Etrian Odyssey Untold is a strange one. It's sort of a remake of a six-year-old game, but it's also something practically new at the same time. Using the 3DS-based Etrian Odyssey IV game engine, Atlus has reworked the first game in the series to look and play much more like the most recent entry in the series.
Yes, it remains a first-person dungeon crawler, with all the old-school difficulty that entails, but much of Untold is new The dungeons maps have been remixed, new enemies have joined the bestiary, and new skill trees await the player within familiar character classes. And then there's the new story mode, which goes a step further by replacing the player's guild with premade characters, throwing in considerably more story, and greatly changing the available classes and mechanics.
Today, a couple of series newcomers offer their take on the game, alongside the perspective of someone who's played them all. Cassandra Khaw (who dabbles in games like this from time to time) brings her fresh perspective into the classic mode, while Jaz Rignall (who doesn't play first-person dungeon crawlers much at all) has tackled the novice-friendly story mode. Meanwhile, Jeremy Parish (who played through the original Etrian and only gave up midway through the unforgiving post-game material) revisits a personal favorite through the new take offered by the story mode.
It’s easy to sit back with rose-tinted spectacles, waxing lyrical about the good old days, when games were simple and brilliant, and everything was all bright, shiny and new.
Then you actually play an old game, and reality comes crashing in like an elephant through a plate glass window, wiping away all that misty-eyed nostalgia as you realize what soft, molly-coddled, gaming-entitled brats we all are these days. Because the reality is, most old games are REALLY HARD. I’m not necessarily saying modern games are any less challenging. It’s just that – and I’m speaking very generally here – for the most part, the sort of things that make older games hard are no longer present in modern games. Things like death by arbitrary pixel, massive gaps between “save” points, ridiculously tight critical jumps, or endless searching around maps looking for a needle in a haystack so you can progress.
Nowadays we’re spoiled by tutorials, convenience features like autosaves and automapping, and hints that generally help the player along so that you can concentrate on the game itself, and not have to wonder whether that glowing thing in front of you is a power-up that you need to collect, or is something deadly that will send you back to the beginning of the level should you touch it. So anyway, if you’ve been paying attention, which I’m sure you have, you should have at this point ascertained exactly where all this is going. Yes. Etrian Odyssey is indeed that metaphorical elephant I mentioned two paragraphs ago. And I need to resist the temptation to go all capslock on its oldschool, hardcore, you-expect-me-to-do-WHAAAAT ass. Except that I just did, because I can’t help myself. Etrian Odyssey is really, really hardcore hard.
Yet despite all this, I secretly enjoyed playing the game. Not because I’m some kind of sick and twisted gaming masochist, but simply because it was a nice nostalgic wallow-mashup of the kind of Western RPGs I really wanted to like playing back in the day, but never had the patience for, and the kind of classic Japanese RPGs of yore I always wanted to enjoy, but never really got on with. And now I’m sounding completely confused and contradictory, but bear with me. As I’ve grown older, I’ve developed an appreciation for both those flavors of RPGs, and going back to this strange hybrid of the two has been fun for a couple of reasons. Well, one reason really. I cheated. Yeah. I cheated. It took me about 90 seconds of playing before I thought, “screw this, I have no freakin’ idea what I’m doing” and went online and found a guide to the game. Which might be cheating to some, but for me it was simply adding a bit of a modern convenience to an oldschool game.
So I started reading the guide and following the instructions, and I had fun. I’m sure some are disgusted at my admission, but the reality is, I just don’t have time to wander around dungeons, trial-and-erroring things until I figure out that there’s a secret passage I need to find, or that there’s a treasure chest with a key item in it that I somehow overlooked the first two times I went through the entire dungeon.
Yeah, I’m a sell-out, cheatin’-ass fraud, but you know what. That guide kept me playing, because I was more than challenged enough simply navigating around Etrian’s complicated dungeons and trying to defeat endless hordes of critters, without having to also make my own map, and figure out what nonsensical things I need to pick up in which order to make something else happen in a place I haven’t seen yet. Nosiree. That’s not for me.
Of course, I’m sure some absolutely love that sort of thing, and if you do, holy crap! Etrian Odyssey has enough in it to keep you busy for weeks. But I think most gamers will probably best enjoy it the way I did: with a nice modern-day helping hand, enabling you to have fun with the aspects of the game you like, while avoiding the really frustrating, time-consuming, old-school trappings that you don’t.
Oh, and apparently I’ve been playing the “novice-friendly” story mode. I ain’t touching the regular mode with a ten-foot pole in that case…
Okay, so Untold can be a hard taskmistress, but at least she's honest about it. Where most games will allow you to breeze past the initial handful of levels, gracefully raising the difficulty incline as you go, Untold will not. Kill or be killed. Think on your feet, or don't think at all (because cogitation is hard without an intact brain pan). With "classic mode," you start as an enterprising thrill seeker, a fortune hunter, an adventurer of unparalleled skill. (Or something. I first started playing halfway through a 36-hour flight. The details elude me.) Unfortunately, the labyrinthine space where all your coveted riches reside is a place of danger and the authorities will not let anything short of a full party of five into its depths. As such, you're sent off and eventually made to start a guild.
Nine classes. Five slots. Recruiting a character isn't terribly difficult. It involves choosing one of the four doe-eyed, cutesy-looking avatars that make up each class and assigning a name to them. After that, you decide on whether you make them front liners or keep them secured in the back. Then, you figure out which skill tree you want to unlock first. Then, you perform some accounting to see if you have just enough gold to outfit them with something other than the threadbare rags all adventurers seem to start with. Once you're done with that, you'll finally be allowed to go play.
Like Jaz said, there are things in life that we tend to take for granted. Maps, for example, are one of those variables we've been conditioned to expect. Untold's inaugural quest all but guffaws at the idea. Your first task? Mapping the uppermost level that you initially find yourself in. If you'd excuse the language, it screws with the mind. Just a little. I'm not a completionist kind of gamer. I don't feel the compulsive need to investigate every nook and cranny, starved for achievement points. My modus operandi tends to include getting in and getting out as quickly and as efficiently as possible. Untold doesn't let you do that.
Initially, this was a source of much teeth-gnashing. I wanted to get to the exit. I didn't want to meander through the long corridors, haunted as they were by surprisingly vicious woodland critters. I didn't want to explore every route, find every secret and be made to compulsively activate every glittery thing I stumbled across. But, Untold made me do it anyway. And as olive branch, perhaps, it let me scribble angry arrows all over that one spot (The game's mapmaking toolset is extensive) that nearly got my entire party eaten alive by cutesy hornets.
As frustrating as it all sounds, though, Untold rewards the patient and (the masochistic). Completely barren of superfluous elements like sub-par dating mini-games or attempts at being Pokémon Lite, Untold is best at being exactly what it is: A first-person dungeon crawler. With nothing to loudly and unsubtly insinuate that this, in fact, is to the solution to your current problem, it's a genuine pleasure when you actually succeed at beating the game at its, uh, own game.
I wish I could say that the hours I've poured into the game have led to some epiphanous conclusion or another but the truth is that I'm still in the first two levels, grinding the dungeon's more innocuous residents for gold and experience. Nonetheless, that itself should be inductive of how much I like it. In spite of the fact classic mode lacks an epic narrative of some variety, it's a colorful experience filled with almost surprisingly well-realized NPCs and an abundance of things to kill. Totally worthwhile for those who like their gaming to be just that much more hardcore.
That or I could just be a sadomasochistic monster broken on the wheels of supremely competitive multiplayer games.
Yeah, Etrian Odyssey is one of those series that either clicks for you or doesn't. I fell for the series right away because, wonder of wonders, it respected me in a way that few games do these days. Well, not quite true -- more games are trusting the player of late. But Etrian Odyssey was one of the first to use the trappings of fluffy, toothless, modern RPGs to push back against the trend of pampering players.
You want me to map the dungeon? By hand? How nostalgic. I think the last time I did that was... Arcana on Super NES, maybe? Once Super Metroid brought auto-mapping into the equation, that graph paper tablet I used to keep by my console became useless.
You want me to pick classes for my characters? But I can't use all of them at once, and there's no Final Fantasy-style job-swapping system? Harsh, but OK. I can see some of these roles being situational. Resources are scarce and each new level of the labyrinth intensely overwhelming when I first arrive? Well, I'll keep an eye open for valuables. Maybe I'll make a team of situational characters whose only task is to farm resources. And so forth.
Funnily enough, after years of throwing myself at these games with varying degrees of success, I find the supposedly newcomer-friendly story mode of Untold to be the most challenging entry in the series. Well, I guess it doesn't help that I got cocky and set the difficulty to "expert," but even so I've had to adapt to a different mindset in order to advance here. Unlike the classic mode, Untold's new remixed adventure gives you a set party with fixed roles to start out with. And while the party you're given isn't too different from the kind of team I would normally start out with, some of the fine details make the going tricky. I could desperately use the buff/debuff powers of a Troubadour or Hexer, and the fact that the protagonist is more like a Bushi than a Landsknecht -- a somewhat fragile frontline fighter thanks to his reliance on skills that sacrifice his own HP to do damage -- sure doesn't help.
I'm managing, but only barely. And I keep getting closer to the first stratum's boss, which I don't think is going to go well for me. In fact, I may have to knock the difficulty level down in order to be able to finish this game in time for review. That's pretty much an admission of personal failure right there. But it certainly does prove some of my fears unfounded about Untold. Story mode may put characters and plot front and center, but the change doesn't come at the expense of Etrian Odyssey's most fundamental value: It respects you as an opponent, so it doesn't hold back.
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