The idea of Etrian Odyssey crossing paths with the likes of Mystery Dungeon may not be obviously alluring upon first glance. After all, while these two series overlap in some ways, they are very different approaches to the same sub-genre of JRPGs. Although both clearly involve delving dungeons with vastly overpowered enemies designed to send players packing in one or two hits, the similarities can still feel like apples and oranges. So while a merging of the two may not seem all that appealing for these reasons — and/or maybe a variety of others — it would seem that Etrian Mystery Dungeon is trying to win folks over just the same with tight and accessible mechanics and a slick presentation.
Etrian Mystery Dungeon’s gameplay is a mash-up of sorts. It combines the menu-based town-exploration of Etrian titles (and party-based combat, mind you) with the roguelike dungeon-crawling ways of Shiren the Wanderer. Its formula is pretty basic, but one that has worked well in our 15 hours of play thus far. Players are given the narrative groundwork early on through the first thirty minutes of gameplay, which consists almost exclusively of dialogue and character interactions, all pretty basic, though still interesting. Players assume the role of their created character and are introduced as an adventurer coming to learn about and explore the famed labyrinths that lie beneath the town of Aslarga. A few selectable comrades are given to round out the party before forming a guild (complete with a created name — something we’ve come to love about EO games) and setting out on a quest for riches and notoriety.
It’s a simple premise, really, but one that serves as just enough of a narrative backdrop to keep players looking forward to the next tidbit of story or character development when returning to town from the depths of a nasty dungeon. Neither of these franchises have been known first and foremost for their storytelling capacity, however, instead all about killing stuff in the darkest, dankest crypts around, and living to tell about it. To this end, Etrian Mystery Dungeon works surprisingly well. There are no dedicated battle-screens like in a traditional EO game, so therefore all combat encounters are resolved right there on the spot. Unlike Shiren, where only one or two champions can be controlled, here there are a total of four available.
Although only the party’s leader is physically manipulated, with the three others following in tow automatically, the ability to swap between characters on-the-fly, deliver attacks and of course outfits to their liking, makes for an experience that feels well-rounded and not without customization. Thankfully, when one cannot control their compatriots, some pretty competent AI takes over. The AI so far has had a few moments of not dishing out the obvious, most helpful attack, but we found that they were mostly intelligent about reading the battlefield and adapting accordingly.
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.
Regardless, these games are meant to be challenging, so those feint of heart may want to look elsewhere. Though we’re going to go out on a limb and say that if you’ve been a fan of Etrian games, you’re no stranger to a menacingly difficult game. Oh, and did we mention that F.O.E’s are kind of back, just in a new form? Because they are. Let that soak in for a moment when contemplating if this game is going to be tough enough for you.
One aspect that’s missing in EMD is the dungeon charting tool found in typical Odyssey titles. It’s something that players have come to know and love about the dungeon-crawler RPG, and its lack of inclusion here feels like something of a missed opportunity. There’s still the need to read the map on the bottom of the screen, and to figure out one’s way through these mazes, but it would have been nice to see that feature make the cut.
Etrian Mystery Dungeon is also a game that has been taken care of well in terms of its presentation. Its menu and interface is clean, its soundtrack is downright astounding and it has decent graphical fidelity to boot. Its visuals aren’t the best showcase of the 3DS power, but the game gets the job done with a loud, vibrant color palette.
We’ll continue to plow through the game in the coming weeks, right up until launch. As of right now though, over a dozen hours in, we’re liking what we see. We had our doubts about how this crossover would be executed; but those concerns are being put at ease thanks to a mishmash of systems that are accessible yet challenging, plentiful and rewarding. Check back on April 7 when the game goes live for our full review.