumping funding into the the restaurant district will increase the number of available quests posted on the bulletin board, and ensure the chef cooks a variety of new stat-boosting meals you can gulp down for an extra edge on your next excursion into the labyrinth.
As you upgrade your Adventurer’s Guild the number of slots for fresh recruits expands. Though you may only be able to explore with 4 party members at once, you can erect forts in the mystery dungeons and dispatch your idle party members to the frontlines so that they can continue to gain experience even while they’re on stand-by. In addition to building accruing experience for your benched units, forts also affix the layout of their current floor and work as great jump points that you can utilize when sending a fort’s occupants on a rescue mission to recover a downed party, which will prevent the fallen squad from losing items, levels, and weapons.
As if the typical baddies weren’t a big enough headache, Etrian Mystery Dungeon‘s D.O.E.s are the real threats you should be worried about. Not content to simply crush your party alone, these ancient and powerful creatures from deep underground work their way up from the depths to attack Aslarga itself, and can even knock entire districts of the town out of commission for an extended period of time if they successfully penetrate the surface. The only ways to repel these forces of destruction are to attack them head on (which more often than not results in your crushing defeat), or by building forts along their path in order to repel their advance and send them back reeling underground for a brief while. Progression in the game’s later dungeons is often a deadly dance of descending a few floors as you take care to avoid the dungeon’s D.O.E. and strategically erect forts at key locations to ensure the beast is subdued momentarily, only to rinse and repeat until you finally make it deep underground to battle the next boss.
In terms of storytelling, Etrian Mystery Dungeon isn’t going to grab you by the heartstrings. However, the game’s clever writing and perpetually perky cast ensure you’ll grow attached to the characters and world that make up Etrian Mystery Dungeon. The game’s upbeat story of adventure is full of charm, and serves as a pleasing if largely superficial garnish to the game’s immensely satisfying dungeon-delving main course.
Aesthetically speaking, Etrian Mystery Dungeon‘s blend of super-deformed characters and simple dungeon landscapes likely aren’t going to blow you away, but the game does feature some exceptionally vibrant use of color and a wide variety of underground locales that all stand out from one another, breathing fresh life into each new dungeon you explore. From the bewitching moss-strewn wilds of the Emerald Copse to the icy frostbitten tundras of the Crystalline Peak, each environment has a distinct look of its own, keeping the proceedings fresh as you advance ever onward on your adventure.
While the visuals may be mostly passable, Etrian Mystery Dungeon‘s music is simply stunning. Legendary composer Yuzo Koshiro reprises his role as lead composer this go around, offering a varied score that always fits the on-screen action like a well-worn glove. From the energetic and infectious theme of Aslarga itself to the haunting and subdued sounds that accompany the game’s numerous dungeons, Koshiro’s soundtrack will pull you into the world of Etria with this gorgeous array of lush and captivating soundscapes.
When all is said and done, Etrian Mystery Dungeon is a tremendous success. Triumphantly marrying two wildly different franchises with superb results, Etrian Odyssey‘s universe lends itself exceptionally well to the Mystery Dungeon series’ established gameplay formula, making for an adventure that feels both immediately familiar but refreshing all the same. Offering a lengthy adventure filled with dungeons to explore, optional side quests to undertake, and an addicting town-defense mechanic, Etrian Mystery Dungeon serves to offer fans of both series a unique and innovative adventure that expands upon the established Mystery Dungeon maxim, delivering an unapologetically challenging and addicting experience that fans of rogulikes, and Etrian Odyssey simply need to experience.
Final Verdict: 4.5 / 5
Available on: Nintendo 3DS (reviewed) ; Publisher: Atlus ; Developer: Spike Chunsoft ; Players: 1; Released: April 7, 2015 ; MSRP: $39.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a review copy of Etrian Mystery Dungeon provided by the game’s publisher, Atlus.