Etrian Mystery Dungeon shouldn't work. Yes, it's built around combining two role-playing series — Atlus' Etrian Odyssey and Spike Chunsoft's Mystery Dungeon — but those two franchises sit, conceptually, at opposite ends of the RPG spectrum.
Like Kat and Bob and I discussed on the premiere episode of Axe of the Blood God, the term "RPG" has grown so vague and expansive as to be practically meaningless. And Etrian Odyssey and Mystery Dungeon demonstrate how far apart two games can sit even within the same general sub-genre of RPG. They're both dungeon crawlers at heart, centered around combat and exploration rather than dialogue, but the fundamental principles behind how each series expresses those goals vary considerably.
At heart, Mystery Dungeon games descend from Rogue and Nethack, with a central premise that progress (and life) are fleeting, lost quickly and easily forever. In their strictest iterations, Mystery Dungeon games force players to enter the field practically naked, relying on whatever they can forage (at random) along the way in order to survive for as long as possible. There, death amounts to a total setback, sending the player's character back to the beginning of the game without any items and without any experience or levels, forcing them to start anew. Even the more forgiving Mystery Dungeons, like the Pokémon crossovers, feature late-game bonus dungeons that adhere to these hard rules.
The severity of Mystery Dungeon's difficulty is matched in a different fashion by Etrian Odyssey games. Players simply lose all progress since their last save in the event of a party wipeout... but those wipeouts come frequently and without remorse. Even basic mob enemies, those faced in frequent random encounters, carry with them the potential to bring a dungeon foray to a screeching halt. Status effects such as sleep and skill-debilitating binds fly freely, and that's to say nothing of the implacable, often seemingly indestructible F.O.E.s, those roaming superbosses that dwell on nearly every floor of the dungeon. But to combat those steep odds, Etrian Odyssey sees you building an entire guild of warriors, customizing their skills and earning better gear through painstaking combat and collection as you map the dungeon. Death is an inevitability in Mystery Dungeon but more of a lurking threat in Etrian Odyssey, a punishment for players who take too many risks.
Ultimately, you can boil down each series to two very different concepts: Mystery Dungeon challenges you to improvise in order to overcome ever-changing unpredictability, while Etrian Odyssey requires meticulous planning and patience as you chart a fixed labyrinth. Think of it as the difference between, say, Judaism and Christianity. Both emerge from the same origin point, but each presents a very different take on the purpose and procedures therein.
Etrian Mystery Dungeon, then, aims to reconcile these two RPG religions. Surprisingly, it works... certainly better than any peace attempts between real-world religions ever has. Somehow, both the concepts of fleeting gains and hard-earned permanence stand side-by-side in EMD without feeling forced or compromised — at least so far as I've played, anyway.
The game does a remarkable job of feeling like an Etrian Odyssey game that simply plays out with a different view of dungeons. Story advancements and quests alike transpire in the hub city, where (in standard Etrian fashion) you can visit an inn, a shop, a guild hall, the city's leader, and more from a simple menu. If you've played any Etrian game, you know the drill: Pick up quests at the local cafe/bar, sell resources back to the shopkeeper to save up for and unlock new gear, register new adventurers at the guild. Even the font choices and colors adhere to the Etrian style guide, much more so than in any other Mystery Dungeon crossover. Pokémon Mystery Dungeon, Chocobo's Dungeon, and even Nightmare of Druaga all feel like Mystery Dungeon games starring visitors from another franchise, but EMD commits to being an Etrian game above all.
Don't assume this is little more than yet another standard Etrian game, though. If you want one of those, you're better off looking into last fall's Persona Q, which was an Etrian Odyssey in all but characters and aesthetics. EMD may look like Atlus' cult dungeon crawler, but once you enter the dungeons themselves, the other half of the game's DNA bubbles to the surface. Rather than playing out with first-person combat and cautious mapping, exploration in EMD takes the form of something akin to a turn-based action RPG — it's light on menus, but nothing in the dungeon uses a turn until the player does, allowing you to take your time as you descend into the mazes.
The four-character party of EMD breaks from Etrian's tradition of five-member parties, but given the necessarily simplification of action (and the mess that would result from a train of five warriors walking around in a combat train), it makes sense. Despite the change in party size, EMD sticks closely to the dynamics of Etrian's skill systems; your characters can train in one of 10 different classes, each with its own distinct skill tree that incorporates all manner of abilities both passive and active.
Some classes, like Landsknechts and Dancers, remain largely unchanged from the core Etrian games, and popular builds remain viable here. Others, however, benefit from skill sets that have changed considerably to account for the importance of location and positioning in the game's top-down combat. A Ninja, for example, now offers powers that let him or her move instantly about the room and even walk on water to reach otherwise inaccessible areas. And the new Wanderer class, designed to resemble Mystery Dungeon mainstay Shiren, seems specifically tailored for maximum survivability in dungeons thanks to inexpensive ranged attacks, enhanced HP regeneration, and even the ability to burrow through walls to reach hidden goodies.
However, the true secret of EMD's success lies in its "fort" system. You can spend your money on a lot of things in EMD, from the mundane (better gear for your team) to the advanced (developing the hub town's features). But perhaps the most important thing to invest in are fortresses. These structures serve multiple roles in the game.
First and foremost, forts help remove some of the randomness of EMD's roguelike nature. By establishing a fort inside a dungeon, you fix the structure of the dungeon; stairs into each labyrinth frequently produce branching paths as you descend, potentially leading to dead ends and even hidden areas stockpiled with treasures that can only be reached by ascending back upward along an alternate route (a popular late-game map design trick in the Etrian games). Forts also lock down the actual layout of the floors on which they're built as well, meaning that once you return to a protected floor the map arrangement will always be the same as it had been before, even though your mini-map doesn't retain the layout. The better (and more expensive) the fort, the more levels of dungeon it's capable of locking down.
Forts serve several more advanced purposes, too. You can choose to staff a fort with guild members, and they'll gain experience equivalent to your active party as you explore. This greatly helps to minimize the grind and means that you have a full team of battle-ready warriors as you advance. And that's important, because after completing a few dungeons the entire nature of the game changes as the story introduces D.O.E.s, EMD's interpretation of the dreaded F.O.E.
D.O.E.s take the threat of Etrian's wandering super-bosses to a never-before-seen level. Rather than simply roaming set floors of the dungeon — which makes sense when entire floors can be completed in a matter of moments rather than through several long and arduous hours of exploration — D.O.E.s bring the fight to players. The trademark Etrian hazard indicators comes into play here, shifting from green to red as a D.O.E. draws near... but in this case, the "radar" isn't indicating their proximity to the party but rather to the hub town. Should a D.O.E. reach the city itself, rising through the floors of the dungeon, the entire party will instantly be recalled back to town to hold the line and protect the citizens.
What does this have to do with forts? Well, forts serve as a line of defense against incursions by D.O.E. By building forts and staffing them with guild members, you can slow or even repulse the advance of a D.O.E., preventing an unfortunate inconvenience or downright disaster.
Once the D.O.E.s enter the picture, EMD becomes a daunting balancing act as you're forced to manage a growing guild, help promote the development of the town, respond in real time to the incursion of an eldritch horror upon innocent citizens, juggle side quests, and lock down the dungeons by establishing forts. The sum of EMD's parts is much bigger than the two series that comprise its content alone; and while it iterates on two franchises we've seen plenty of in recent years, it feels quite unlike either of them. Where Persona Q felt more or less like a reskinned Etrian Odyssey, EMD feels like something different despite its stylistic and mechanical similarities.
I still have a long way to go before I reach the end of this mysterious dungeon, but so far I find myself pleasantly surprised by how good the game is — and that's coming from a big fan of Etrian Odyssey and Mystery Dungeon for whom this crossover was more or less a slam dunk to begin with. Etrian Mystery Dungeon shouldn't work, but it does. Some differences aren't so irreconcilable after all.