|System: DS||Review Rating Legend|
|Dev: Atlus||1.0 - 1.9 = Avoid||4.0 - 4.4 = Great|
|Pub: Atlus||2.0 - 2.4 = Poor||4.5 - 4.9 = Must Buy|
|Release: May 15, 2007||2.5 - 2.9 = Average||5.0 = The Best|
|Players: 1||3.0 - 3.4 = Fair|
|ESRB Rating: Teen||3.5 - 3.9 = Good|
by Nathan Meunier
Crawling through the unmapped catacombs of a vast dungeon with a gang of adventurers toting mystical weaponry and arcane incantations has held a peculiar and powerful allure for many since the early days of both PC and pen-and-paper gaming. With a ready willingness to subject one's self to hours of leveling up in search of worthy adventuring, the hardcore RPG enthusiast is a strange breed indeed.
Though surprisingly few titles on the DS have risen to the occasion as of late, Altus' Etrian Odyssey makes no bones about catering directly to an extremely niche audience - those who cut their teeth on Dungeons & Dragons or PC titles such as Wizardry and Bard's Tale - by providing an immensely deep map-making and dungeon crawling experience with enough nods to the classics to make the mouths of long-time RPG enthusiasts salivate.
The game unfolds as a mysterious underground forest is discovered outside the isolated town of Etria. The local governors, the Radha, put out a call inviting adventurers to explore the depths of the forest and report back on their discoveries. As none before you have been able to uncover all of the secrets of the forest, called the Yggdrasil Labyrinth, you set out for the town to try your own hand at obtaining fame and fortune. The labyrinth goes far deeper, but the game's story does not and more emphasis is placed on exploration rather than a grand plot.
Upon arriving in Etria, you must name your guild and build a party of up to five adventurers in preparation for your trek into the dangerous forest. The seven character classes available from the onset offer a wide range of abilities to choose from in creating your group. Landsknechts can deal massive damage with swords and axes, Protectors are tank-warriors with shield abilities, and Dark Hunters use whips to bind foes with S&M-like glee. Alchemists and Medics should be kept in the back and can use offensive and healing magic respectively. Survivalists wield missile weapons to whittle down enemies and Troubadours dance to boost party stats and help affect the outcome of battle. Two other powerful classes, Ronin and Hexers, are also available further along in the game. Which classes you choose to fill your ranks with is entirely up to you, but balancing your party is necessary to survive the hardships of the labyrinth. Each class has a slew of special abilities which can be unlocked and upgraded with the skill points earned each time you level up. Etrian Odyssey offers a high level of customization which allows players to really strategize as to how they choose to develop each character and increase the overall strength of their party. As guild leader, you are charged with micromanaging almost every important aspect of each character as they grow in experience.
The town of Etria itself serves as a home-base of sorts for your group. You can rest and heal your characters, purchase and sell items and equipment, take on special missions, and manage your party. Collecting various items dropped by defeated enemies is a big part of the money and equipment system in the game. Money is only gained by selling these found items in the local shop, and new equipment can be forged depending on the amount and type of item sold. Though it is necessary to frequently take return trips back to town to save your game and restock on supplies, the bulk of your time will be spent in the labyrinth.
As the party will soon find out, exploring the five strata of the underground forest is brutally challenging. Even the earliest depths of the labyrinth will prove to be viciously punishing to the novice adventurer. The threat of a swift and painful demise will cause more than a few neophytes to initially hesitate to venture much farther than the first few rooms of the labyrinth until their party levels up slightly. Adding insult to injury is the fact that a handful of purple butterflies, moles, and other seemingly weak creatures can easily annihilate the bulk of your party within minutes of those initial uncertain steps into the first stratum. The lush forest is deceptively serene and the harsh introduction to its unfriendly inhabitants should jar most players out of complacency in short order. After a brief period of seat-of-the-pants adventuring, your party will grow strong enough to proceed deeper into the unknown where each level brings new creatures, surprises, and promise of treasure.
Further in, the menagerie turns to a more menacing variety with slimes, carnivorous flora, and other exotic beasts with a taste for human flesh. Most enemy encounters are random, though their frequency can be tracked and anticipated by a glowing orb in the corner of the screen. With each step taken, the indicator slowly shifts from a calm green to a bright red when an enemy encounter is only a step or two away. Catching a first glimpse of the game's wandering mini-bosses, the only creatures actually visible on the map, will be enough to stop players in their tracks. Appropriately dubbed "FOEs," these heinous entities show up as an ominous swirling orb of fiery energy and hold some of the labyrinth's toughest encounters. The sight of one such evil mass rounding a corner and shambling towards your party is fiercely daunting.