To my mind, the best and most satisfying games tend to be the ones that require the greatest investment from the player. Not necessarily a financial investment, but a commitment of time, attention, effort, and enthusiasm.
It makes perfect sense, doesn't it? Video games stand apart from other mediums for their interactivity. Games aren't like film or music, where the audience sits passively and lets waves of entertainment wash over them. A player interacts: Guiding the action, learning the rules, deciphering the mechanics. Big budgets and a desperate desire to imitate Hollywood don't make games great; player immersion and the ability to inspire a sense of commitment do.
Precisely what constitutes great immersion varies from game to game. In something like Monster Hunter, the deliberately unfriendly interface and need to rely on friends create a high barrier to entry that makes eventual victory deeply satisfying. In World of Warcraft, time and socialization help heighten your sense of commitment to your chosen role. With a MOBA like League of Legends, where you're expected to spend 100 hours or more simply learning the basics, the deep learning curve and intense competition lend a thrill to any victory you manage to eke out. And then you have Etrian Odyssey.
Etrian Odyssey may be an invention of the past decade, but it's also a child of the early days of computer RPGs. Its creators deliberately turned back the hands of time in many ways for the benefit of their game. They recognized that a little friction in a video game serves to heighten its impact -- that a bit of struggle creates greater appreciation of success. Where contemporary RPGs generally allow you to glide right on through them with little effort, Etrian Odyssey expects you to make a genuine effort before it'll cede victory. In some ways, it's the effective opposite of an Elder Scrolls game, where you're able to explore a massive world with little trouble; here, you're making incredibly slow progress through a confined and clearly defined space, even as you lend it that very definition.
Etrian Odyssey games invariably begin with a mission that requires the player to map -- physically map, using the stylus as a virtual pen on a "sheet" of fake graph paper -- the dungeons that comprise very nearly the whole of the game. Actually, before you even get that far, you have to create a guild. You build characters from scratch, giving them a name and a class and outfitting them with a handful of skills. In Etrian Odyssey, you begin with nothing and face ferocious resistance from powerful enemies that attempt to thwart you every step of the way. You're left to puzzle out the best arrangement of skills and tactics on your own. And every milestone you reach simply opens the door to new and more daunting challenges.
Mapping makes the process of exploration wholly interactive -- you form a connection to the labyrinth, in a sense making it your own through the discipline you apply to the process.
It's mapping, I think, that really defines Etrian Odyssey. It's not just that the process hearkens back to the olden days of video games in which players were expected to undertake that process with graph paper and pencil, clearly planting a flag on the old-school philosophy Atlus hoped to stake out with the series. Mapping makes the process of exploration wholly interactive -- a commitment. Rather than simply wandering around and letting an automap sketch out the details of your line-of-sight, in Etrian Odyssey you chart your progress through each step of the dungeon by hand. In doing so, you form a connection to the labyrinth, in a sense making it your own through the discipline you apply to the process.
You can't simply blast through the game, because you need to record each step you take. Etrian Odyssey takes on a more even, measured pace. Your actions become more deliberate. This central hook has remained true beginning with the original Etrian Odyssey in 2007 all the way through this year's Etrian Odyssey IV, despite the constant evolution of design on display across the games. And it remains true in Etrian Odyssey Untold: The Millennium Girl, which is something of a remake yet practically a sequel, despite Untold's radical transformations to the underlying game.
The first portion of Untold consists of a remix of the original Etrian Odyssey. This aspect of the game is fairly straightforward: The dungeon gets completely new layouts, the visuals now look on par with those of Etrian Odyssey IV, and the familiar character classes have undergone near-total reworkings of their respective skill trees. While anyone who played through the first game will find most of the journey quite familiar, it's different enough that it might merit a playthrough, if only to learn what the experience is like when you can't lean on the original's game-breaking "Immunize" skill. It's better balanced overall, and a lot more accessible without being particularly defanged. As such, it effectively moots the original Etrian Odyssey by being the same thing but much more refined and, dare I say, player-friendly.
Really, though, the main attraction here is the all-new "story" mode, which takes the minimalist plot of the older game and grafts a whole lot of anime onto it. It wrests a fair amount of control from the player's hands -- your party consists not of scratch-baked generics in your choice of classes but rather of defined characters with fixed roles -- and greatly increases the amount of dialogue between sequences.
The addition of all this story stands as both a boon and a weakness. It creates a much greater sense of purpose to the game, but it also slows down the pacing. The characters themselves come off as fairly generic anime and RPG clichés, particularly the eponymous Millennium Girl herself: She's a reserved amnesiac from 1000 years in the past who occasionally wields the destructive power of long-forgotten technology by reflex. Japan must have gotten some sort of bulk discount on that archetype given how frequently it shows up in popular media.
There are some interesting twists to be found, like the fact that one of the characters is conspicuously Canadian -- surely an RPG first! -- and a touch of role-playing to be had by choosing either friendly or surly responses for your otherwise silent protagonist, the Highlander, but ultimately the characterization boils down to the same personality types you've seen before a dozen times in a dozen different cartoons and games.
Ultimately the characterization boils down to the same personality types you've seen before a dozen times in a dozen different cartoons and games.
The party's frequent dialogue can feel fairly intrusive if you've cut your teeth on Etrian Odyssey -- or any dungeon-crawler, really. There are several story events scattered throughout every floor of the dungeon, and quite a few when you return to town after key events. Really, though, most of the added material takes place about where you'd have been given a dash of flavor text in the original rendition of the adventure; the difference is that now the game gives you a lengthy multi-character freakout about how tough a new boss is or lengthy interaction with the town's designated pro explorers rather than simply tossing a few terse sentences your way.
Really, the added dialogue events are neither here nor there. The greatest attraction of the story mode comes from the unique new section of the dungeon Atlus has added. This bonus area serves the same role as the overworld and mini-dungeons in Etrian IV, breaking the monotony of the standard dungeon with forays into an unrelated area characterized by various level design gimmicks. The Gladsheim ruins also introduce some new combat mechanics that change up the moment-to-moment feel of battle in interesting ways by utilizing the environment and consumable items.
On the other hand, the pre-rolled nature of the story mode's cast can feel awfully limiting, especially at the outset. Are you the sort of player who usually rolls with a character tossing buffs or debuffs? Tough luck! You have to advance quite a way into the adventure before you unlock those abilities. Your team eventually branches out beyond the basics, but at the beginning the party feels a little too on-rails for its own good. In compensation, Atlus has added a new, story mode-specific mechanic -- Grimoire Stones -- to provide character customization options. Unfortunately, Grimoire Stones rely too much on chance (they're created randomly in combat) and require a godawfully cumbersome (not to mention unintuitive) synthesis process, making them feel like a lot more trouble than they're really worth.
Even with these caveats, Etrian Odyssey Untold offers an interesting spin on the series. I don't know that first-person dungeon crawlers will ever be a properly mainstream genre, but Untold makes a good effort without being insipid or losing the primal appeal of the Etrian Odyssey franchise. Even as your boilerplate protagonists undertake a journey into TV Tropes, the game still asks you to make a hefty personal investment into their quest.
- Visuals: Running on the same engine as Etrian Odyssey IV, Untold looks very nice, though the repetitive dungeon graphics quickly become monotonous. If Atlus intends to continue this franchise, they really need to spice up the visuals.
- Music: Stunning Yuzo Koshiro tunes appear in both lush arranged and original FM synthesis versions. Better yet, the FM chiptunes finally sound like the source material rather than being compressed as on DS.
- Interface: The map-making mechanic again dominates the game and again offers a love-or-hate centerpiece. Despite demanding methodical play, the combat interface makes Untold a relatively snappy example of its genre.
- Lasting Appeal: If you like what you see here, you're in for potentially hundreds of hours of exploration; the more you put into Etrian Odyssey, the more you get back.
While two Etrian Odysseys in the space of six months feels like too much even for an avowed fan like myself, taken on its own Untold is a quality piece of work. Between its multiple modes and numerous difficulty settings, it really is the most accessible and flexible entry in the series: A great entry point to the series and genre, while offering something interesting for the seasoned player as well.