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Apr 07 2015

Review of Etrian Mystery Dungeon

Etrian_MD_LOGO_TM4 Stars

Atlus is quickly becoming the Reese’s of the JRPG world, masterfully pairing the chocolate and peanut butter of various seemingly incongruous franchises together in surprisingly complementary ways. That was the case with last year’s Persona Q (which mixed the world of Persona 3 & 4 with the mechanics of Etrian Odyssey) and it’s also the premise behind the upcoming SMT X Fire Emblem. But there’s a crossover game between those two titles that hasn’t gotten as much attention and that’s Etrian Mystery Dungeon, which releases this week for the 3DS. As you might have guessed it takes the Etrian Odyssey franchise and blends it with Chunsoft’s long running and well-loved Mystery Dungeon series. What makes this title particularly curious though is the fact that unlike with Persona Q, the two franchises in question have very different gameplay, with one focusing on classic turn-based RPG combat and cartography whereas the other takes the form of a traditional roguelike. However, despite that disparity, they have managed to combine them in a way that feels mechanically relevant to both series, making it more than worth a peek for lovers of either flavour of JRPG.

That being the case we might as well start off by talking about that unique blended gameplay. In general EMD falls more into the Mystery Dungeon camp than it does Etrian Odyssey’s, with all the major gameplay taking place on grid based maps, viewed from an almost top down perspective, with you and the enemy moving and attacking in turn. But there is a major twist to this formula not yet seen in a Mystery Dungeon game (at least as far as I know) and that’s the fact that you’re not just playing as a single character, but rather as a whole party of adventurers. Now to be fair you’re not controlling the whole party at once, only the leader of the group, which is a role you can reassign at will. The AI takes control of the remaining party members and out of combat they’ll follow along behind you, however once you get into a fight they’ll spread out and start acting in accordance with their class, often using some pretty decent tactics. This actually lends itself really well to the Etrian Odyssey gameplay philosophy, which focuses on putting together impressive combos, enabled by a wide array of skills, which are doled out by a number of very complementary classes; the only major difference here is that instead of setting up those combos all by yourself, the computer is lending a helping hand. It’s a very interesting system that allows you to be a bit more hands off than you’d expect, giving you leave to focus on the larger strategy, while the nitty-gritty minutiae of things like buffs and ally placement is handled surprisingly well by the AI. This general gameplay structure definitely strikes a good balance between the two franchises, giving you all the deep yet fundamental random exploration that defines the Mystery Dungeon games while at the same time providing an extra layer of finesse and planning that makes it feel like Etrian Odyssey.

Many of the classic Etrian Odyssey classes return, sporting all the attacks and abilities you would expect of them.

Many of the classic Etrian Odyssey classes return, sporting all the attacks and abilities you would expect of them.

Of course something that both of these series revel in is side systems, and Etrian Mystery Dungeon is no exception. Weapon fusing, material gathering, town development; all the usual suspects are here and they’re generally meted out in the form of side quests, which provide you with plenty of stuff to do as you grind your way through the dungeons. But the biggest new addition in terms of sub-systems comes from the DOEs and the new formicary style of dungeon structure. As long time Etrian fans can probably gather, DOEs are this game’s take on the massive frightening bosses known as FOEs, which would wander the hallways of the Etrian Odyssey games. But rather than be confined to a single floor, cursed to repeat the same set movement pattern forever as they do there, in EMD they actually travel between floors, and can supposedly even escape the dungeon all together and attack the nearby town. But thankfully you’re equipped with a defensive strategy that can prevent this ghastly outcome, by which I mean the ability to build forts. For a small fee you can convert any floor of a dungeon into a fort, which depending on the type of fort you build, will not only repel DOEs that try to pass through them, but will also provide you with a fast travel spots, and more importantly will let you lock down the overall structure of the dungeon. The reason this works is because every dungeon in EMD is spread out like an anthill, with each floor acting as a chamber that can lead off to a number of others. While the contents and layout of the floors themselves will always be randomized, placing down a fort will lock down the overall greater pattern in which those floors are spread out. This not only allows you to better plan out your trips into the various dungeons but it also gives you a way to herd the DOEs and make it so that you can fight them at a greater advantage. Much like with the base gameplay, it adds an extra layer strategic depth that greatly evokes the Etrian Odyssey mindset while still being deeply rooted in Mystery Dungeon fundamentals.

Moving onto the story, there isn’t really too much to say, as both of these franchise have historically been pretty light on narrative. The basic premise here in Etrian Mystery Dungeon is that you are a fresh-faced adventurer who has just arrived in Aslarga, a small village that sits at the foot of Yggdrasil (the World Tree) and is well known for its abundance of nearby dungeons. Your primary goal and sole motivation in this game is simply to seek adventure, though as time goes on you’ll become tasked with defending the town from DOEs and solving the mystery of ‘Amber’, which acts as EMD’s magic cure-all plot glue and is responsible for the increased DOE activity as well as all sorts of other nonsense. As expected it’s pretty low impact stuff, and while there is some minor dialogue and fun attempts at character building with some of the more important NPCs, it’s all clearly meant as just window dressing. To be fair though, neither the Etrian Odyssey nor Mystery Dungeon games, have ever really been known for their stories, instead preferring to put that effort towards gameplay. As such a minimal level of narrative is exactly what I think people are expecting from this game, so it more or less gets a pass on this front as far as I’m concerned.

While you might expect to quickly lose track of everything when the screen gets overloaded with both a full party and scads of monsters, Etrian Mystery Dungeon actually does a great job at helping you keep everything in check.

The game does a surprisingly good job at helping you keep everything in check as the action starts to get crowded.

The presentation on the other hand has a little bit more meat to it, and much to my delight, it’s quite well done. Visually the game sports a very bright and welcoming colour palette splashed upon both sharp 2D anime character portraits and well-realized 3D models and environments. It’s definitely going for a look that’s more Etrian Odyssey than Mystery Dungeon, sharing the former’s enemy designs and general aesthetic. It gives things the same quaint and peaceful air that the EO games always have, which makes for a pleasantly low-key experience. It pairs up well with the Mystery Dungeon style of level design and the babbling brooks, sun-dappled verdant forests, and bamboo groves that comprise many of the early dungeons all flow naturally from floor to floor, slightly changing as time goes on which gives each dungeon a good sense of progression. What really ended up striking me though was the music, which has a relaxed yet slightly orchestral feel to it that’s not dissimilar to the music in Dragon Quest. The town music is a catchy but slow little number that reminds me of long summer days and the music in the dungeons is full of subtle intrigue, suspense, and danger, depending on the situation. It’s quite evocative and nicely helps to reinforce the mood of each given moment without being too overbearing about it. When taken together, the warm colours, clean art, and pleasant music just end up making for a very enjoyable presentation that wonderfully pairs with the rock-solid gameplay.

In the end I got more or less exactly what I was hoping for out of Etrian Mystery Dungeon, and that’s a very good thing. It pays full respect to both its parental franchises and carries forward their strengths, creating an interesting and unique experience all its own. That said it does unfortunately still carry some of the signature faults of both Etrian Odyssey and Mystery Dungeon, such as a very light narrative and fair amounts of grinding, but those issues make sense in context with the rest of the game and are frankly things that any fan of either franchise would be expecting. Though even if you’re a newcomer to either series, those issues will most likely end up feeling very minor and the well-built gameplay and serenely appropriate presentation more than make up for it. As such I’m giving Etrian Mystery Dungeon a 4 out of 5 stars, definitely worth checking out if you’re a devotee of either franchise or just a lover of JRPGs and Roguelikes in general. 

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