Review: Etrian Mystery Dungeon

Crossovers have been a thing in the world of video gaming for decades. We can still remember the first time we played Alex Kidd in Shinobi World for our Master System; it was an odd pairing of two very different franchises coming together to create a single works, showcasing that titles sharing the same genre can still be quite dissimilar from one another despite that obvious overlap. And really, that’s what crossovers have been doing since their formation — blending two likely, and sometimes even better, unlikely candidates to produce one grand adventure of mash-up proportions. Whether it’s Project X Zone, Super Smash Bros. or our personal favorite Dissidia Final Fantasy, a case of “you’ve got your Marvel in my Capcom” can yield spectacular results not otherwise acquired through conventional means. Others times, the outcome can be disastrous. At any rate, Etrian Odyssey and Mystery Dungeon are the latest titles to earn themselves an improbable fusion. Although it may seem like a reasonable marriage at first, given the fact that both series are known for their randomized, dungeon-delving goodness, these two games are apples and oranges in many other key ways. Is this particular amalgamation worth an RPG-lover’s hard-earned cash, or has it turned out to be an awful idea?

Etrian Mystery Dungeon sees players assuming the role of their created hero who hopes to find riches and fame by exploring the notorious labyrinths that lie beneath the town of Aslarga. Right off the bat, folks will notice just how personalized an experience Etrian Mystery is; ten classes are provided to the player to choose from in order to establish the base of their character, and then they are given free reign to customize their champion to their heart’s content. It’s not a robust character creator by any stretch of the imagination, but its options are enough to set one’s warrior apart from the rest. Needless to say, by the time the story had started, we had forged a soldier who reflected our style — a stout guy with spiky brown hair, wielding the sword of a Landsknecht. And thus we were off, whisked away on an airship headed straight for the town that would act as the hub-world for our forthcoming 40-hour adventure.

Once we arrived in Aslarga, we were asked to form a guild in traditional Etrian Odyssey fashion, and recruit a party. Recruitment took place in a similar way to how we created our own guy in that we chose our comrades’ classes and look, named them and then employed their expertise. From there, we were walked through a tutorial dungeon and then given the freedom to carry out the game however we saw fit. It was a breath of fresh air to have Etrian Mystery Dungeon not hold our hand for the first several hours of the game. In fact, we felt fully prepared for the trials before us within about 20 minutes of starting things. Needless to say, EMD does not want to bog folks down in an offensively lengthy “setting the stage” segment, instead wanting players to hop right into the action.

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But in truth, it didn’t need to lay much groundwork because, aside from the nuances of combat and dungeon crawling, exploration of Aslarga, customization and talking to NPCs to flesh out the game’s world felt lifted right from Etrian Odyssey, all the way down to the interface and type-font used for menus. Meaning to say, any and everything outside of one’s time inside actual dungeons is the Etrian part of this crossover. Of course, for those who have read our reviews of the last few EO games, they will know that’s a glowing endorsement because, by this point, developer ATLUS has the formula of Etrian down pat. The town is strictly menu-based, so there continues to be no free-roaming parts of preparing for battle. Of course, this is where the majority, and dare I say all of the plot is developed. Surprisingly, Etrian Mystery Dungeon has a decently strong story. The best way to describe is as such: There’s more of a narration here than in most Mystery Dungeon titles, but less than what was in Millennium Girl. What is present and accounted for is interesting, albeit generic, but never overstays its welcome, seemingly aware that we’re here for the combat and not necessarily the next Pulitzer Prize winner.

The real prize-winner, then, is the gameplay. While the story and aesthetic hardly resemble the Mystery Dungeon series, and have in turn been heavily influenced and in some cases ripped right from Etrian Odyssey, combat and exploration are more rooted in the ways of developer Spike Chunsoft. In other words, EMD resembles the Mystery Dungeon part of its namesake in that the core gameplay is that of a roguelike. To that end, Etrian Mystery is a difficult game. Given its rogue trappings, players can expect the genre’s defining elements to be front and center; dungeons are completely randomized, enemies are powerful and plentiful, and death means losing all progress the player made since they last saved their game. So let’s talk about the experience of death here.

emd5For starters, yes, this game is hard. Very hard. That much should be expected though — after all, this is a mash-up of two franchises that are known for being tough as nails. But, unlike in previous roguelikes, death is handled differently as alluded to a few sentence prior. Usually in these types of titles, if the player meets death, it means everything they’ve done up and to that point is wiped out. This is not the case with Etrian Mystery Dungeon. As mentioned, folks merely lose all progress since their last savepoint. Genre purists may scoff at this, as it does lessen the learning curve, but to those people I say take heart in knowing that those complete party wipes still come often. Very, often, actually. So in essence, what makes EMD so difficult isn’t necessarily how it handles a “game over” but instead how frequent it makes one see that figurative screen. Simple, run-of-the-mill enemies are now enough to destroy entire parties, with nasty attacks that inflict status changes — such as paralysis, poison, sleep, skill-debuffs and the like — and the D.O.E.s, which are a take on Etrian Odyssey’s notorious F.O.E.s, are wandering super-bosses that one-shot without remorse. These huge enemies can be found on almost every floor of a dungeon, so the player will encounter them more than they may like.

But even with this steep level of challenge, Etrian Mystery Dungeon doles out big rewards for folks’ efforts. Really, the game never feels overwhelmingly hard, so long as the player has prepared their party adequately. Yes, that means grinding, but if you were under the assumption that this game would not require such a practice, then you clearly were not that familiar with how both of these series operate. But with some grinding — not a ton, mind you — things are pretty manageable. Yes, you will still die; just not thousands of times. Maybe only hundreds. In truth, the difficulty of EMD feels like a slightly more challenging version of Etrian Odyssey IV. So take that for what it’s worth.

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But what’s the gameplay actually like? That’s probably what readers are wondering. Rather than the tried-and-true first-person combat that we’ve come to expect from EO installments, battles and exploration here take the form of turn-based action. So to that degree, clashes are something akin to Shiren the Wanderer. Though in Shiren the player usually doesn’t control more than one or two characters, here they are in charge of a party of four. Although only the party’s leader is physically manipulated by players themselves — with the three others following in tow automatically — the ability to swap between characters on-the-fly, deliver attacks, and of course outfit champions to their liking makes for an experience that feels well-rounded and not without personalization. What this means then, is that the player will be reliant on the AI to do a lot of the fighting for them. Because party members act independently of the player, it’s not always possible to directly manage each member. Thankfully, the AI is pretty competent, expelling fears that total wipes will be on the AI and not the player. With that in mind however, the AI will show folks that they are in fact not a human player, and will occasionally not execute the obvious, most helpful attack given the situation. We found that they were mostly intelligent about reading the battlefield and adapting accordingly, but nevertheless had some shortcomings.

How the core combat plays out is fascinating, too, though not terribly dissimilar to other titles in the genre. The player moves their character one space at a time, as does the rest of the party and any enemies in the area. It becomes a turn-based match of combat prowess, effectively merging both Mystery Dungeon and Etrian Odyssey’s gameplay conventions together as one. Best of all, it delivers and feels more satisfying than any other Mystery Dungeon installment. There’s a tactical depth here that’s just impressive simply because of how much can be happening in a single encounter. It may be a bit overwhelming for newcomers to roguelikes, though the game tries to ease folks into it, if it’s any consolation. It is light on menus and methodical pacing though. In fact, outside of the character classes and skills, the combat doesn’t feel all that EO-driven. Etrian has always been about the meta-game, where players spent as much time preparing for battle as they did dealing out actual damage. Here, it feels a bit more “jump in and worry about the rest later.” Folks who love poring over equipment stats and engaging in hardcore number-crunching won’t be as satisfied as they would be with a traditional Etrian title; but this isn’t a traditional Etrian title, so checking expectations at the door will go a long way in helping folks acclimate to the new systems.

Aside from approaching EMD differently than one would a conventional Etrian game, making use of the game’s “fort” feature will make life a lot easier while in the depths of a deadly labyrinth. Players will earn money through tackling quests and killing baddies, which they can in turn spend on whatever they’d like. Maybe the best use of one’s booty however, is on structures known as fortresses. Forts essentially eliminate some of EMD‘s roguelike randomness. By setting up a fort inside a dungeon, players literally change the structure of the dungeon itself. Like any good rogue RPG, there are plenty of branching paths in a dungeon that can lead to dead ends and/or treasure chests full of goodies — but this is all randomized. Find a sweet hidden room off the beaten path with several treasure chests, but die after being ambushed there? Well, there’s no finding that room again. Ever. Maybe one like it, but not that particular room.

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Forts then, lock down actual floor layouts on which they’re built, so as to effectively negate that floor from ever being randomly generated again. The best part? The more money a player drops into their fort, the more levels of a labyrinth they can lock in place. It’s a game-changing feature that will alter the way we think of roguelikes going forward. It requires careful planning and can make backtracking much more bearable, while still never breaking the game. Forts serve one more purpose, though. Remember the aforementioned D.O.E.s? Forts also act as a kind of defense against the roaming killers. See, forts require staffing. So it’s not enough to simply build a fort and expect to get the most out of them. Players need to fill them with guild members, that way they can mitigate or stop outright the advance of a D.O.E. Is it becoming clear how vital forts are to EMD‘s formula?

By the time that players and the game itself find their cadence, Etrian Mystery Dungeon becomes a balancing act. It’s not enough to simply delve dungeons and collect loot. There’s more to this experience than what meets the eye initially, because what we didn’t talk about is how players help Aslarga develop as a town. So, between that, real-time events that require players to drop what they’re doing and respond to these immediate quests, building and sustaining effective forts, micro-managing a blossoming guild, undertaking side quests, keeping up with the story, and customizing battlefield combatants, Etrian Mystery Dungeon is a fully-featured, nuanced game that is so much more than the two series that make it. Now if only there could have been a way to work in the map-creation tool found in the EO. Not having that make the cut of mechanics feels like a missed opportunity of sorts, especially because it’s  become somewhat analogous with Etrian Odyssey at large.

Lastly, we should talk about Etrian Mystery Dungeon‘s presentation. There’s been a lot of time and love put into this game, as seen in its features above. But the same can be said, mostly anyway, for its visuals and audio. The aural presentation is just downright spectacular. It takes familiar tunes from both series, while adding in a healthy helping of its own, to create a soundtrack that can range from light and bubbly, to dark and menacing. It’s an OST that covers the spectrum in terms of what it offers. Its visuals can be just as vibrant and endearing, though they are hardly the best on the system. If anything, the game aesthetically looks just like an EO title. That’s a great thing, by the way. The game just isn’t going to blowing socks off with its graphical fediality, though the art style itself is really quite adorable nevertheless.

Closing Comments:

Etrian Mystery Dungeon is a crossover that should not have worked. On paper, it’s ugly, cumbersome, and for all intents and purposes, a head-scratching marriage where one-half of the pairing is nowhere near as popular as the other. And yet, for as unappealing as it may have been in theory, it works wonderfully. It’s not just a combining of two franchise’s famed mechanics and features; it has ideas of its own, unique onto it, that simply transcend the mere mash-up formula. It’s an RPG steeped in strong mechanics, and despite being part of a genre known for its overwhelming — and for some, off-putting — difficulty, has figured out a way to make that precipitous level of challenge accessible and rewarding all the same. Anyone looking to spend a solid 40+ hours on a roguelike should look no further than this.

  • Kaihaku

    Hmm… I’m torn on this one. On the one hand, I really love this sort of game… On the other, I’ve slowly come to dislike investing this level of time and energy into games that don’t have either a rewarding narrative or some form of multiplayer. My free time just isn’t as abundant as it once was. Touch choice but I’ll think that I’ll still pick this one up eventually.

  • Alliana Vivares

    i’m buying this, even if i’m scared to death. i’m the type to take it easy in the first playthrough, to check it out first, and then in standard mode in the second and maybe hard in the third. i guess i’ll just have to be very, very careful. i want to finish and survive this, unlike the one other roguelike game i picked up and promptly dropped. how many dungeons do you have to clear before finishing?