Jul 30 2015

Review of Etrian Odyssey 2 Untold: The Fafnir Knight

CONii3DScvr4.5 Stars

The Untold games are a curious attempt by Atlus to remake the first Etrian Odyssey games, while also updating them with newer mechanics and most importantly, actual plot and characters. The story was kept fairly light in the original version of Etrian Odyssey 2, with things only going as far as the Duchy of Lagaard needing help obtaining a special item called the “Grail of Kings” from the labyrinth upon which the town was built. Your party was entirely of your own choosing, and had little to no bearing on the story, which acted as simply a thin excuse to go dungeon delving. Not a bad way to do things if you want a pure focus on gameplay, but obviously it lacks a certain degree of investment and seems a waste of all those good writers at Atlus’ talents. But now of course they’ve re-released it and added in a proper story, providing you with a team of actual characters with emotions and arcs, involved in a greater narrative beyond that of simply collecting a MacGuffin. That classic mode is still in there for those who want to play the game that way just with the expanded mechanics, but I was here to see what was new, so I went for the story mode. I also played on the lowest difficulty (less of a change than you might think) because these games have a tendency to be long and a bit grindy. Rather than leave you in suspense, I’ll tell you right now that I really liked what Etrian Odyssey 2 Untold: The Fafnir Knight added to the classic Etrian formula and did with the world. So without further ado, let’s get into why.

The dungeons are filled with a large variety of unique mechanics and roaming monsters that help keep things fresh from floor to floor.

The dungeons are filled with a large variety of unique mechanics and roaming monsters that help keep things fresh from floor to floor.

Starting off with the story, the basic plot of the Duchy of Lagaard needing the help of random adventurers to find magic baubles and do other heroic nonsense is still very much intact, but it’s been woven into and ultimately takes a back seat to a larger plot. That plot involves a girl known as Arianna, the princess of a kingdom called Caledonia, being sent to Lagaard to complete a ritual that takes place every hundred years, which despite being shrouded in mystery, is very important for maintaining peace in the land. Sent alongside her are two members of the Midgard Library (a fancy school/orphanage) one of which is you, the protagonist. While normally a knight of Caledonia would accompany the princess on this mission, it seems that you and her have a bit of a past that you have conveniently forgotten about, and as such you and your companion from the library, Flavio, are asked to go instead. Your party is sent into an ancient labyrinth known as Ginnungagap, where the ritual is supposed to take place, and it’s there your purpose on this journey becomes clear, as a voice in your head starts talking to you and grants you the power of the titular Fafnir Knight, giving you great power but also physically warping your right hand. Charged with ensuring the ritual is completed and protecting the Princess Arianna, you must then navigate Ginnungagap, as well as the larger labyrinth Yggdrasil from the original game, in order to finish the ritual, save the world, and rid yourself of the strange affliction of Fafnir’s power. It makes for a pretty solid plot with multiple layers of motivation, and frankly there are a number of factors I choose not to mention due to spoilers, that cause this relatively simple premise to take on some decent nuance as things move forward. It’s also impressive how they managed to work the original plot into things without it feeling too forced, having you jump back and forth between the two dungeons when a natural stumbling block appears, consulting the Duchy and working with them to achieve your goals as well as better the kingdom as a whole.

In terms of story, one thing this game executes on surprisingly well is its characters, which despite being absolutely steeped in cliché, all mesh together really well and actually have some slight but warranted growth as the story goes on. The core group consisting of the protagonist, Arianna, Flavio, Bertrand, and Chloe (the last two being a pair you meet while exploring Ginnungagap, who then decide to join up with you out of curiosity) all really managed to endear themselves to me. They match their archetypes to a tee, filling out the respective roles of the silent blank slate, cheerful but naive royal, loyal best friend/rival, lazy but skilled veteran, and soft-spoken but brash little girl with aplomb, but more importantly without undue exaggeration. These roles simply act as the base of each character’s personality, while their interactions with each other add further texture and do a fantastic job at better fleshing out the party. Much of your understanding and emotional investment in the story will come from the way your group slowly gets to know each other and the world at large, watching as they react to the events that befall them and Lagaard.

Creating dishes at the diner is weirdly fun, but also useful as each dish provides a passive buff.

Creating dishes at the diner is weirdly fun, but also useful as each dish provides a passive buff.

Moving onto the gameplay, it’s pretty much exactly what you’d expect, as the Etrian Odyssey formula is more or less set in stone at this point. You’ll wander through countless floors of roving monsters, random hazards, and road blocks, all while manually mapping things out on the lower screen. As with other recent games in this series, you can set in the options how much basic mapping you want the game to do for you, but even with all the mapping options turned on you’ll still end up doing a lot of cartography yourself to fill in the gaps and account for special cases. That may sound like a bad thing, but as any long time Etrian fan will tell you, all that mapping is weirdly engrossing. Building out your own chart for each floor makes the compulsion to explore them completely that much stronger. Filling in those little details and creating your own shorthand for stuff in the world using the small array of symbols and colours you’re provided, gives a wonderful sense of satisfaction, especially when you’re able to use that map to outwit and escape the powerful F.O.E. monsters that roam each floor outside of the random battles. You’re also compelled to finish off each chart as a completed map allows you to fast travel past that floor by simply tapping the exit stairs, so there is a tangible reward for filling out your maps as well.

As for the combat and more traditional RPG parts of this game, once again it’s more or less as expected, though refined, streamlined, and incentivised in some nice ways. It uses a pretty standard turn-based battle system, rife with special attacks, status effects, and buffs/debuffs, including the Etrian classic binds which restrict special moves based on the body part being bound. While the combat is not exactly anything mind-blowing, it moves quite fast and it’s extremely well-balanced, offering both variety and cohesion thanks to the deep skill system on display that allows each class to develop along subtly different tracks while at the same time augmenting their core repertoire with abilities borrowed from other classes. It makes for a very flexible style of character growth and the actual range of abilities really emphasize experimentation, as many of them improve or trigger based on different factors. Of course the enemies are similarly varied, featuring plenty of different attacks and behaviors that encourage smart play and good decision-making. Where things really get put to the test is during the boss and F.O.E. fights, as these beasts require more cunning and strategy to bring down, begging you to experiment and play with all your abilities. Perhaps most interesting in my mind is the way the game will reward you with special materials when you take down specific monsters in special ways, such as destroying a giant snowman with an ice attack. While this mechanic has been in past Etrian games, it bears mentioning, as it once again entices you to play around with the full suite of tools the game provides you with. Bolstering this rock solid dungeon crawling action even further is a healthy number of side quests, a simple but enjoyable loot system, and a weird but strangely compelling diner running meta-game, that altogether create a deeply satisfying core gameplay flow that has you just as excited to get into the dungeon and start adventuring as you are to get out of the dungeon so you can sell your weird new materials and puzzle out new recipes for your greasy spoon.

The anime portraits on display are also quite well done, nicely conservative in design yet still quite expressive.

The anime portraits on display are also quite well done, nicely conservative in design yet still quite expressive.

Lastly we come to the presentation, which is just as fantastic as these 3DS Etrian Odyssey games tend to be. The visuals are smooth and crisp, with a very vivid colour palette, that gives the environments a peaceful and pastoral feel that very much fits the setting, as Yggdrasil is basically just a big tree. The monsters designs hit a great balance between being elaborate but also simple and recognizable; they animate in some good ways too, bringing a lot of life to the proceedings. The only somewhat negative thing I would note in terms of the enemy design is the fact that there are a few palette swaps in bestiary, though they’re fairly distinct from their twins and spread out in such a way that it doesn’t really feel like a problem. As for the sound design, the voice acting is quite good though the soundtrack is where the game really excels. The town music for example is very calm and soothing, with a vibe that evokes chilled out educational films from the ’70s in my mind, creating a sort of nostalgic relaxation that fits the sleepy tone of Lagaard perfectly. In contrast, the battles are accompanied by fast paced anime guitars squealing out some really driving combat anthems that help give things just the right amount of punch. These are the extremes of the soundtrack, but they end up working together surprisingly well as the OST hits enough notes between the two to feel cohesive. They even use the soundtrack in spots to punctuate the action, with things like the standard battle theme starting a couple of bars early when you surprise the enemy with a preemptive attack. Put simply, the presentation is wholly pleasant throughout and feels very well crafted.

There’s no individual component of Etrian Odyssey 2 Untold that I think is especially remarkable, but taken as a whole I found it surprisingly comfortable, compelling, and incredibly well-executed. The story is clichéd but feels genuine thanks to smart plot twists and decent character building. The combat is by no means original, but it uses that traditional structure to its fullest, making it easy to experiment and giving you incentive to do so. And tying it altogether is the presentation which very potently evokes the right vibes at the right times and helps provide a nice cohesive flow to the whole game. As an overall product, it feels very tight and well put together, a wonderful example of the unique mechanics and themes that exemplify the Etrian series. As such I’m giving Etrian Odyssey 2 Untold: The Fafnir Knight a 4.5 out of 5 stars.

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