As I sit here writing this article, I keep glancing over at my 3DS, in whose cartridge slot I have a review copy of Shin Megami Tensei IV. That's pretty exciting; from what I've seen, played, and heard, SMTIV has the potential to go down as one of the best portable role-playing games ever (not to mention the most fashionable). And yet, I haven't jumped in to SMTIV's world of demons and moral choices, because my other 3DS -- the one that plays Japanese games -- is demanding all my attention with an entirely different RPG by SMTIV developer Atlus. Namely, Etrian Odyssey Untold: The Millennium Girl.
Honestly, I'm pretty surprised by this turn of events. I mean, I've always been a big Etrian Odyssey fan, but I've already played through one chapter of the series this year (the excellent Etrian Odyssey IV). I wouldn't think I'd want to delve into another quite so soon... especially in light of the fact that Etrian Odyssey Untold is simply a remake of the original Etrian Odyssey, a game that debuted a mere six years ago.
Six years isn't that long in the grand scheme of things, and this series in particular changes with minute gradations. Plus, within the limited framework of the first-person dungeon-crawler genre, EOIV offered considerably more refinements and variety than the original. It's not exactly a series begging for backward glances, and certainly not for multiple releases within the space of a year.
And yet, I can't stop playing the Japanese demo of Untold. It's not just that it offers more the same addictive map-it-as-you-go exploration and kill-you-in-an-instant combat the series revolves around; this is, for all intents and purposes, an entirely new game.
Frankly, after spending a couple of hours with Untold, I'm not really sure why Atlus has chosen to present it as a remake. Certainly this game and the original have some common elements: Players use the town of Etria as their base of operations, and that town in turn is inhabited by familiar faces like the seemingly benign Radha (who runs the town) and the barely-clothed Shilleka (who exchanges cash and goods in return for your loot drops). The general structure of the 30-level labyrinth seems largely the same, as well.
Beyond that, however, Untold feels more like a sequel than a remake. Everything from the story to the dungeons to the party composition has undergone a radical revamp, and the overall experience is nothing at all like the old DS game. Some may find some of the changes to the game's detriment; for example, you no longer create a party of nameless guild members from a jumble of character classes. Instead, you take control of an unnamed hero -- a Highlander-class warrior, which looks to be more or less a variant on EOIV's Bushi -- who eventually teams up with four other warriors in one of the grandest meet cutes I've ever witnessed. (This is told through an anime cutscene animated by Madhouse, so, you know, it figures.)
However, aside from the name-him-yourself Highlander, the other four party members come with names and predetermined classes, including what I assume to be the eponymous millennium girl, Frederica Irving. Unlike the rest of the party, Frederica isn't a forest warrior but rather a person who awakes from stasis in a futuristic underground ruin... and to further set her apart from the rest of her companions, she's a Gunner, a class that didn't even appear in the original Etrian Odyssey. The predetermined classes may feel limiting at first, but before long you're able to add multiclassing to your party's repertoire with the use of items called Grimoire Stones... itself a feature that didn't appear until Etrian Odyssey III.
Delving into the dungeon feels completely new this time around, too. For starters, the obligatory opening quest ("map the first floor") is a stress-free cakewalk thanks to the fact that the Highlander is accompanied by Ren and Tlachtga, the high-level samurai/hexer duo who appear throughout the first game's story. Since they're roughly 30 levels above the Highlander, they pretty much dismantle even the toughest encounters for that first quest (in fact, Ren has a new passive skill that randomly allows her to make a preemptive first strike that hits every enemy, meaning she'll often kill every foe on screen before either side has a chance to take a proper turn). Needless to say, this makes certain sequences -- like the poison butterfly ambush if you should choose to rest in a peaceful clearing -- considerably less dangerous.
The dungeon layouts themselves have completely changed as well. Despite thematic similarities and reused encounters, the floor plan of each section of the labyrinth is totally different this time around. Not only that, but new F.O.E.s (the deadly, free-roaming sub-bosses that make Etrian Odyssey's exploration so harrowing) being appearing as early as the second floor. Shortly after first spotting the deadly Ragelope, you'll begin walking past odd piles of rocks positioned in certain locations. Once you reach the other side of one of these rocks, however, you'll quickly discover it's actually a slumbering creature that charges in an instant if you walk too close to its head. Luring them from their spots and evading their swift assault is an essential part of reaching the deeper parts of the second floor -- though in the early going, you'll naturally want to avoid an actual collision to prevent a very hasty Game Over.
Even more intriguing is the labyrinth that appears after you complete your mission with Ren and Tlachtga. The Highlander delves into those futuristic ruins, which evidently will need to be revisited through the course of the quest to delve further into its interior, a bit like Phantom Hourglass' Temple of the Ocean King (except not annoying). This standalone labyrinth didn't appear in the original game and hints at the possibility of new sidequests and areas to further differentiate this game from the source material.
The downside to all of this, at least for those drawn to Etrian Odyssey's old-school difficulty level, is that Untold is a much easier game, at least to begin with. Even after your high-level companions go their separate way, a seasoned RPG player will have little difficulty mowing through the foes in the first couple of levels. Futhermore, the character balance has been significantly revamped as well, with new skill trees and powers. Most prerequisite-type abilities no longer require you to pump a skill point into a slot that offers no return; when you unlock a new branch of the skill tree, the point you invest may actually grant you one, two, or even three new abilities. The result is a faster-paced, much less grindy RPG. In short, a game ideal for more casual players.
But! Untold also features three difficulty levels, so you don't have to default to the fairly unthreatening normal difficulty. (And if even that seems too daunting, there's also "Picnic" difficulty.) On top of that, it includes a top-to-bottom overhaul of the original Etrian Odyssey. No preset characters, no predetermined classes, just a remake of the first game with the story mode's maps and sporting the visual and mechanical refinements of Etrian Odyssey IV. The Japanese demo doesn't offer a glimpse of Classic Mode, so it's hard to say what has been changed and what remains consistent.
So, while Etrian Odyssey Untold is technically an old game, it actually feels fairly new -- and on top of that, it offers two different ways to experience the thing. Any cynicism I may have experienced when I first heard Atlus was remaking a game barely a half-decade later has pretty much melted away at this point.
Which is a problem. See, I really need to get to work on that SMTIV review.